Benjamin Franklin is credited for saying, “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” I can tell from this quote that Franklin never tried to commentate a game of Pokémon. When both players have hundreds of decisions to make over a given match, it’s impossible to fully flesh out every option for a player or to accurately predict their line of play.
As a veteran player and avid watcher of live-streamed play, I have to admit there were times when I was let down by the commentary of both official and grassroots productions, and was quick to criticize commentary amongst my friends. Recently, I gained a better handle on the true challenges of commentary when I tried my hand (or voice, if you will) at the Faded Town 1K Invitational Tournament. Today, I aim to defend the most criticized voices in our game by going over common criticisms, my experiences commentating, and what a perfect caster would sound like.
Watch/Listen: Faded Town 1K VODs
Four Common Criticisms of Casters
For brevity’s sake, I’ve boiled down the complaints about commentary to four which I’ll be looking at more carefully. I’ve selected these four points to talk about because, well, I struggled with many of these in my first bout of commentary. By shrinking the overall complaints about commentary to just four categories, I hope to reach a broader audience of players who have felt frustration similar to me when watching live-streamed tournaments. After detailing the issue, I’ll go into the mind of the caster by reflecting on my own experience, in order to fully explain why some of these common complaints are made about even the most experienced orators.
1. “This commentator isn’t qualified to be speaking.”
This is less of a complaint about actual commentary and more accurately concerns the idea of ethos. For those of you who don’t know, ethos is one of the three modes of persuasion alongside logos (logical appeals) and pathos (emotional appeals). Ethos centers around the idea of credibility, as it’s a form of appeal that aims to convince the audience of a speaker’s qualifications to speak on a certain subject.
Quite plainly, this complaint is simply based in ignorance. Commentators are meant to be the background voice to provide insight about a given match, not the star of the show. Imagine how distracted you would be if the narrator of an audiobook suddenly broke character and started speaking about how they feel about the story. Commentators, ideally, are meant to be a third party, remaining partial to both sides as a match goes on. As a result, though, this means that commentators are not given opportunities to speak about themselves (and rightly so), but this means that they aren’t given a platform to defend their history, knowledge, and sheer hours in the game.
I don’t mean to say that every single person needs to have some baseline qualification to be a commentator. While it helps to have a resume of some sort, it’s still possible to be talented at talking about the game without having a long list of accomplishments. One of the talented people I casted with was Tate Whitesell, who was unable to attend a number of tournaments this year due to collegiate obligations, but still runs the website PokéStats, where he analyzes metagames and calculates top picks for tournaments with other mathematically motivated players. Tate is a fantastic example of someone who didn’t let an inability to attend tournaments stop him from learning as much as he could about the game, which shines through in his bright and insightful commentary.
Simply put, if you discount someone because you’ve never heard of them before, or, more disgustingly, because of circumstances like Championship Points, age, race, or gender, you’re missing out a useful learning opportunity and actively damaging the community by speaking negatively from an uneducated point of view. Judge a commentator by what they’re saying, before anything else.
2. “This commentator doesn’t know what the cards they’re speaking about actually do.”
This is another common complaint I see from players, especially as a way of disparaging older commentators. This complaint is valid, on some level—if you’re unaware of options for either player or not up-to-date on the current metagame to some degree, it doesn’t really matter how gifted of a speaker you truly are. If you placed me over a game of 2004’s format, two years after I was born, I’m not sure that I would have anything of value to say, because I’d be too busy looking up cards.
However, this situation came to me differently when I was actually commentating over a match. One main issue was that I suddenly found myself mixing up extremely common Abilities with attacks, and vice versa, with the most offending example being Zacian V’s Brave Blade attack and Intrepid Sword Ability. Then, just as I would get the two straight, I’d forget the actual names of the effects when they were actually used. This was especially prominent with Xerneas p, where I said “Horns of Life,” which was a fallacious combination of the Ability Path of Life and Bright Horns. The issue wasn’t that I didn’t know what was going on, exactly; it just felt like my mouth wasn’t matching up with my words.
