Commentary in sports video games traditionally has been terrible. Of course, it's rarely great in real life, either. But at there's something fresh every week. Games like FIFA or Madden bludgeon you with the same barrage of one-liners on repeat. Naturally, there's no context for any of it; a touchdown in a fourth-quarter blowout nets the same reaction as a last-gasp drive to win the Super Bowl. There's only so many times you can listen to Phil Simms and Jim Nantz introduce you to Lambeau Field in the same way before you turn off the canned soundbites altogether.
This is a problem that seemingly transcends improving technology. The Xbox One and Playstation 4 have been on the market for several years now, and yet for all the strides forward made by sports games graphics and gameplay, commentary remains as stitched together and robotic-sounding as always.
The next iteration of Madden intends to change that. Or at least, it intends to try. Simms and Nantz are a thing of the past. In their place are Brandon Gaudin, play-by-play voice of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and a Big Ten Network contributor, and color commentator Charles Davis, analyst for Fox Sports and the NFL Network. But this overhaul in personnel, while significant, pales in comparison to the depth of changes to the game itself.
"We've started rebuilding our commentary system from scratch, all new logic, deeper than ever before," said Madden producer Christian McLeod. "Our ultimate goal is to create the most authentic commentary in a video game. We knew we had to find a new commentary team to really take advantage of everything we've built."
One change will be in how much more natural the commentary sounds. Previously, the Madden team would have to fly around the country in order to catch up with the likes of Simms, Nantz, Cris Collinsworth, and even John Madden himself. They weren't always recording commentary at the same time, so they couldn't really play off each other. "You lose a bit of your authenticity when you're recording your guys in two different locations at two different times," said Gaudin. "You can't get that natural chuckle, you can't get the follow up question."
Now, both Gaudin and Davis are flown in to the recording studio whenever they're needed, sometimes as often as four or five days a week. More importantly, they're nearly always in there together. The ad-libbing could be crucial, because script-writing for a sports game is a monumental task. McLeod can't quantify the exact number of lines in this year's game, other than "a lot ... hundreds upon hundreds of thousands." The commentators have to record all the player names and all the various downs and distances, not to mention all the facts and figures about each team. So McLeod and the rest of the Madden team decided to play to their new strengths, and cut back on the rote material.
"There's no way we're going to write in Charles and Brandon's voices, so we've given them a framework, and then allowed them to fill in that framework based on what they want to do," said McLeod. "So a lot of what we're doing now is ad lib. We'll provide concise parameters they have to stay within so they're not going over time, and so they're staying contextually correct to what's happening, but we let them fill in those gaps on their own. We may have some example lines in there, we're not having them read directly off script. We want them to be able to banter back and forth, be able to interrupt each other, laugh."
That's hardly a given; broadcast chemistry is a very real thing. It might be even tougher to foster given that the majority of the calls will happen without a game being on screen in front of them.
"We like to call it 'theater of the mind,'" Gaudin said. "What you're relying on is your experience calling games and knowing what those moments feel like. We try to cover as many scenarios as humanly possible from low intensity to high intensity. If you're calling a big game, a small game, if it's close, it's tied, whatever the case, we want that moment to be spoken to specifically."
"There have been a number of times where we've just sat down and we've played the game and had the guys do a live call," added McLeod. "This helps us as part of the creative process to see what we can reverse engineer to add a hook to make moments sound more authentic. There have been times where there are Super Bowl wins and celebrations where we've played the clips live for the guys and have them get into that moment."
Sometimes, the off-the-cuff production is a byproduct of new game features. Like always, this year's Madden will feature a fresh variety of moves and breakaways. So, McLeod said, "We had the guys sit down and watch highlight videos like 'the greatest jukes in NFL history,' and the greatest spin moves or trucks, and having the guys live commentate to those pieces and chain it into these breakaways. We honestly didn't know how it was going to work. We spent like half a day doing this, starting piecing it together in real time and got it in the game that night. It's been really fun to have that freedom to creatively brainstorm."
That includes recording the commentary in different ways. In previous years, commentary would be stitched together, resulting in strange sounding sentences where it was obvious the team name was recorded separately from the rest of the statistic. "What was important for us this year was to get away from that as much as possible," McLeod said. "I think we went from every player and every team being stitched in past games to probably around one percent in our game this year. Brandon and Charles are able to specifically talk about players and teams, what they did last season, really get into the nitty-gritty stats. We get to talk about how Von Miller studied poultry management in college and he owns a chicken farm, just little nuggets about NFL players."
While there's no way to really avoid repetition of lines after you've played a certain number of games, the Madden team will be able to keep things fresh with commentary updates throughout the season, the same way gameplay patches are deployed. Madden 17's announcers will be able to discuss a new real-world contract extension; they'll be able to freshen up situations that gamers encounter especially often. "Maybe a lot of people will have blow out games, maybe they'll not be kicking field goals we thought they were going to be kicking, maybe they're running certain toss sweep plays," McLeod said. "So we're going to be able to identify those throughout the year and tune and tweak and add lines to those areas."
If the changes come together, Madden promises significant advancement over past editions, and perhaps previous sports games in general. The gold standard for football game commentary, NFL 2K5, is more than a decade old, which says something about the industry's non-state-of-the-art. It's no surprise that McLeod feels there's still plenty of room for future improvement.
"Some people button through the replays, some people want to let the entire presentation package breathe," he said. "We're very confident that we've come up with a very nice middle ground that will give users a robust commentary experience no matter their play style. We're looking to improve upon this in the future. We don't know if that means we'll have two commentary presentations in the future, one for a quicker, buttoning through presentation, one for a longer drawn out presentation. It's definitely something we're talking about."
Sports game makers don't have an easy task: like real life sports, virtual simulations are too dynamic and offer too many scenarios for anyone to account for everything in advance. Commentary will never be truly unique and flow perfectly. Still, Madden 17 may push forward a gaming genre in which yearly publishing cycles and finicky user bases encourage software refinement, not revolution. The in-game voices won't be the ones you're expecting, nor the ones you're used to. And that's the point.