Esports have an untapped audience that would love to be engaged, cheering their favorite team to victory ... if only they could figure out what the hell was going on.
The general concepts of most sports are usually pretty easy to pick up — score more than the other team, reduce your opponent’s health to zero, cross the finish line first — but the nuances of the minute-to-minute gameplay are invisible to the casual viewer.
Sports, be they baseball or Dota 2, require translation before they can be appreciated. The Olympics provide a perfect template to learn what good sports commentary can do to bring in an otherwise ambivalent audience.
Why this matters
The Winter Olympics, currently taking place in Pyeongchang, South Korea, offer a wide array of sports that don’t normally see the light of day on American television. Speed skating, biathlon, skiathlon (yes, they’re different things), skeleton, luge, slalom skiing, snowboarding, ice dance. There is a bevy of competitions whose rules are unknown to much of the viewing audience.
And while you can simply watch in hopes that your country of choice lands atop the medal podium, the games are far more exciting when you feel invested in each athlete’s performance. Unless you happen to be an expert on curling (and you’re not; stop it), you’re going to need some help understanding why people in the stands are freaking out, and that’s where the announcers come in.
A good announcer can open up the intricacies of an otherwise obtuse sport to a home audience, making it possible for them to feel invested in the action to the point they can agree or disagree with scoring.
If you can educate the casual viewer enough that they feel like they can yell at the judges for making a bad call or chide the athletes for choosing a poor strategy, you’ve created a broadcast that will not only attract an audience, but keep it. Fail to bring your viewers up to speed, and they’ll tune out, never to return.
This is a problem that faces esports on a regular basis. Games like League of Legends and Overwatch create hype that nonplayers earnestly want to enjoy, but watching the matches themselves can be an exercise in bafflement. The on-screen action is merely colorful gobbledygook without a decent commentator on hand to explain mechanics, strategy and mishaps in an accessible way.
A patient observer will likely glean a few key points about the game in question, but the depth of the sport will be lost on them. Aspiring esports announcers would do well to watch the Olympics to observe the contrast between play-by-play that pulls you in and the kind that shoves you out.
Jonny Moseley is announcing freestyle skiing for NBC and, though he clearly knows the sport from top to bottom, he’s unable to communicate that knowledge to the audience. Each skier’s run looks virtually identical in the absence of something truly dramatic like a fall; how the judges discern point values can be a complete mystery to the new viewer.
Moseley understands the granular details of freestyle skiing, like jump height, foot position and speed, but can’t convey those concepts without relying on jargon. He’ll say an athlete made a mistake, but won’t explain what that mistake is or why it happened. He’ll praise phenomenal moves, but not take the time to detail what made a jump so hard to land.
His commentary lets you know that something was worth noticing, but never fills in the blanks. He’s the tall guy who can see something cool over the fence, but doesn’t give you a boost to help you see it, too.
Todd Richards is Moseley’s opposite as he calls the slopestyle snowboarding, in which snowboarders race down a hill, sliding along rails and doing elaborate tricks. If you’ve played SSX, you’ve done some slopestyle.
Richards brings viewers in, never bogging them down with too much information, instead letting details breathe while informing the audience about each performance. He calls attention to how an athlete dips their head to pull off rotations in a jump, then repeats that information over the course of the coverage. That gives the viewer time to be introduced to the idea, then see it when it’s pointed out, then spot it on their own.
Richards discusses how board position impacts score, and how snow quality can make landing more difficult, and he does it in terms that make sense to the home viewer. After watching an hour of his coverage, do I know everything about slopestyle? Of course not. Do I feel like I do? You bet your hitching post, I do. And that is why I will keep coming back to watch it — not because it’s more interesting than freestyle skiing, or the athletes are more skilled, but because the commentator brought me in and let me be a part of the event in a meaningful way.
Why this is so hard for esports
The biggest challenge that most esports casters currently face is not realizing how much they know about their sport. They’ve forgotten how intricate these games are, to the point that they don’t remember what it’s like to not know the basics.
Many of them don’t even realize what the basics are anymore, because they’re so entrenched in a community where everyone speaks their highly advanced form of the language. They lace their calls with jargon that’s meaningless to the newcomer, and assume a familiarity with competitors that casual viewers don’t have. They over-serve their standing audience, and in so doing, seal off their sport to anyone who hasn’t already devoted themselves to learning it.
It may seem counterintuitive to appeal to people outside your core fanbase, but it’s just good business. Sports have to grow to thrive; in order to grow, they have to attract new fans. To attract new fans, you have to win over people who haven’t yet decided they give a damn about your sport, but might if they understood it better.
Good announcers can give casual viewers a window into their sport without being condescending or stiff. They can blend enough high-level commentary to appeal to an audience who knows what’s going on while gradually educating newcomers to meaningful aspects of the gameplay. It provides context that can’t be gleaned simply by observing.