I suspect the same is the case with veteran commentators who are criticized by the community for not being updated on each and every single card. When you get caught up in the strategy and given situation for both players, it’s hard to properly refer to each card, because it’s an extremely unnatural way to speak about the game. If you don’t believe me, try having a conversation about a metagame, referring exactly to each card’s Ability or attack that gives it viability. Now, try speaking quicker than you normally would, like you’ve got a train to catch, because that is the position that commentary presents you in. You have about ten seconds before a player will make their next action, activating a Trainer, Energy, Ability, or attack, and it’s genuinely difficult to speak about that player’s thoughts efficiently while still getting each and every effect correct.
3. “This commentator talks too much.”
This is a criticism I see most commonly attributed to commentators who primarily come from backgrounds where they don’t have anyone else to speak with, whether it’s podcasts or livestreams. Generally, this complaint tends to be about a commentator dragging on about a play that’s already happened, or isn’t happening for a while down the road, or is simply not allowing their partner to give their point of view.
This isn’t just an issue in Pokémon commentary, but rather, a general issue in the nature of conversation. We all have situations where we get caught rambling or waxing poetic about a problem that hasn’t risen yet. But in commentary, you’re not having a natural conversation—you’re performing, attempting to explain the cards, what they do, and each player’s strategy as the game unfolds in real time. There’s no pause button either; like I said, the commentators aren’t the stars of the show here, and most viewers aren’t there to see them speak. This, naturally, forces a commentator to feel like they have something to say, and as I spoke more, I realized there were times when I was speaking to fill space, and not to actually contribute to an understanding of the match.
It’s genuinely difficult to think on your feet (or seat, as the case may be) and articulate it in a way that doesn’t come off as barefaced or shortsighted, and that means that it’s important to learn the value of “dead space,” when no one is speaking.
Sometimes, like in natural conversation, it’s hard to cut yourself off from talking about something that you’re passionate about; just because there’s always one more card that could affect the matchup or one more route of play, it’s extremely vexing to try and recognize the “tempting moment” that Franklin spoke of.
4. “This commentator doesn’t understand routes of play.”
This is perhaps the single most common complaint I see about commentary in the community. It’s based on the idea of logos previously mentioned, or appeals of logic to an audience. When a viewer disagrees with the commentator’s logos behind a given play, that’s prime real estate for them to complain to others about unsatisfactory commentary. Even worse, is when a commentator speaks about a given play and then the player simply does something else, and the commentator continues to talk about their idea of what might happen.
I’ll be the first to say that this is a complaint that I’ve made to my friends, before I did commentary. It can be really frustrating to listen to talk to someone about something that’s not actually happening (or going to happen). What I hadn’t thought about before, though, was the commentator’s intent behind talking about a given route of play. As a new commentator, you get into a mindset of trying to unravel what’s going through a player’s mind to the audience, who may not understand. However, I’ve listened back to my own commentary, and after reflecting on what good commentary should be, I’ve tried to stop thinking in this way. The player will unravel what’s on their mind for you, for better or for worse, and the entire point of a commentator is to try and enlighten the audience to the real decisions they need to make, so that the viewer can be in the situation with the players.
In some ways, what the player actually does is less important than the decisions they need to make, and that’s why so many commentators come off as being confused about what the players are trying to do. When watching a stream, I’m more impressed by correct plays and the correct decisions being made, rather than the actual outcome of the decision itself. Most viewers don’t necessarily have a strong stake in who wins unless they personally know a player involved; they simply just want to see a good match and gain something from it.
Good commentary should help the viewer truly feel like they’re learning from a commentator, and ultimately make them a better player overall.
