Gus Ramsey acknowledges the term but no, he doesn’t really like it: “Shoutcasting.” It seems to capture the virtue and the unvarnished nature of esports commentary. Tons of enthusiasm — and that’s great — but the viewers who already have familiarity with the video game on the livestream understand the action, where newcomers often get lost.
“I wouldn’t say that they have stop to doing that,” Ramsey, a 21-year veteran of ESPN, says of the high-energy calls for which esports are known, “but I would show the limitations that it provides to both broadcaster and viewer.”
Ramsey is the program director for Full Sail University’s Dan Patrick School of Sportscasting, which opened earlier this year. Its namesake is well known to sports fans as the former host of NBC’s Football Night in America NFL broadcast. He also leads a three-hour sports radio show each weekday, and was a studio anchor at ESPN during what many consider the network’s heyday, 1989 to 2006.
Full Sail, in Winter Park, Florida, is known for a video games design program as well as an esports club in the emerging competitive collegiate scene. The Dan Patrick School takes a general approach to sports broadcasting, but at Full Sail it naturally intersects with esports thanks to those associations, where it might not at another school.
“In my first class, my introduction to sportscasting class, one of our guys is a big esports fan,” Ramsey said. “I told the class ‘Go home and critique the broadcaster of your choice.’ He did something on esports every single time. So while we’re not necessarily teaching you how to be an esports broadcaster specifically, there are opportunities.”
Patrick, 62, wanted to get involved with teaching broadcast journalism as a legacy, or a way to share things important to him with to a new generation of broadcasters. But he said he did it at Full Sail as opposed to another college because it has a very adaptable curriculum — things can change in one month instead of six — and a focus on preparing students to get work, as opposed to teaching other things that may not be their interest.
“I work with some of Activision’s Call of Duty guys,” added Ramsey, who is also a talent coach outside of Full Sail, “and I know how well they try to become broadcasters. They’re sometimes flying by the seat of their pants, though. So there is a lot of room for training in that area. I feel like our students have to learn the principles of working in front of a camera.”
Ramsey, Patrick and Josh Mora, Full Sail’s executive director for strategic partnerships, are very clear that the program takes a general approach; this is not specifically “the esports broadcasting school” in other words. But neither is Patrick ignoring the interest or enormous growth in esports — especially because that means more opportunities for someone to get into sports broadcasting, as opposed to doing highlights on local television or trying to crack into one of America’s traditional sports, college or pro.
“We acknowledge esports. I don’t want to put my head in the sand and go, ‘Hey I’ll come up for air when esports is not around. It’ll make my job easier with teaching sportscasting.’” Patrick said. “No, this is about being a sportscaster, and who’s to say that esports is not under that umbrella of being a sportscaster?”
Problems peculiar to esports broadcasting
There are some hurdles that esports as a subject seem to present more than traditional sports, though. The instant and constant action of something like Overwatch may be integral to that game’s appeal as a broadcast. It can also also distort the viewer’s expectation and understanding of when a key moment is happening, Ramsey said.
“The first moment of the first map in something like Call of Duty may not be as important as the fifth map,” he offered. “So if you expend all of your energy on the first map, you’ve got nowhere to go at the end of the game. It’s about helping them understand the balance of that. The biggest challenge I see with Overwatch and Call of Duty’s people is they feel the need to keep up with the pace of the game. The Overwatch guys are constantly talking fast. I try to encourage them to slow down and understand what the audience is seeing happen, and you don’t have to describe everything you’re seeing.”
Another thing esports seem to confront more is a kind of treehouse culture, in which explaining what’s going on is seen as talking down to viewers, who are expected to be in the know, probably because they’re already playing these games.
“If I’m watching a Mets game, and Keith Hernandez says, ‘When you want to lay down a bunt in a situation, this is how you do it,’ I don’t throw up my hands and go, ‘Oh my God, how do you not know how to lay down a bunt,’” Ramsey observed. “I can survive those 30 seconds. But I feel like esports guys will either take hate on social media or feel like viewers are turning off the stream. There are people who watch this with the sole intent of wanting to play the game better; if you don’t engage that, you’re doing them a disservice.”
The larger point, says Mora, the Full Sail executive director, is that the esports scene simply has to be served with a fully professional broadcast community. “This isn’t going away,” he said, and he’s right. The viewership numbers may be breathlessly reported or not directly comparable to television viewership of traditional sports broadcasts, but there’s no question millions watch live-streamed video games, and that recent, mainstream developments like the NBA 2K League, the Overwatch League, and the eMLS Cup bear that out.
Ramsey said the newest leagues and ventures are positioning themselves as the same kind of viewing experience as Major League Baseball or the NFL. That means broadcasters have to sell the viewers on the players and their stories as much as the game itself, which is something his program at Full Sail stresses to students.
“We just want to teach you how to be a better broadcaster. So those skills are adaptable,” Patrick said. “My son, years ago, when he was playing video games — World of Warcraft, Call of Duty and now Fortnite — you know, I’m aware of how powerful it is, the impact. But I’m not preparing you for that as much as I’m just preparing you — if that’s what you want to do, I’m going to make you a better broadcaster. I’m going to make you a better interviewer.”
Mora thinks that Full Sail can produce broadcasters who will be attractive to these events because of that kind of polish.
“So many people who are shoutcasters come from inside the game industry,” said Mora, who had an 18-year career in sports broadcasting before coming to Full Sail in 2010. “I think Gus is right on it, we have the opportunity not just in play-by-play calls, we also now think of creating context. We still have to have the fundamentals of how to write, how to interview, how to speak and have vocal talents.
“I watch some of the first-person shooter games,” Mora said, “and it’s very hard for me to fit in the story of what is going on. What a good broadcaster will do is help explain what is happening in a way that does not detract from the hardcore audience.”
Patrick, while noting that a broadcaster’s reputation is an important part of whether the audience will trust or listen to them, said that if he was asked to pinch-hit on a Fortnite broadcast, his methods of preparation would still be relevant and get him through it, and that’s what he teaches down at Full Sail.
“I wouldn’t just study Fortnite, I’d be studying a lot of other games, I’d be talking to gamers, talking to broadcasters, even reading comments online,” he said. “What is the audience saying about this game, what are they saying about the broadcast, what do they want here? Facts, figures, stats, all of this. I would prepare for this the way I did for the Super Bowl when I hosted it this year. But if you’re honest with [the audience] ... I think there’s reciprocation.”