You know that thing we do, we who watch football, soccer if we must, on the TV, any given day of the week. That thing where we talk over the top of the action, exclaiming our astonishment and/or anguish for partners, siblings, other family members, friends or just occasionally total strangers to appreciate in their own, special ways; the ways that are often variations on a mixture of indifference and mild-to-moderate irritation. That thing where we whoop with disbelief when a 92nd minute equaliser gets booted with interest into the back of the opponent's sack and then offer some comment like "Well, there's another two minutes of injury time, so they might just go on and win this, now." We all do that thing, these things. We do it even if we're watching with only the cat for company. In our heads, we're always doing it.
The difference between you and I doing it, and Martin Tyler doing it, though, is that he gets paid. Probably quite handsomely, it's crude to ask, but he's been the voice, the voice, of Sky Sports' Premier League coverage since it started in 1992. And since 2006, he's also been the English-speaking commentator for EA Sports' FIFA (Soccer) series, including such critical and commercial hits as the Be A Pro-introducing FIFA 08, the vastly improved player movement of FIFA 10, and the new-gen-debut of FIFA 14. Other FIFAs are available, not that it matters, as you only ever want the newest one.
And the newest FIFA is precisely why I'm speaking to Martin – a gently spoken gentleman, just recently turned 70, who gives measured answers and is basically the dream grandpa you never knew your life needed until you met him. It's strange to meet a man in the flesh whose voice has been not only a part of your gaming world for so long, but also your love of the sport FIFA so vividly recreates inside your Xbox. Or PlayStation. Or PC. I really fell heavily for football in the wake of the Italian World Cup of 1990 – a shit tournament in hindsight – and the arrival of the Premier League coincided with senior school, so many sticker albums, Pro Set cards (image searching on Google right now is giving me chills) and doing whatever you could to go around to the house of your one friend whose parents could afford Sky TV to watch Southampton limp to an 18th place finish, staying up on goal difference. That was Tyler in his element, calling what he saw, creating a sense of scripted drama from entirely unpredictable sporting events.
And he's still doing it, week after week, showing no sign of slowing down. Which makes someone like me wonder how the demands of a game like FIFA 16, out now and pretty decent as far as pigskin-kicking simulations go in the present day, can fit into an already busy schedule of preparation, travel, performance and recuperation.
"I never work on FIFA the day before I'm doing a live game," he tells me, at a London launch event for the game that's also a celebrity tournament featuring a number of Premier League players; the final is a contest between two ex-Southampton sorts now turning out for inferior teams, Jason Puncheon and Nathaniel Clyne, with the latter emerging as the victor having already eliminated former England centre back Rio Ferdinand. Tyler commentates live on the semis and the final. "The biggest worry for me as a regular broadcaster is making sure that I look after my voice, so when I'm doing FIFA it's more about getting the days right."
"I'd done a couple of other, little jobs before FIFA really happened," he continues. "I think one of them was for EA, but it didn't really work out for them or for me. I'd done another game for someone else, so I knew about the disciplines and, if you like, the stresses and strains. But I didn't realise it'd ever be like this, I must say. I've gone around the world with my day job, and the best story I can tell you is that when I was checking into a hotel in Brazil, on the Copacabana Beach during the (2014) World Cup, this little boy standing behind me said, 'FIFA.' And I went, 'No, no, I'm a television commentator, I'm not from FIFA.' And he goes, 'No, FIFA, you voice, FIFA.' And I realised what he was talking about. He was a seven-year-old kid from Ecuador, and he'd played the game in English. And that sort of recognition is really humbling, and I mean that."
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Tyler got into commentary after a playing career that didn't reach the heights he'd hoped for. "I got into non-league football, and reached a point where I was playing to quite a good level, but not one where anybody was going to notice me. So I got a chance to go behind the scenes in television, and I was so frustrated not being out and about on a Saturday afternoon that I had to come up with a way to do it. I've been out and about for a few years since then." But the approach to commentating on a live football match, and for FIFA, has to be very different, surely? For the real deal, you're reacting to what's in front of you, unaware of what's going to happen 20 seconds from now. For FIFA, you're... Well, you're responding to directions, actually. In some respects, it's quite similar, Tyler tells me.
