Recently, Keits brought attention to the ongoing debate of commentary during fighting game tournaments. To avoid recapping too much of the material he brought up from the IPW discussion, I point you to this article: http://shoryuken.com/2011/10/19/improving-live-streams-the-commentary-quandary/
I would like to respond to it, pointing out some additional things to keep in mind and offer at least the beginning of a plan. As this is a forum thread, obviously everyone else is welcome to respond as well.
One of the most important things to know is that the fighting game community, and the spectators, have a very wide range of tastes. Sometimes these are at odds with one another. Some people like loud, emotional commentary while others prefer technical insight from the people working the mic. James Chen and UltraDavid for example tend to provide technical commentary, while various others may lean toward raw excitement, cracking jokes such as comparing Marvel vs. Capcom 3’s Amaterasu to Scooby Doo, and yells of “ooh, ooh, ooh” during significant hits in a combo.
It won’t surprise you to learn that many people have their preferences. Some will call technical commentary ‘lifeless and boring’, while others protest they learn nothing from emotional commentary and that such commentators occasionally cross what they see as a distinct a line regarding excessive profanity or sexually explicit remarks. Solving this requires asking a few questions that both players and spectators may need to answer.
The most important of these is how much civility and professionalism is expected. Is ‘trash talk’ and letting your emotions run wild desired? If so, do you draw a line somewhere (How much profanity is too much? What about sexual remarks? Is openly mocking participants acceptable?) or is everything fair game? If you don’t want that, how professional do commentators need to be? Should they be wearing suits and ties, while adjusting their monocles and top hats while inviting one another to tea over a game of chess? Obviously these are extremes and caricatures, but I’m using them to show the two ends of the scale.
Remember that it isn’t about just what you personally want; if there is a real focus on making fighting games into a legitimate, popular, and profitable esport then you have to remember others have their own preferences and needs. Sponsors don’t want to be associated with hostile or overly crass behavior, players don’t want an overly sterile environment where saying ‘gosh darn it to heck’ is the most severe form of expression allowed, and spectators want to be clued in to what’s going on along with understanding that what’s going on is exciting. Balancing all those concerns is going to be a very tall order!
One thing that may help is finding more strong commentary teams, and letting upcoming talent practice at smaller venues. Some have suggested that the optimal commentary team is one ‘emotion’ person backed by one ‘technical’ person, though it’s probably important that both commentators have a sound grasp of the game regardless. Darry has already pointed out that play-by-play cannot work because fighting games move much faster than many other forms of competition, and this is absolutely correct.
With this in mind, I would like to propose some broad guidelines for commentary. I have no doubt that the specifics will need to be tweaked per commentator, and the guidelines themselves refined as we gain more experience, but I think this is a functional checklist of things to aim for.
Good commentary may feature the following:
General Technical Explanation: Since play-by-play is impossible, let’s educate the viewer about what they should generally expect out of the match at hand. Why does the heavy grappler have trouble getting in on the fireball zoner? What key moves should we keep an eye out for? Why is it so important that the rushdown character just put their opponent in the corner, and why was moving backward to let them out for free so stupid (or brilliant, when it turned out to be a trap)?
You Can’t Please Everyone: At the end of the day, you’re going to have to disappoint a certain number of viewers. Most likely, these will be those who were on one of the two extremes mentioned earlier. If they want nonstop emotion, yelling, general ‘hype’, or possibly even outright trash-talk by the commentators, you might just have to let them down. Likewise, those expecting Mr. Rogers’ Tournament Neighborhood (rated E for Everyone) might just have to live with the fact the commentators might tease a player or utter the occasional profanity whether by accident or design. It is probably best to focus on just pleasing the larger crowd in the middle between those extremes and not lose too much sleep over the ones you leave behind.
Commentary On Key Plays: Some elements of a match do allow enough time to explain what happened. Why did one person’s super/hyper beat the other’s? What’s up with that attack loop one player keeps doing that keeps the opponent under pressure for ten seconds at a time? Is there a variation in it, or an opening we should expect the defender to exploit sooner or later? While “Now he’s blocking… and now he’s on the attack!” doesn’t work because fighting games move too quickly, we can at least identify highlights in the match to explain to the viewer.
Personality and Playing Off Each Other: A single commentator probably can’t keep things going, no matter how charming they are. Two commentators that are able to build upon one another’s remarks are much better, so long as they’re able to express themselves well. While it is acceptable for one commentator to do the majority of the talking, the presentation shouldn’t be about them. A commentating team has at least two people in it and both need to be making meaningful contributions and working together. Throwing random people on the mic won’t work unless they both have a very good background in improv, so forming consistent teams akin to James Chen and UltraDavid’s regular performances is essential.
Integration and Efficiency: I can’t claim credit for this one; a few others in the ongoing discussion already brought it up. Nonetheless, they had an amazing point… sometimes, our commentators ask things like “Is this the winners bracket, or losers?” They don’t know. That makes them look unprofessional by default, and it’s not even their fault; they had no chance to get up and check the brackets in many cases. Commentators need to be treated as part of the event and given assistance, such as bringing brackets and match listings to them. Keep them current so they can stay on topic, sound certain in what they’re talking about, and avoid embarrassing questions while on the air.
Give Identity to Players: Labeling which competitors are going at it on-screen near their health meters is an excellent first step and one we already do. As time goes on however, it would be good to have someone on-hand who can bring these players out into the audience’s eye. Having a dedicated interviewer (this doesn’t have to be one of the commentators, who are already quite busy) would help, and there have already been several other great suggestions on how to do this. Regardless of which ones are used, it’s important to get the audience to establish a rapport with the commentators and players as people; human beings with faces and names. They should have people they’re glad to see, ones they love to see lose, and otherwise get as invested with this as spectators in any other competition do.
This will no doubt need to be refined, but I believe it at least lays out a rough guideline for how to proceed. In order to improve our commentary, we need practice, consistent teams on the mic, an idea of what sort of ‘product’ and tone to convey to the audience, what to do with our limited time and faster pace, and draw clear lines on what is and isn’t acceptable.
At this point I’ve gone on long enough, so I gladly turn the discussion over to the rest of you for input!