I want to put one caveat after all of these complaints, though, and say that not all commentary is created equally, like most forms of media. There are great commentators, and there are learning, struggling, newly-born commentators (like me) who are still struggling to find their footing in speaking about this amazingly intricate game. If anything, I appreciate and welcome constructive criticism because it gives me insight into my shortcomings and aids in ameliorating my skills in many things, including my writing and commentary. I’m not writing this article to say that you can never criticize a commentator—I’ve already done some self-deprecation on my Twitter—but I did want to give a bonafide perspective into this elusive and enigmatic role in our community which all too often seems unfairly labeled as straightforward.
“Welcome to the Jungle”: My Experience in Commentary
Commentary, all too often, does feel like a jungle; it’s just you and potentially another person, speaking about a game with no one to catch you if you make a mistake or say the wrong thing—until after it’s said and done. Before I leave you, I want to give the reader a sense of this by talking about a few parts of my commentary experience that set it aside from traditional caster’s experience and some of the personal difficulties I had.
One factor that greatly differentiated my experience in commentary was the fact that I was speaking over pre-recorded games, as opposed to the traditional livestream format for a tournament. This truly highlighted the isolation in the jungle of casting—while casters traditionally do not interact with a crowd during their role, they can often be heard at high-profile events, making them more likely to feel the excitement and energy in the room and more likely to translate that into their voices. This leads me to my first real issue in commentary—I truly struggled to bring energy to the more traditionally exciting parts of games, whether it be the flashy finale, critical coin flips, or especially exquisite play. Of course, one doesn’t want to overdo commentary like that either, because then the buzz loses its sheen, and you’re just raucous and irritating. Finding the balance between casual conversation, the default setting of commentary (if you will), and the energetic expression of a rousing play is a formidable challenge.
Another unique situation was that I was able to commentate for a few hours by myself, due to scheduling difficulties from the other casters. My previous experiences of individual public speaking, like in speech club, pales in comparison to the number of conversations I’ve had about Pokémon with my friends, which is what good commentary feels and sounds like. When you’re alone on the microphone, the isolation of the jungle is even more apparent than when you’ve got someone else there to brave the traps and monsters with you. One of these common mistakes is the names of cards; as I mentioned in the complaints section, it can be really difficult to keep track of every effect in the moment, and that leads to a certain amount of self-correction as well as sheepishness for those mistakes. While I can’t say that commentating individually gave me the same anxiety that public speaking did, it did make me particularly aware of the speed at which I was speaking and the level of play-by-play commentary I was putting out. Without someone else there to help cover the color commentary (speaking about history of the game, big-picture strategy, etc.), I was naturally inclined to speak more about the play-by-play analysis and felt like I couldn’t take a breath. I had an intrinsic fear that maybe I would get too caught up in discussing lines of play, and be criticized for not speaking enough about what was actually going on.
As I went, I tried to slow down, speak more casually, and balance between color and play-by-play commentary, but I learned that the only thing more difficult than having a partner is being by yourself with the microphone.
My first bout with commentary was one full of learning curves and new experiences as I did my best to talk about each game. I’ll be honest and say that I thought the entire task would be a lot easier than it turned out to be, as I often found myself drained and lethargic after an especially long round of commentary. Despite that, I feel like an aspiring artist looking back on their first works—I see imperfections, but hope to grow from them and ultimately blossom into one of the best commentators this game has to offer. The only way to do that, however, is to commentate more and do my best to learn as I go. So, with that being said, I hope to speak more for you soon, and I hope you were able to glean some insight into the world of commentary.
If you have any questions, criticism, or opportunities for casting, feel more than welcome to reach out to me in the comments, through Twitter, or through Facebook, where I can be found as Emery Taylor. Finally, I leave you with one final piece of wisdom in these trying times: as Roy Bennett said, “Listen with curiosity, speak with honesty, and act with integrity.”
Until next time, everyone.
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Shockingly, commentating 1 hour straight of Doll Stall by yourself is miserable!
who would have guessed? I didn’t even know how long the round was before it started, then around 70 minutes in I started to lose my mind