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Meet the Play-by-Play "Announcers" Live-Texting NBA Games to Millions of Fans in China

For NBA fans in China who are at work or school when games are being played in the US, mobile phones offer a unique way to "watch" their favorite teams.

by Yu Wang
Dec 12 2016, 3:28pm

Photo by Danny La-USA Today Sports

Not far from Shanghai's Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the futuristic landmark on the banks of Huangpu River, one can hear the bounce of the ball and the cheering spectators along with the emphatic sound in an otherwise quiet office of a fast-tapping keyboard.

Eyes fixed on the computer screen, Summer's fingers fly across the keyboard. Tap, tap, tap. Pause. Tap, tap, tap.

While fans in the United States mostly enjoy live NBA games on prime-time television and radio broadcasts, in China the time difference means that the games are on in the morning. Most people, at least Monday through Friday, are at work or school. But where there's a will, there's a way, and in China fans have developed a unique way to "watch" NBA games on the mobile phone, through text messages.

Summer is a key go-between.

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The 25-year-old, who asked to be identified solely by his announcing nickname, has been working as a NBA play-by-play text announcer for three years at the Shanghai-based website Hupu Sports.

After "broadcasting" the Golden State Warriors-Los Angeles Lakers game—Saturday morning, China time—he took a pause from that tap, tap, tapping to explain his basketball niche.

For one, he said, there's that nickname. "Every text announcer has a nickname when broadcasting," he said. "And the nicknames are more widely known than real names. I like that people call me 'Summer.'"

Summer, in a Hupu Sports T-shirt, is not known for his face but his texts.

Summer is one of 12 play-by-play text announcers working at Hupu Sports for the 2016-17 season.

Of course, China is a huge market, and there is considerable demand for what Summer and others do. More than 1.5 million fans watched the first Warriors-Lakers regular-season game on their phones via the Hupu Sports app, the company said.

That app, which Hupu touts as the fastest and most polished text-broadcasting app on the market, offers every single NBA game, including the pre-season, regular season and playoffs. Millions of NBA fans "watch" NBA games via that app every day.

"I was an NBA fan when I was in university," Summer said, "and now my job is watching NBA games. I can't think of a job better than this."

To do what Summer does, however, is not easy.

"An offensive possession can end in four seconds," Summer said, "and you have to describe what happened just before another round of offense begins."

Fast typing is, obviously, an essential skill. Summer can type 200 to 300 Chinese words per minute; the national average is 80 to 100 words. He warms up before every tip-off, stretching his fingers and typing a few lines for preparation, whether the game starts at 8 in the morning or as early as 2 or 3 AM.

But the job goes far beyond fast typing.

"You must have a rich knowledge of NBA games," Summer said. "Then you should have good expressions."

Indeed, most text announcers, in describing what's happening on the court, turn to vivid language.

For example, here is some of Summer's broadcasting work from that Warriors-Lakers game on the Hupu Sports app:

A snapshot from the Hupu Sports App

Translated from Chinese, it reads:

"Julius Randle came to the high post! Touch pass to D'Angelo Russell!

"Passed all the way to the right corner – Nick Young!

"Shot in your face from the downtown!

"No good! Draymond Green got the defensive rebound!

"Drove the ball slowly to the front court! Setting up the offense at the top!

"Passed to Stephen Curry on the left!

"Drove the ball against Nick Young from the wing!

"Teardrop! A bank shot and it's good! 6-8.

"D'Angelo Russell drove the ball to the front court! The Lakers want a timeout!

"8:01 left in the first quarter!"

Like any on-air play-by-play announcer, Summer has his own of style, too.

"I try to create something special when I broadcast," he said. "I introduce some English words and phrases that are frequently used in basketball, such as 'answer ball' and 'for three.' I just want fans to get closer to the original broadcasting."

"He is great, full of energy and neutral," said Zhang Tian, a 17-year-old Chinese student who often "watches" Summer's broadcasting. "He might be the best text play-by-play announcer in China."

The trick, Summer said, is to be "on" the entire time.

"It is really stressful. You have to keep focus for the whole game without any distraction." Summer said. "If you miss a round, then you have to make up for it and will miss another and then another until you totally lose your rhythm."

Summer usually has one game to broadcast per game day, but sometimes it can be two—nearly five hours of intense concentration and almost nonstop typing.

"The pressure," Summer said, "comes from the fans."

Fans at a 2015 preseason game between the Hornets and the Clippers at Shanghai's Mercedes-Benz Arena. Photo by Danny La-USA Today Sports

"The fans always know when you make a mistake," he continued. "They will keep laughing at you, even attack you.... It will screw up the brand of Hupu, which is famous for being fast and professional."

Some text announcers can't handle the pace or the pressure; they're out after a year. Summer, three years in, said he has no plans to walk away.

"I have witnessed so many things in the NBA," he said. "I saw the rise of the Warriors, the homecoming of LeBron James. I know nearly every player in this league, even those at the end of the rotation.

"My play-by-play announcements via text give Chinese NBA fans an imagined space. They recreate the basketball game based on my descriptions."

Summer smiled. "It is a feeling of achievement."

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