Publish date:

How are commentators programmed into sports video games?

For a sports video game to truly thrive, several factors need to come together. Gameplay and graphics tend to take center stage, but a factor that's often overlooked but can seriously enhance or hinder a game's effectiveness is the commentators. Early video games were almost notable for their repetitive announcers ("HE'S ON FIRE!"), but as time has passed the standard has changed. To get a little more insight into how modern video games integrate commentary, I spoke with Sean Ramjagsingh, a producer on NHL 15, which will be released on September 9 and boasts "The most realistic broadcast package in a video game to-date."

Who writes the lines for commentators in the games? Or is most of it ad-libbed?

When I initially started in games in 2000, we would literally stay up all night and write thousands and thousands of lines of speech and/or have writers write the speech for us. What I quickly learned is, when you put lines of speech in front of these commentators who are used to just commentating on the action in front of them, what you're essentially doing is turning them into actors. For example, I worked with Dick Vitale for one of the early NCAA basketball games. He is, as you know, an off the cuff kind of just react to what's happening and go crazy type of commentator.

EA NHL 15 Preview: I played it and didn't want to stop

I put lines and lines of speech in front of Dick and he started reading the commentary, and I was like, wait a minute, this is not sounding like Dick Vitale at all. So we pondered over how to get Dick to sound more like himself and then we literally just put a video of a Duke-Carolina game in front of him and said, 'Dick, just commentate what you're seeing on the screen.' Within seconds we had Dick Vitale being Dick Vitale. So the commentary has evolved to where now, we literally go in there and we say here are the situations that we want you to commentate on, and you need to envision that. We'll give prompts like, 'best player on the team scores the goal' or 'over the goalie's glove to win the game,' and ask them to give us 10 samples of that.

And that process has worked well with NHL 15's new commentators, Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk?

Yeah, they just take a second, they pause, they visualize it  and then they rattle off ten different speech samples based off that situation we give them. It gives us Doc and Eddie being Doc and Eddie as opposed to Doc and Eddie reading a script that we wrote for them that might be written in a way that's not their style. We ad lib as much content as we can. We'll have Doc and Eddie together, so they play off each other. That's where you get the true synergy between the two commentators. The one piece that we still need to script a little bit is around the names. So we want sentences or expressions to start with a player's name. We have 5,000 players in our game. We get the names right, make sure we get everybody, make sure we get them with the right intonations. So that's the more scripted part. Everything else we try to leave unscripted as much as possible.

For top players, a guy like Patrick Kane for example, would you have Doc and Eddie specifically say 'Patrick Kane' in a bunch of different ways or even give a specific anecdote about him?

Well for every player we'll have different intonations, different levels -- different commentators sometimes have more levels than others and Doc is fantastic. Doc probably has four or five or six different levels that he can give us. So we'll get those different levels because that gives us more flexibility to match the situation, match the intensity as the situation plays out in the game. 

For a star player, we'll say to Doc and Eddie 'We want to have very specific speech for Patrick Kane, give us five different samples of you guys talking like you would during a stoppage in play.' They'll just say something like 'Patrick Kane, part of the U.S. Olympic team, one of the star players leading the Chicago Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup in his first couple years in the league' and they'll give us five or six different samples, talking specifically about the star players in the league.

When you say intonations you mean the difference between how they would say Kane's name as he's taking a shot versus when he's receiving a pass?

Exactly and the different intensities as well. Then you need to match the intensities so that you can follow it up with a statement, and the statements need to flow properly.

SI Recommends

How many hours in the studio would you say you guys spend with Doc and Eddie in order to get this type of thing down?

A lot. We did about 35,000 lines of speech this year. We started last summer because we need to get both the sessions done while they weren't working commentating hockey. I think we spent about  thirteen sessions with each guy this year in studio, just to get the base level of content. A large chunk of that is with Doc and Eddie just going through names and getting the right intonations, different levels. Because that's where you get a variety, that's where you get kind of the true flavor of hockey. 

How do you program those lines into the game? How do you ensure that the lines don't repeat constantly and that everything is said at the right time?

Our sampling guys will go back and ensure that every time a goal is scored, a lot of information is considered to determine what line is said.

Is it in the last minute of the game? Yes it is. Is it a player rated above whatever rating to qualify as a star player? Yes it is. What is the score of the game, does it put this, the star player's team up by one goal? Yes it did. Okay, that satisfies the criteria of those ten samples about star players that we got from Doc and Eddie, and then obviously we have different measures in there to make sure that their speech doesn't get repetitive. So if we have ten samples, we want to make sure that ideally all ten samples play before you hear sample 1 again. So there's different things that the guys put in to make that happen as well.

So ideally, you aren't, unless you play the game a lot, going to get a lot of repetition.

That is the goal, but yeah, as you can imagine with things like passing events, where there's hundreds of passes every single game, there's more challenges around making sure the passes don't get repetitive.

You said you showed the Duke game to Dick Vitale, did you at any point show footage to Doc and Eddie in order to inspire them?

Yeah, we did some footage with Doc and Eddie. Eddie being the color guy, it really helped get a more natural delivery when we showed him some exact examples. A lot of times, it just helps get the commentators into the zone, or into the flow to be themselves and relax and just do what they do, as opposed to thinking about the fact that this is for a video game.

Yeah, and I can imagine especially with a guy like Doc Emrick, who's pretty renowned for being one of the most animated announcers on the planet, that it might have been a challenge to recreate that in a controlled environment. Do you think he was fairly successful?

He's such a pro. He understood what we were looking for and was able to deliver. He was unbelievable, I can't say enough good things about how great Doc was to work with. Doc was calling teams to get the right pronunciation of certain player's names. Doc was going home at night and we gave him the context for the next day, and Doc was writing his own script, in his own language, his own words and coming back in the next day, so he could deliver the best content possible. Doc took it upon himself to make himself sound good by doing a lot of homework for us.

At this point, can you say whether Doc and Eddie are signed on for future games?

They'll definitely be there. As you can imagine, we don't want to change because of the amount of work you have to do with the commentators every year. We entered into a longer term agreement. We don't want to have to roll the dice whether we're going to get new commentators again, or get them back next year. So I can definitely say, they'll be in the game next year for sure.