Football co-commentator Jim Beglin's handshake is akin to having your hand entombed in a genial Irish oak tree. It is possibly the most reassuring, nerve-ending obliterating, deeply sincere handshake I've experienced in my life. And this, from a man at the fag end of a week spent stuffed in a recording booth at Aquarium Studios in central London, repeating the names of almost every professional footballer on earth in almost every intonation imaginable. What would a full-strength Beglin handshake feel like? Inconceivable. I ask if he's emotionally and physically exhausted, larynx ready to implode, throat glands blasted and barren. "Not really. Just a day's work, like anything else." I retract my hand and realise that I can't feel my fingers.
I'm here to peek behind the gilded, usually heavily guarded, curtain shrouding one of video gaming's enduring mysteries: the process of recording in-game commentary with both Beglin and football's most excitable wordsmith and Twitter appointed laureate Peter Drury. The game in question is the latest instalment in Konami's iconic Pro Evolution Soccer franchise, with 2017 due for release on September the 20th. The last few years have been good to PES, culminating in a 2016 edition that was arguably, arguably, the best in its venerable, double-decade spanning history.
With each edition come tweaks and minute alterations in gameplay and in-game mechanics, and 2017 is no different. There's the usual raft of subtle changes, expanded player rosters, shifts in tempo and minor refinements, that characterise the series' relentless dedication to realism: the naturalist yin to FIFA's fantastical, comic-bookish, yang.
And as wonderful as that all undoubtedly is for the obsessive PES lover, there's one aspect missing from the official press releases and manically enthusiastic preview pieces, and that's the sound. No, not the ethereal tinklings of the menu music, or the loading screen top-40 fodder (despite its occasional brilliance), but the commentary. It's a strange element, with its highest aspiration being that of reaching the status of articulate background noise. At its best, it should be unnoticeable, natural, unforced. It's supposed to mirror an actual game of football, matching its rises, falls, hushes and constantly developing patterns of play. But, like any kind of competence, it's an absolute sod to achieve. There's no surer route to shrivelling up like being told to "act natural".
It's something that Drury – despite being knackered from a week of "high intensity talking" (it might "just be talking", but it's extremely high intensity talking) – is pretty emphatic about. If Beglin is a firm handshake made incarnate, then Drury takes the mantle for "most intense listener and maker of eye contact". He is the physical manifestation of his commentary, all coiled-up enthusiasm and seemingly perpetually on the brink of committing a metaphor. He bats away my asinine conversation starter. Surely, surely, he must be exhausted?
"No, no, all is well, all is well. It is quite wearing, but I can't pretend it's not a lot of fun. When it's day, after day, after day of shouting footballers' names, it does wear you down physically, perhaps more than you'd expect, but no, no, I'm very well."
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What about the sheer amount of talking, intensity put to one side. Even for a professional commentator, the week in the studio must pose a challenge to both body and sanity?
"Yes, the sheer volume is tremendous. We're talking about War and Peace length lists of players, just going through them one at a time, 'Shearer' all the way through to 'SHEARER'." (This "SHEARER" is shouted with such conviction, such force, that I have to wonder, is Peter Drury… okay?) "So, yeah, you do that extrapolated over thousands of names, in seven or eight different intensities."
For Drury, it's the artifice of the endeavour that poses the difficulty. "It's certainly not the same as commentating on a football match live," he says. "Of course it's not. But it's not that tricky a piece of mental acrobatics to get into that place, where you understand what you're doing."
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He pauses for what seems like a full stop, before continuing: "The crux of it is transforming what you might describe as an 'unnatural situation' into one as natural as possible. I must say, the guys that make it happen are geniuses. I just have to be there and produce the relevant noises, while they have to make sense of that noise."
Who are they, exactly, these genius noise interpreters that transform the mashed up jumble of names, sequences and individual units of football-speak nonsense into a coherent, life-resembling whole? With this year's edition comes a shiny new technical innovation in the form of concatenation, the process by which individual units are linked to create a fluid, more – that word again – "natural"-sounding commentary.
Sean O'Shea – voice director and unsung hero of PES, sound engineer by trade – has been involved with the game since its inception sometime in the depthless past. "Or," he tells me, "really early doors, anyway. I even talk in footballing clichés now." Over the years, he tells me, the role has changed in the same proportion as the game has changed, across various generations of console and series reboots.
Pro Evo marked its 20th anniversary in 2016
"About ten years ago I was recording the sessions as an engineer. When the production companies changed they were looking for a voice director, who had to be A, someone who understood the game, and B, someone who understood football. And C, someone who understood how the talent worked. I just seemed to fit that bill."
Of all the changes he's noticed, the biggest is the recently garnered ability to build sequences out of individual aspects. It all sounds very impressive, but I need an explanation that makes sense to my clothy, luddite ears.
"Well, in the old days, if we wanted a sequence to go from A to B we'd have to record an entire line doing just that. However, now we can get from A to B, to C and D, even beyond by piecing together sequences of commentary. While it has been a terrific advance, it's also made the game enormously more complex."
It's a sentiment that Beglin, jovial crusher of hands and informative discusser of football (he sits with me for a solid 15 minutes after the interview to discuss West Ham's prospects against Manchester United later that evening, proving that he is literally the greatest man on this blighted earth), is keen to mimic.
"We kind of had difficulty with team and player names, in getting things absolutely right. I think we've been able to work on it well and I've been doing it for a few years, now. Anything that was a bit sloppy, or awry, has certainly been sharpened up. It's changing every year and this concatenation stuff has really made a difference to how we work."
And with that, we come to the end of proceedings, with another round of handshakes and smiles. But before retreating, blinking into the spring sunshine, I get a chance to creep into one of the last recording sessions. Sean ushers me into an eerie room of utter silence apart from the whirr of recording equipment and "Aguerroooo" being repeated in long, low and hushed tones. Is this – in all sincerity – actually happening?
Roll on September, and roll on PES 2017. By then I might even have the feeling back in my fingers.
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