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Madden NFL 17's new announcers want to call it like you see it

Flagship franchise drafts total newcomers to overhaul a rote commentary system

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

The problem with Madden NFL's commentary over the years has always been one of volume, and not in a "can you hear me" way. It's volume, as in the amount and variety of things the announcers say and are served up by the game. Even today, many of Madden's on-field actions are covered by tentative, generic descriptions, and in career modes that extend several seasons into the future, the broadcasters will still be talking about real-life events from the year the game launched.

In Madden NFL 17, EA Sports seeks to solve these disappointments with volume: A voluminous dialogue library, so far comprising seven months of near-weekly working visits by a new broadcast team, with even more material still to be recorded. The tradeoff, however, is Madden will give its coveted announcers' chairs to two relative unknowns, in exchange for having both men close to EA Sports' Orlando, Florida, studio, so they may sit down to more recording sessions than ever before.

Madden's sixth broadcast team is one that lives very close to EA's Orlando studio

Madden fans, say hello to your new play-by-play voice, Brandon Gaudin, and analyst, Charles Davis. They are the sixth broadcast team in the 28-year history of the EA Sports flagship. Never heard of 'em? Yeah, well, they've heard that, too.

"These names we're following are icons of the sport," said Davis, who just finished his first full year as an NFL broadcast analyst for Fox Sports. Before that he was part of Fox's college football operation for about nine years, and he has done studio work for NFL Network. "Brandon and I can't become familiar to people until we start, and I hope people give us the opportunity to grow on them."

Davis, 51, will be Madden's analyst going forward and the fourth in series history, succeeding Phil Simms, Cris Collinsworth and John Madden himself. Last year on Fox Sports he was paired with Thom Brennaman, his old NCAA broadcast partner, for his first year in an NFL broadcast booth. For a sports video game looking to become more conversational, Davis is a good start. His commentary frequently threads cultural references into an encyclopedic analysis, one informed by his own experiences as an all-Southeastern Conference player at Tennessee in the mid-1980s.

Gaudin, 32, is Madden's sixth play-by-play announcer, following Jim Nantz, Gus Johnson, Tom Hammond, Al Michaels and the late Pat Summerall. Gaudin is the only Madden announcer to join the game with no prior NFL television experience. He's currently the voice of Georgia Tech's radio network, calling both football and basketball for the Yellow Jackets. His most noteworthy national broadcast work so far has been for radio coverage of the NCAA men's basketball tournament for Westwood One, which will assign him NFL games on radio beginning this year.

"I felt like I was being punked when I got the LinkedIn message from the talent director, asking about an opportunity with Madden," Gaudin told Polygon.

But Gaudin was on EA Sports' radar for reasons other than an up-and-coming résumé. His proximity helps — a commuter flight from Atlanta — but Gaudin professes an interest in voice acting on the whole, and is fascinated by how it comes together in a video game, sports or otherwise. EA Sports, said producer Christian McLeod, wanted a ground-up reconstruction of its commentary helmed by voice talent who viewed themselves as developers as much as narrators. In his interview with EA, Gaudin pushed those buttons.

"I don't want to be somebody who goes in, gets handed a script, reads it, flies back to Atlanta and then comes back and does the same thing again later," Gaudin said. "I want to be invested on the ground level and the ground floor, to be involved with the design of it and the script writing, and that was their vision, too. I hope that as we get deeper into this, that I can add value, not only from the play-by-play role, but also with the general knowledge of 'this is how a broadcast works, we should try this here,' and hopefully add more value in that."

When he got the call from EA Sports, 'I felt like I was getting punked,' says Gaudin

Davis and Gaudin certainly say all the right things heading into their video game debuts, and they say them sincerely, but the Madden NFL series has made even broadcasting hall-of-famers sound like weak impersonations of themselves. Tom Hammond was the voice of Notre Dame football on NBC and routinely supplied exciting regular season calls (including this glorious day) in the NFL. Yet he spent a drowsy two years in Madden's booth before an even quieter departure. Gus Johnson was brought aboard at a time when he had enormous popularity with a young audience feeding on social media, and by his second year he sounded rote and inobservant, his enthusiasm poorly served by the commentary engine.

