"Going up top!"
Gus Johnson's famous call greeted players logging into Madden 11, part of an effort to liven up the commentary following the soporific turn by Tom Hammond. Two years later, Gus Johnson and Cris Collinsworth were replaced by Jim Nantz and Phil Simms.
Madden's commentary struggles since John Madden retired following Madden '08 have been well-documented. Whether it's been Collinsworth, Gus Johnson, or Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, the often robotic commentary has pushed many players to simply turn the announcers off so that they can have a bit of peace and quiet. Such criticism has prompted EA to turn over the announcing team several times since John Madden departed the series following Madden NFL 08.
With Madden 17, EA is hitting the reset button again, but this time they're trying a new approach. Rather than bring in Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth or (shudder) Joe Buck, EA has opted to go with the relatively unknown Charles Davis and Brandon Gaudin. Both have strong college backgrounds, with Davis having only recently joined Fox as a regular NFL announcer, and Gaudin serving as Georgia Tech's play-by-play man. For a series driven by star power, it initially seems like an odd choice. But for EA, it's a calculated gambit.
"We've been so lucky to have guys like Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, Tom Hammond, Al Michaels, Gus Johnson, John Madden, and Pat Summerall. It was something where while we were very lucky to have the real-world talent and to able to work in the booth together, we wanted to do something very radical, and that was to create a commentary team branded from Madden with the hope that they would go on to work for CBS or Fox in the future." EA producer Christian McLeod recently told me over the phone. "But Madden is such a large franchise that it was important for us to have that voice of Madden's future and really take advantage of this brand new framework that we put together."
The framework McLeod refers to constitutes an entirely new backend for the commentary, replacing the holdover systems from the previous generation. In effect, EA is blowing it all up and starting over - a bold shakeup for a mid-generation release. McLeod hopes that the payoff will be more organic commentary that can be updated throughout the season, ensuring that it will be less repetitive than in year's past.
"... we want to use this game as a launching point for creating a new team; and once people hear them, we firmly believe they'll be working together in a booth in a few years. That's how confident we are."
Davis and Gaudin are an integral part of that process. As relative unknowns, both are more accessible than Nantz or Simms, who are constantly on the road and have limited availability for studio time. Davis is actually based in Orlando, making it easy for him to drive over to the EA offices and record his lines. Gaudin is based in nearby Atlanta.
According to McLeod, Davis and Gaudin's accessibility has already paid off. Both have effectively embedded themselves in the design process, purportedly contributing heavily to designing meetings, working with writers, and offering feedback. It's also increased EA's studio time exponentially. According to McLeod, "We had Brandon and Charles in studio with us almost every week. A good rule of thumb that we've been throwing out there is that within a few weeks time we've been able to grab more content than we've been able to grab in an entire year."
Davis added, "For the two of us, we're fortunate enough to both be busy as well. But with me being based in Orlando and being able to drive over, that allows us even with our schedule to do a little bit more. It's a lot harder for the guys we've talked about in the past. Let's face it, if you're trying to get them together, one might be coming from California, one might be coming from New York, that's a whole different ball of wax."
The flipside, of course, is that Davis and Gaudin don't have the star power of previous announcers. McLeod acknowledged as much when he told me, "We knew that going with a lesser-known team could generate questions from the community, and we're entirely confident that will be addressed once they hear the depth and breadth of what's in the game. Like I said, we want to use this game as a launching point for creating a new team; and once people hear them, we firmly believe they'll be working together in a booth in a few years. That's how confident we are."
Davis, of course, knows all about dealing with prickly fans. Being a professional announcer means always having a target on your backet. "Are we ready for it? Well, we think that we are. We'll see how it goes. But I did tell Brandon, 'When the announcement gets out there we ought to stay off Twitter for a few weeks just to be on the safe side.' But that's part of the world we live in. And let's face it: everyone who is recognized as a top broadcaster, if you punch up Twitter or Instagram you're going to find a good number of people who say that they don't like them."
