Good Approaches For Commentary In Tactical FPS
The following will be some of the approaches, ideas, and limits I think constitute good commentary in VALORANT. It is worth noting that everything here is also true for CS:GO. (The major difference in CS:GO is that there is more space and time to work with between plays.)
Commentating VALORANT is the most challenging game I have encountered in my eight-year career as a professional commentator. I’ve covered the pro level in: Quakeworld, Quakelive, Quake Champions, Apex Legends, Overwatch and CS:GO.
The pacing, tactical exchange, and action of VALORANT all occur at a much faster pace than CS:GO. Keeping track of and selecting the most important things to talk about is overwhelming, especially when everything seems important and there is significantly less time.
Commentary is about the philosophy of each individual commentator. We each have different beliefs as to what will sound best, suit our skills best, or which tools we should use to tell the story best. This is one reason I believe that creating pairings that stick together is important, as it allows two individuals, who share casting philosophy, to grow together.
When casters are constantly swapped, it’s challenging to develop both the rapport and shared expertise necessary to best serve the pros and their fans. This isn’t to say that differing philosophies among casters isn’t okay — it is! I simply mean that two casters with conflicting commentary methodology should not be paired together. For newer commentators reading this, I urge you and your partner to commit to growth as individuals and also as a pair. Study the craft and engage in open dialogue with one another. Help each other, both in your understanding of the game and your approach. Stay on the same page when you can, and get back on the same page if and when you inadvertently stray from one another (which you will!).
Here is a list of things that I think are extremely important in the pursuit of the best commentary in tactical FPS and VALORANT specifically:
- Stay connected to the action. There is a disconnect viewers will experience as soon as you are not talking about what they are seeing on the screen. As such, you have to be extremely careful about the moments you choose to depart from the action on the screen. If you create a dissonance between what the viewers see and what they are hearing, it will be dysphoric and disengaging. We want to complement what the viewer sees. There are clear moments where talking about past and future makes sense and it is usually when there is nothing on screen that will be important in the scope of a round outcome. I’ve seen, quite often, commentators not honor the start of a new round and not follow the action but instead jump into that round after a lot has happened — at this point, it doesn’t feel like you are dialed into the game. This is a mistake that is easy to make, especially as we need to talk while simultaneously keeping an eye on the action and mini-map as it will give us an idea as to how long we have to talk, or whether we need to cut ourselves short.
- The two most important narratives when in-game are the strategic and tactical narrative. These narratives must be established from round 1 (and even the pre-game) and must be present in every round that follows. The most important thing is who wins. The best way to discern who will win is by knowing who is gaining the advantage. We need to tell the story as to how advantages are won and are lost. We need to celebrate and translate how a professional team achieves this. If we aren’t doing this, we are losing the main selling point that people turn up for: watching the best gamers in the world beat the best gamers in the world.
- Framing — This is an optional structural approach to commentary. We start at the higher level and we talk about macro strategy first, then we can describe the tactical approach to achieve the goals that are included within that strategy. For example, we can highlight that a team is defaulting, that they are focused on opening their default with A-lobby control (macro strategy). Then we would want to focus on the actions taken to achieve that (tactical). Then we proceed to see, based on the success or lack thereof, what are the implications for either side? Typically this will be answering and explaining the question of “how do they capitalize on the advantage they just gained?” and “how do they recover from being in a disadvantage, given what they expect from their opponents and what they are working with?”. Sometimes strategies will change and you will have to re-frame by once again resetting and establishing the strategic approach and the tactics used to achieve it. As I describe this approach, if you are the play-by-play, you can frame things for your color to take over where necessary, unless it would directly interrupt the action. Another benefit of framing is to help us against cognitive overload as we play with assumptions that already exist, ie. as a play ends, state the situation: “and that leaves Team Liquid in a 2v3”. This tells us a lot and gives our co-commentator the ability to speak to anything at all as it relates specifically to the situation. The audience already knows that 2 is less than 3, so they know that TL is in a disadvantage and are less likely, on paper, to win the round. This is a useful structural tool to frame expectation.
- Set it up. Build-up is sacred. Respecting build-up is very important and it is particularly tough in VALORANT in comparison to CS:GO where there are a lot more natural pauses. As such, we need to recognize the natural breaks in the game so we can take this opportunity to let the energy drop and allow our color to invest us and prepare us for the next series of plays.
