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The Designer's Notebook: How to Write Sports Commentary
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The Designer's Notebook: How to Write Sports Commentary

September 29, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next


When I was at Electronic Arts, I spent about six years doing audio and video production for the Madden line of American football games, and that included planning, writing and recording the artificial broadcast commentary that accompanied the game. Televised sports commentary is normally done by two (sometimes three) people, and we were trying to duplicate that experience in the game. One person, the play-by-play man, gives the description of the game itself, while the other, the color commentator, provides additional information and insight. In our case John Madden was the color commentator and Pat Summerall -- his CBS Sports broadcasting partner at the time -- provided the play-by-play. In this column I'm going to talk about how to go about writing this material based on my own experience.

Before I get into it, I need to make two suggestions. First, this column is only about planning and writing; it's not about recording and editing. If you'd like to know more about the recording side of things, read my article "Putting Madden in Madden: Memoirs of an EA Sports Video Producer." It's not really a how-to piece, but it does give a feeling of what was like to be there, along with some background you may find useful.

Second, I'm not going to address the complicated issue of writing interchangeable dialog content -- that is, stitched-together sentences in which the software inserts names, numbers, and other information as the sentences are being played aloud. Correctly writing and recording interchangeable content is a huge part of creating sports commentary, but I've already described it in great detail in Chapter 13 of the book Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, edited by Chris Bateman. If you're going to write sports commentary with interchangeable content, I strongly suggest that you buy the book and read that chapter (and before you ask, no, I don't get royalties).

Decide on Your Goals and Scope

Sports games come in many different flavors. They can be about real sports or imaginary ones; they can be arcade-like or serious simulations; they can be cartoony or photorealistic. The style of your game will affect your decisions about the commentary.

Cartoony arcade sports games usually have simple, repetitive, rather loud voiceover audio that simply announces the results: "Strike three!" "Home run!" and so on. These are easy to write for; they're just sound effects that accompany key in-game events. You're not really trying to create the illusion of broadcast commentary at all.

Assuming that you are planning to simulate real commentary, the next question is, are you only going to do the play-by-play, or will you do color commentary as well? They're very different. Play-by-play is a description of the game as it happens. On the whole, it's fairly easy to hook the audio into the game engine to generate the appropriate playback for each event: When a team scores a goal, you play an appropriate clip. Color commentary requires considerably more artificial intelligence, because the game has to make insightful remarks about the game, teams, and players. I'll handle each of these separately in later sections.

Another important decision is, TV-style or radio-style? Real TV commentary is nowhere near as detailed as radio commentary, because the viewers can see what's going on. Radio commentary is a real art, trying to convey the action on the field in words, just as quickly as it happens. On TV, an American football play might sound something like this: "Third and seven. Here's Kerry. Play-action... over the middle and it's knocked down by Levy." On radio, the same play might sound like this: "Third and seven on the Giants' own 42. Split backs, Johnson wide to the right. Bengals in a nickel package. Kerry steps up, takes the snap, fakes a handoff to Thomas but nobody's fooled, fires over the middle to Carter, the big tight end, but it's knocked down at the line of scrimmage by Levy, and the Giants will have to punt."

You can see how much more work is involved in radio-style commentary. While I was working on Madden we didn't try to do radio-style, partly because John Madden was a TV broadcaster and we didn't feel it would be appropriate, and partly because it would have required so much more code and a longer recording script. Madden himself is a color commentator, so the decision didn't affect him, but his play-by-play broadcasting partner at the time was Pat Summerall and he would have had to do all the recording for radio-style play-by-play. We only got a few days each year to work with them and it was an expensive process. After I left, the Madden team at EA decided to try something that they called radio-style commentary for a few years, but it was widely disliked and they abandoned it again for Madden NFL 09.

Your scope may be limited by the amount of code it will take to support commentary, the amount of time you have to record your voice talent, or both. If your game is new your programmers will naturally be spending the majority of their effort on building the game engine, tuning it, and fixing bugs. They will -- rightly -- see the commentary as a cosmetic feature which mustn't get in the way of the actual gameplay. This is not an excuse for doing a rushed, sloppy job, however.

Find Out What They Did Before

If you're writing a script for the first time, you can skip this step. But if your company has ever released a previous edition of your game, get hold of the design documents and find out what they did before you got involved. This is even more important if your team is updating existing program code, because the code will already have the hooks in it to deliver audio. Talk to the programmers about what's already in there, and discuss what you'd like to do to update it.

In my case, I was writing the play-by-play for the first CD-ROM version of Madden. All the earlier editions had been distributed on cartridges or floppy disks, so the audio content was minimal. Still, I got the documents from the Sega Genesis version of the game to familiarize myself with the voiceover.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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