McLeod, the Madden producer, characterized this year's approach not as a renovation but a complete bulldozing of the game's old commentary architecture and the construction of something new. "Doubling and tripling and quadrupling down on commentary has been on our minds for a couple of years now," McLeod said, as Madden has shored up its other departments through two strong releases. "We really wanted to bring our commentary system up to speed with our other modes. We've seen gameplay, and we've seen Franchise (mode), get a tremendous boost, and yet commentary has been a holdover from the previous generation, when we made that leap to a new console."

gaudin davis ea sports recording Electronic Arts

McLeod said EA Sports wanted Madden's commentary to fulfill four big goals: listener accessibility (that is, as enjoyable and understandable as a national TV broadcast); educational, in the way that the rest of Madden has been praised for teaching American football concepts for more than two decades; timeliness with the ongoing season, not just a recording a set of lines leading into it; and partner chemistry.

Davis and Gaudin have qualities that made EA Sports confident they could hit the first three points, but the two men have never worked any game together. They knew of each other "only by reputation" before getting matched up, Davis said. Gaudin was hired first and so he had a role in auditioning his booth partner. While the choice was not his alone, Gaudin leaned for Davis as someone with whom he would have a swift and natural rapport.

"From the moment he walked in, Charles was infectious," Gaudin said. "You meet Charles and you just feel the love."

This was critical because the two were about to spend a lot of time together. McLeod says they have worked on the game nearly every week since being hired seven months ago. A big part of this is helped by the fact that Davis lives in Orlando, and that neither he nor Gaudin face the kind of live TV workload of someone like Nantz or Al Michaels, which made recording time precious and scheduling it difficult.

So when EA Sports wanted them to come in, unless it was a Saturday in the Atlantic Coast Conference or a Sunday in the NFL, they could make it. And the sizable recording sessions they've had so far have allowed them to ad-lib, converse and correct themselves, and linger on individual players, where the old model of hustling through a script left little time to produce a natural-sounding call. The added power and capacity of new console hardware can accommodate anything they have to say, McLeod said.

Gaudin said he recently played a build of the game and watched a wideout rip off a long catch-and-run for a score. "I added it together, and with me and Charles going back and forth, there were 10 lines that are stitched together, and they were recorded over 10 separate weeks," Gaudin said. "That's in about 20 seconds of play-by-play and commentary. We've been able to record things in high intensity, in medium intensity and in low intensity, and then there are guys who are a lot smarter than me who can make sure these fire together, in the game, in the right way."

"I hope people give us the opportunity to grow on them," Davis says.

Only Madden NFL 17's launch, at the end of August on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, will say for sure, but if nothing else, this work has made Davis and Gaudin friends. There was something charming about their obvious camaraderie in a telephone conference call, and Summerall, of course, always knew how to get a laugh out of Madden. When Gaudin flies down to Orlando to work, he visits the Davises in their home for dinner. Gaudin knows his booth partner's son, where he goes to high school, and the big year in basketball he has ahead of him.

Past Madden broadcast teams were assembled to mimic real-world pairings (Summerall and Madden; Nantz and Simms) or they were held-over mismatches who didn't record their lines together (the ebullient Johnson and the laid-back Collinsworth). McLeod honestly believes, if his video game can showcase them properly, that Davis and Gaudin could become an attractive booth pairing for a real network. That is, in a video game, we could be seeing the debut of a memorable broadcast team, instead of its cameo.

If so, they would come to the job with millions of NFL games under their belts, from a certain point of view.

"The basics are the same, down and distance is the same, the goal for our call is just like a live game," Davis said. "But there's no way we can just go do that in every game of Madden. We can't do that for everyone who wants to play, when they want to play. They can't clone us and go into their living rooms. So we have to prepare for every eventuality."

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