- Hold that thought! VALORANT commentary is a lesson in humility. There is an enormous degree of things you will want to talk about, especially analytically, that you will have to just drop. You do not have time to respect the action onscreen and in the match and say everything you want to say. Instead, you have to pick wisely. The reason for this is because there are other elements of the commentary that need time, ie. BUILD-UP. You have to be able to cut yourself off. I learned this from watching Tasteless in the old GSL days when I was a mere young’un back in 2008. He would have set phrases to allow himself to cut his own thoughts off when he realized he was about to need time to set something up or would have to switch into play-by-play unexpectedly. Equally, if you are working with a color and you are leading the cast, you may not see everything all the time, it is imperative you discuss this with your co-commentator that they must cut you off if they think it necessary; you can discuss how they should cut you off before your commentary together. If you trust them, it will benefit the commentary and it will feel great.
- Find the lynch-pin. Being able to focus a story on certain actions or players or moments allows us a good opportunity to create sense of urgency. There isn’t always a lynch pin, but sometimes a round is clearly going to be significantly impacted by one action, one player or one moment. We want to try and find these and build them up as much as possible. A good example is that sometimes a player might be alone in a 1v4 and if he gets 2 kills the round will be winnable, if it is anything less it will clearly be impossible. By explaining this, we can forget everything else and then just let the tension build up to that moment, whether that’s a slow pace to the play-by-play or whether it’s even using dead air — it can be powerful to let the moment happen and not crowd it with other thoughts. Equally, sometimes there are multiple things happening at once and the observer may get it wrong. Create the habit of checking the mini-map and understanding when you should be doing this. In VALORANT multiple plays can happen at once and your job is to know which one matters the most and to accept that you can’t talk about all of them.
- Study the game and do it justice. If you are able to learn the macro flow, not knowing a lot of the in-depth tactical elements can be filled in by a competent color commentator. But knowing the macro flow is really helpful in knowing when your color can add the most value, as well as knowing what the most important strategic and tactical narratives are to talk about in a given round. I will make content around these elements in the future as I know this is a particularly difficult area.
- At least one expert is required. The reason for this is that the game moves strategically and tactically quickly and it can be hard to setup rounds properly if you can’t make accurate predictions. One of the jobs of a color commentator is to help do this to aid the setup component of the cast. Once he’s set you up you can play off of it as the play-by-play. If you have two hybrids and neither has expert level experience, it is much harder to set each other up for success. I’ve found, so far, that there isn’t time for long exchanges or a highly conversational broadcast in highly serious matches, as well, and it’s really important to be able to be on top of strategic and tactical choices. The sooner you can recognize them the quicker you can set it up and the more structure the cast will have.
- Respect your co-commentator and his role. If you have a color, there are specific moments which are perfect for them to talk to help them do their best job, as well as you do your best job if you are a play-by-play. If we think back to point 1, there will be points when the action isn’t necessary to play-by-play. Buy-time: setup the beginning of the round, then when the barrier drops the play-by-play takes over. Mid-round reset: after the early round exchange, there is often a lull that is perfect for your color commentator to setup who has advantage or disadvantage, what the teams are doing, where the next important plays are going to be, why, etc. Any lull in action: this is any moment where there is a lull, take advantage of this, get your color in by either throwing directly or asking a question. Post round: As a play-by-play you just finished calling the action, now the energy is down, be quick to let your color break that down or choose to already start setting up the next round — if you delay too much here, they won’t be able to do a post-round wrap up and I commonly see this extend into the buy time, which takes away time for new round setup (I am also guilty of this). Generally in VALORANT, so far I have found that outside of these 4 moments, there is commonly action happening that we need to be directly following. With that said, spotting “pockets” of inactivity or lulls is a feeling that will develop, and as you are developing with one co-commentator, you will both get an unspoken sense as to when the color can jump in and how much time they will have to make a point in that lull.
- Reiterating is not a good use of time, be vigilant against redundancy. We already established that we don’t have much time. Reiterating points your co-commentator for any reason is not helpful, as it’s ultimately redundant. Agreeing and then shifting into the next thing is most important here. If you want to be more conversational, do your best to make your add-on point something new that is relevant. If your color said something and you think there should be a follow-up question and there is time to do it, there is value in that. There is limited to no value in repeating what they just said in different words. This goes into respecting the role of the color, too. If the color is doing a good job, they were happy with how they explained something, as such, reiteration wastes your time to do your roles more effectively.
- Understanding the highest level of the game is necessary to have peak appreciation for the discipline. Our goal should be to reach peak appreciation, whether or not it is achievable is another thing entirely — but the mindset to think this way is important to constantly push our knowledge and understanding. With a high level understanding we have the opportunity to be translators. We translate the language of elite VALORANT play to an audience that doesn’t speak it. We should be constantly studying and trying to improve our understanding of the game, whether we are color or not. This will only serve to improve your ability to work with the color, be excited about the game and tell stories.