There is a benefit to not having a national profile, though: fans will be more willing to take a wait-and-see approach to the new announcement team. And in an era where social media outrage can run white hot, that's not a bad thing.
But does good commentary matter?
When I heard that EA was completely overhauling Madden's commentary, my first impulse was to wonder whether it was worth the rather sizable outlay of resources. Like offensive line play, sports game commentary is one of those features that only seems to get called out when it's poor. It's not a primary consideration.
I asked McLeod what he thought good commentary added to Madden, and he responded, "It's getting away from those immersion breakers. I remember playing the 16-bit Madden and just being happy that my team had the right colors. We've gotten to that level now where the graphical fidelity is so high that if you have the incorrect facemask or the equipment isn't there, that's an immersion breaker. And from a commentary standpoint, getting to the level we've gotten to with graphical fidelity, of truly immersing a user in a game, storytelling, teaching moments of what's happening in the game."
"Our game replicates the Xs and Os so well that you can learn football through Madden; you hear at least once every NFL combine about a player from another country learning about football through our game. That's what we want to adhere to - we want to be teaching. A lot of users might not know that Golden Tate is smaller in stature but also a tremendous deep threat. We want to be able to call pieces like that out so they know how to use their players, they know how to use their teams, they know the difference between a 4-3 and a 3-4 defense, things like that. Scheme beaters, concept beaters. Talk about those pieces in a very knowledgeable way to immerse users and give them a learning experience. I'm not saying it's bad to break down the fourth wall every once in a while, but that's our goal: the most authentic NFL commentary possible."
Right now the standard for great commentary in gaming is NBA 2K, which manages to be organic and informative without becoming repetitive. Repetition is still a big problem for sports game commentary. Play enough NHL or MLB: The Show, and you'll start being able to recite the various platitudes from memory. Madden has improved in recent years, but it's continued to suffer from sounding overly robotic and patternistic.
The ideal commentary will be able to respond not just accurately to a situation, but in depth. In the past, for example, Madden might have had 10 or 15 lines for a 3rd and 1 run. McLeod hopes to expand the breath of lines to include commentary for a day game, a night game, toss sweep left, toss sweep right, versus specific formations, and more. That's where the increased studio time starts to become a big factor.
"Having the talent available is huge. Especially when you're starting over from scratch, having the availability is probably the number one thing. And when you're limited to a set number of hours as we have been in the past, that of course makes it difficult when you're transitioning to new teams because you have to make difficult choices." McLeod told me. "You'd have to cut stuff that you want to go after. We've almost been designing our system to account for the amount of content players get versus the other way around. We've just been building this giant framework, then backfilling the framework with a ton of content because we have the availability. That's the biggest delta between this year and previous years."
It all sounds very promising: the increased studio accessibility, a commentary team that won't big time the developers when they offer feedback, and the enhanced backend. But what has me particularly interested is the promise that the commentary will be updated as the season goes on. With the NFL being volatile as it is, it'll be nice to hear a virtual commentary team that doesn't slobber all over a preseason favorite that ends up going 5-11.
"This team is unique in that Charles and Brandon are available to come in throughout the season for additional audio and commentary capture, which we can then drop into the game," McLeod explained. "So as the NFL season unfolds you’ll hear those stories being told when you play Madden NFL 17. It adds a nice touch to our overall presentation package, and delivers another piece of a living, breathing world."
With that, it feels like there's a very good chance that commentary will go from notable weakness to marked strength for Madden. This has become a real trend for the series, which is often subjected to withering criticism when it's struggling. Thus far the difference between this generation and the last has been huge.
Will high-quality commentary be the final piece of the puzzle? Probably not. At the end of the day, it's still there to enhance the overall presentation, making it easy to ignore if it goes poorly. But its one more example of how Tiburon seems committed to making Madden the best that it can be.