clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A golden silence makes a great game better

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

After the officiating, television announcers are probably the most consistently despised participants in a major sporting event.

Some guys are invulnerable. The Dodgers' Vin Scully is a good example. But long tenure and major assignments don't make a boothman bulletproof. I've never understood why Joe Buck rates such nonstop anger at everything he says, down to the prepositions. It seems to stem from an overreaction to an end zone celebration in 2005, and an under-reaction to just about everything else. But I can't pretend to be above it all when there are announcers like ESPN's Mike Patrick who drive me to the same level of resentment. Once someone says something tone deaf or insipid, particularly if it walks all over an important moment, or makes you not want to watch your favorite team, everything from that point on just makes you roll your eyes and wish he would shut up.

True to the sports they simulate, video games don't do many favors for their announcing teams, either. There are exceptions. 2K Sports, even in its disappointing baseball title, has been so good at presentation it's made analysts like John Kruk and Clark Kellogg better, as the script doesn't give them a chance to revert to some of their lesser tendencies.

Yet Gary Thorne, an excellent play-by-play man in MLB 2K, was undone in EA Sports' NHL series by the same things that sour a real broadcast: bland camera work and direction that doesn't match the call to the action. EA Sports is promising a complete overhaul to NHL's presentation this year in reply, going straight to Doc Emrick — the Vin Scully of hockey, in the United States, anyway.

MLB The Show, for all of the roses thrown to it, is probably the best worst-announced video game of all time. Even Madden, with Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, a booth team for whom no fan has anything begrudgingly good to say, doesn't come close. The Show's play-by-play voice, Matt Vasgersian of the MLB Network, is a 17-year veteran of major league broadcasts and definitely in the upper echelon of those calling the game for nationwide audiences. But the video game he's done for eight years just makes him look bad today, largely because of a repetitive script and the forced repartee with partners Steve Lyons and Eric Karros, all of which are beyond their control.

Sports fans can mute the TV and turn on the radio, assuming there's a local call (there's almost unconditional affection for radio guys, even a hardass like the Cincinnati Reds' Marty Brennaman). What can a video gamer do?

Au Naturel

All sports video games let you mute the commentary and view the action from something other than a broadcast TV camera angle. Still, some don't allow you to remove all presentation features, such as score lines, text overlays, and replays. Among current titles, here's as far as you can go.

FIFA 14 — Along with MLB The Show, comes the closest to giving you its sport as it is played. Boots into a very, very brief pre-game graphic showing the two sides, with a short broadcast anthem, then it's immediately on to the action. You can remove all visual information from the screen.

Madden NFL 14 — Multiple camera angles are a plus, but you're essentially muting announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms. Broadcast cutscenes and replays, with graphics packages, still play and cannot be removed.

MLB 14 The Show — As said before, you can pull every piece of visual feedback and play the game naturally, with one exception: The strike zone and a pitch's location within it will still be highlighted after the pitch is taken or swung on and missed.

NBA 2K14 — Presentation options allow for "on-court" audio only but again, this serves largely to mute the broadcast team. Still boots into an elaborate pre-game broadcast introduction and cutscenes, though without graphical overlays, and the player may strip out replay events. The broadcast score line still displays throughout, though this information is more necessary to basketball than to soccer.

NBA Live 14 — Replays and cutscenes can be removed but the ESPN introduction and graphical overlays remain.

NHL 14 — Close to FIFA and MLB The Show but still runs a score graphic and broadcast-type cutscenes during a stoppage in play.

Somewhat counterintuitively, silencing the announcers in MLB 14 The Show makes the game objectively better. In fact, it's one of only two current sports titles that allows you to completely remove every broadcast feature — all of the commentary, every graphic and text overlay — and participate in the sport as it is played, rather than as it is broadcast.

Earlier this week I overheard a colleague say a friend recommended that he do this. If you're deep into a career in Road to the Show or Franchise in MLB 14 The Show, shutting up the rote call really works. You do sacrifice the additional fantasy of having a broadcast team call your exploits, but given how little The Show added to this anyway, it's no real loss. For example, in my last season my created pitcher took no-hitters into the ninth inning on consecutive starts. Vasgersian, Lyons and Karros called both games the same, and certainly didn't acknowledge the rarity of two in a row.

MLB 14 The Show is one of only two currently published sports series that allows a user to completely remove all broadcast aspects — not just the commentary, but also graphics, replays and other interstitial cinematics that are presented as though one is watching the game, rather than participating in it. There's no one-click way to do this — it requires deactivating multiple options in the menus, and MLB The Show has never done a great job at communicating where these features are or why you'd want to use them.

Still, the capability is there. You can eliminate the score graphic, the pitch callouts (pitch speed and type), all cutscenes and replays, and change the camera angle to something more intimate and feel more like you're out there on the diamond yourself, instead of manipulating the action as a spectator. For a full-on first-person sports experience, in Road to the Show (or the new Player Lock feature) you can choose to watch all of the pitches your teammates take, from the dugout. The game will take forever, but you do feel more like you're on the team.

This kind of hardcore, no-presentation approach works more in The Show precisely because its broadcast adds so little to the high-fidelity visuals, and rarely mentions anything in a context larger than the game currently being played. FIFA 14 likewise allows for a stripped-down, on-the-pitch depiction of its game. But a free-flowing sport like soccer doesn't continually supply plays with a definite outcome demanding a description the way a game composed of set pieces, like baseball or American football, does.

After three games without announcers or any broadcast features in the Road to the Show mode, I became convinced a barebones approach is the way to play, long term. For a comparison, I deactivated all the broadcast elements that I could in MLB 2K13. The Show's broadcast package may add little to your baseball fantasy, but at least its absence doesn't kill it. In MLB 2K13, the commentary and graphics are utterly essential to distracting you from an ugly game of jagged animations and comical player models.

The increased hardware capabilities of the PlayStation 4 over the PS3, and the PS3 over the PS2, have increasingly meant fans consume video game sports as they are broadcast in real life, rather than as they are played. EA Sports' NCAA Basketball 10 was probably the most extreme example of this, offering two different network broadcast packages and announce teams, something no sports game had done before or has done since. The series was still canceled three months after it launched.

Broadcast features in sports titles indulge a childhood fantasy much older than video games: imagining yourself as a superstar in a key moment, and how the broadcaster would enshrine your performance. Is that realistic, though? In the 1988 World Series, When Kirk Gibson hammered a backdoor slider from Dennis Eckersley into the glow of the brakelights beyond Dodger Stadium's right field stands, he didn't hear Vin Scully on NBC expounding upon the feat.

We didn't either. After the crack of the bat, Scully said all of nine words and then famously remained silent for 68 seconds — 46 of them after Gibson touched home plate and celebrated with his teammates. No words, even ones uttered by Vin Scully, could have made someone feel like they were there more than the pictures and the crowd's incredulous and inexhaustible cheering. Sometimes the greatest stories are told by saying nothing at all.

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears on weekends.