- Find meaning in the chaos — it’s tempting to cast the kill feed and sometimes it feels so unavoidable. But we need to be telling the viewer a little more. Is the site being lost? Are one side being beaten back? Who is winning? What is actually happening? We can’t really answer that final question by reading the kill feed. We have to translate this as best as possible to give the viewers a sense of what is gained or lost or what is important to focus on. Of course, if there is a spectacular play on our screen, we talk about it, but I am referring mostly to the moments where there is an abundance of chaos. We are the guard against cognitive overload in chaos.
- Consistent language and terminology is key in educating and packaging concepts in a fast moving esport. We talked about saving time, this is a way to do it. We have to make terminology as efficient and intuitive as possible to increase accessibility and to save time. Defaults. Resets. Stacks. Set-pieces. Baits. Cross-fires, Pacing, Anti-eco, Fake-presence, Presence, Lurk, etc. This is a large reason I released my first article about thinking in tactical FPS. I wanted to re-establish some terminology. The other important thing is being consistent in our use of language; a structured approach, as I mentioned in point 3, is helpful to do this.
- Respecting cognitive overload is important. With so much happening so quickly, we need to pick the right things to construct our narrative(s). If you say too much or make too many points, you risk losing the attention of the audience and therefore the investment you were trying to build. I recommend learning about cognitive overload! It is in this sense important to try and make sure points are connected. If we are talking about how cool some utility usage that isn’t all that impactful in the round, we are more likely to overload the viewer as it won’t be connected to other things they are about to see. Linking things together creates more engagement because it makes the game easier to follow cognitively.
- Understanding the different types of narrative is key, as we are opening, adding to and closing narrative threads constantly. Each narrative thread has a different level of importance. Some are fast and some are slow burns. If you are able to re-listen to your casts and highlight the various stories you were telling and learn how they relate to one another and the action in the game, this can be a useful guide as to what is more impactful vs what is not.
- Good judgement makes the difference. There are many approaches that can work in terms of what we talk about or how we interact with our co-commentators. Some duos will emphasize more fun and some will emphasize more analysis. The best guide is: 1. your strengths and 2. the game and its context. So long as your approach creates engagement and does the game justice, you are doing a good job in your commentary.
- Does it sound good? This is something to check back in on reasonably often. Try to isolate what you think sounds good and what you think doesn’t sound good and try to understand why. We need awareness because we can’t change what’s bad about our casts if we don’t even realize we are doing something bad. We have to try and check in on ourselves and make sure we aren’t stagnating or falling into bad habits. Unfortunately, the only way to do this is personal review. Taking review a step further is to review and dial into what we like from other commentators. What do we want to emulate? What do they do really well? Especially if you have isolated areas that you don’t like about your own commentary or delivery, it can be useful to find examples of commentators who are excellent in those categories to try and understand how they do it to better guide your own improvement. In my early days, I created a list of commentators and broke them up into what I thought each one did specifically very well. I used this list anytime I felt like I was lacking in one area or the other and I would focus on learning from that person in that skill.
- Buffering — leaving a buffer is key. Think of it like writing an essay or listening to a piece of music. There are natural breaks which indicate the end of something and the beginning of something else. We need to also do this to the best of our ability. As commentators, especially in hybrid casts, it can be easy to do what I call a “dirty throw”. This is a throw where you know the next passage of action will be long and you have already been speaking for some time. So in an effort to avoid another 20–30 seconds of commentary, you throw to your co-commentator in a spot where there is no buffer. It doesn’t sound good but it feels better than continuing for another 20–30 seconds and disengaging your partner. So in that sense, we must be mindful to prevent this and to allow our co-commentator to have time to build-up the next play, if they choose to. Sometimes it will be unavoidable to talk for a long time and this understanding needs to exist in within the partnership so there are no hard feelings. Equally, what tends to be a common bad habit is to lack the awareness to realize the need to end a point so that there is an appropriate buffer time to build-up the next play. We need to, again, be mindful of cognitive overload. If there is no build-up for something, no expectations set, it can be quite jarring to go from one explanation to an immediate shift up in energy and pacing — it will feel like noise as we are overloading the viewers.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! We’ve covered some of the basic fundamentals and pillars of commentary, including some of my personal philosophy in commentating Tactical FPS and VALORANT specifically. Commentating is a highly specialized skill that requires a constant and consistent commitment to improvement. There are so many areas to be good and talented at and there are so many areas where weakness is unavoidable until the hard work is done. The consequence is that no duo, commentator or approach is the same. Becoming a truly great commentator takes extreme effort and endless experience. Just like the players on the server, you can only do so much in practice and study — nothing substitutes the environment of live performance.
And always remember: So long as you honor the game and the professionals playing it while honoring the audience with an engaging broadcast, you’re doing it right!