"I'm reacting to prompts from the game-makers. They'll say, 'It's 3-1, and they've just scored, and there's five minutes to go – what would you say?' So, I go, 'Ooh, Five minutes to go and they've just scored? Maybe they've got a chance now.' And then they'll ask me for another one: 'Well, I never saw that coming, they've got a goal back. Alan, what do you think? Can they turn it around?' And then they'll ask for another one. 'Well, what a great time to get a goal back, with time left for them to get back into this and give us a grandstand finish.' And then they'll ask for another one, and so it goes. So it is reactive – I'm reacting to them telling me what the situation is. And I do see the scenarios in my mind, definitely, yes."
The Alan Tyler refers to is ex-Arsenal forward Alan Smith, a Sky co-commentator and Tyler's wingman on the FIFA series, having stepped in for Andy Gray in 2012 after the former Scottish international went and made a tit of himself. "In recording, we have to record interesting lines, but make sure that they're not too specific," Tyler says. "Alan tells some lovely stories about his playing career, but if you hear the same one day after day, it's not going to make the game more enchanting for you, is it? So the secret – if there is a secret – is to try to make it fresh, and that's what I'm always hoping for. I've worked really hard on this, and do so every year, we all have, so we need the gamers to tell us that the commentary works."
FIFA 16 works, and the commentary is a vital part of its impressive presentation. Yes, lines repeat themselves – especially if you're in a career mode using the same team or set of players. If there's one significant change from FIFA 15 in terms of how the game plays, newly introduced modes aside, it's that the matches aren't so furiously paced – it's like EA has taken a page out of Konami's manual on how to simulate realistic football with its PES series, and dialled down the devastating pace of certain virtual athletes. If you're asking me now what's better though, FIFA 16 or PES 2016, I haven't a definitive answer, yet. I've played around six hours of each (complete, retail versions), and like both of them a lot. PES feels like the game I want to stick with for a season at the moment, in terms of on-pitch responsiveness, palpable physicality and gameplay possibilities; but once you're a few matches deep into FIFA, its amazing statistical depth, covering multiple international leagues, and TV-quality presentation make it hard to go back to the very basic set-up and sometimes horrifying player models of the alternative.
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"All aspects of football are in the game (FIFA 16), and I think that's the joy of it," Tyler says. "You can look at it whichever way you want – tactically, or just play it [casually], or use the skills. The whole spectrum's there. Whatever the reason for you acquiring it, it's worth acquiring."
Of course, he would say that – and by his own admission he's not much of a FIFA player having last won a match of it in 2007. But there's no doubting that FIFA 16 is a damn fine football game. There was no chance it wouldn't be, of course – EA knows what it's doing with this series. Its year-on-year tweaks and quirks can be divisive, though, so if you're yet to settle on which football game is going to fill your season with fulfilled fantasies while your team's actual performances leave a lot to be desired, I recommend checking out some reviews by people who've put significantly more hours into these things than me.
That said, FIFA is such a sales juggernaut these days that even if PES 2016 were the better game critically, the commercial outcome would be very different indeed. FIFA 16 is comfortably expected to be the UK's biggest game of 2015. And it's as hard to see beyond that happening as it is you stopping that thing you do whenever there's a game on, whenever a ball ricochets wildly inside the box only to be spooned over the bar by that guy who cost £40m a couple of weeks ago. That's lost you a couple of points – how are you going to react? Maybe you'll turn to Tyler's other calling, power up the PlayStation (or Xbox, or PC) and show the professionals how its done in the privacy of your own stink-pit. Nobody else is in so crack a cold one open and boss every aerial battle, win every 50-50 challenge, and emerge victorious. Scream your success to the ceiling: we all do these things. I'm right there with you, all the way. I just wish you'd put some trousers on next time.
Martin Tyler was commentating on the FIFA 16 Celebrity Cup at the launch of EA SPORTS FIFA 16, out now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and all other formats. Click to YouTube to see highlights from this year's #FIFA16UKLAUNCH
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