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Primal Screen: FIFA 18 Must Address the Series’ Biggest Failing, the Commentary

Hello and welcome to Gaming Respawn’s regular feature, Primal Screen. Every Friday, I’ll take an in-depth look at something in the world of film, TV and video games, ranging from the little details that really make them work to genre-spanning trends. Basically, just whatever’s got me fired up that week. This week, why the commentary really needs an overhaul in FIFA 18.

In the corridors, meeting rooms and offices of EA Canada, the finishing touches are no doubt currently being applied to FIFA 18, the latest instalment in what is at this point a self-sustaining football phenomenon. As is tradition, we’ll get a peek at E3, and some improvements are pretty easy to predict, a few tweaks to The Journey story mode, a minor graphical boost, and a number of gameplay refinements given catchy names and shown off in music videos. Personally though, I’m desperately hoping that FIFA 18 addresses the series’ biggest problem – the commentary.

It’s an irritation every time I play FIFA 17, which is in almost every other respect a superlative football sim, with series stalwarts Martin Tyler and Alan Smith approaching their task with all the enthusiasm of a man muttering about the weather while waiting for a delayed bus. Generally, they just sound bored by whatever’s going on, and halftime is frequently their cue to moan about a lack of entertainment in the preceding 45 minutes. To an extent, this is a matter of style, in real life neither Tyler nor Smith are the most effusive characters and trade on analysis and insight rather than passion. This is part of the reason that Tyler’s Aguerooooo call from Manchester City’s 2011/12 title-winning season is so famous, it’s the sound of a man getting truly caught up in the drama of the moment and losing the professional restraint that has characterised pretty much his entire career. On FIFA 17 though, opportunities for in-depth analysis are limited, and what can sound like scholarly detachment on TV turns into bored apathy when compressed into the soundbites and canned phrases of video game commentary. The passion for the game that the two must clearly share has never come through, not in my promotions and last-minute winners in career mode nor displays of sparkling football in exhibition games – the reaction instead being grudging acknowledgement, the audio equivalent of the weakest of smiles.

There’s also a curious obsession with nostalgia, one of the few times the commentary duo express real emotion is when talking about the past and ideally about Smith’s past, whether it’s a header that was (according to Tyler at least) reminiscent of Smith in his prime or that oft repeated anecdote about Smith playing and scoring against his parent club. On the one hand, this makes sense, Tyler is 72 and Smith is 54, and it’s natural that they would hark back to their glory days, the days when football was a ‘proper’ sport full of ferocious tackles and bullet headers. The issue is, of course, that FIFA games are primarily played by the under 30s, for whom such references will mean next to nothing; indeed, mention Alan Smith to most millennial football fans and they’ll picture the blond striker/winger who played at clubs including Leeds United, Manchester United and Newcastle United between 1998 and 2012 and not the man who banged them in for Leicester and Arsenal between 1982 and 1995.

There are technical issues too, with the commentary often bearing little relation to what’s actually happening on the pitch – routine saves are acclaimed as world class, a defender stopping the ball going for a corner will sometimes be praised for a goal line clearance, and deflections are never acknowledged except for occasionally being decried as own goals. Some comments are just utterly banal, from the observation that the manager is going to make a substitution to improve the team (as opposed to all those designed to weaken the team presumably), that going to ground is always dangerous, and that a pass had the right idea but the wrong execution (even when you’ve accidentally played it straight out for a throw in). Worse still, FIFA’s obsession with player names means that matches are often soundtracked by odd shouting of surnames, like Tyler and Smith have a weird form of footballing Tourette’s Syndrome.

As anyone who’s ever played an international fixture on FIFA 17 will know, Tyler and Smith aren’t FIFA’s only commentary duo; pick, for example, England vs Spain, and the action will be handled by longtime ITV duo Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend. This though does little to improve matters, in place of apathy, we have a vague forced excitement about fairly dull events and the disassociative feeling that the commentary bears little relation to what’s actually happening on screen persists.

Given these issues, it’s tempting to wonder about how FIFA commentary is actually recorded and gets in the game, and the video below (from football YouTube channel Copa90) gives some insight into the process. It follows a FIFA 16 recording session, but given that the commentary didn’t change much from 16 to 17, it would be fair to assume that the process stayed pretty much the same as well. In the video, Smith and Tyler proudly state that there’s no scripting involved at all, indeed they never see the visuals they’re commenting on, instead they’re given a scenario (such as a team is three goals up and then concedes one) and record three versions of possible commentary. The goal is apparently to sound natural, but if there’s one thing that FIFA 17 commentary isn’t, it’s natural, so perhaps relying on off-the-cuff greatness from Tyler and Smith isn’t the best strategy. In fact, the whole approach reeks of a slapdash, just-about-good-enough affair, and tellingly Tyler and Smith never seem enthusiastic about their involvement.

What then can be done to solve these deficiencies? An obvious solution is to ditch Tyler and Smith, or at least augment them with additional commentary teams, so you’re never quite sure who you’re going to get, and it more accurately replicates the feel of a live broadcast. As part of its clear focus on commentary last year, NBA 2K17 featured a grand total of 11 commentators/announcers (see video below), and it worked superbly, the variety of personalities and styles giving a real richness to the virtual booth. In general, NBA 2K17 is the definitive example of sports game presentation and the standard FIFA should be aiming to reach. Games are introduced by virtual pundits with genuine witty repartee, commentary dives deep on each team – with topics such as style of play, areas for improvement and historical performance discussed – and the whole thing has a dazzling sheen. This is, of course, not a fair comparison, the NBA 2K games have to cover a fraction of the number of teams that feature in FIFA, and it would require an almost unimaginable amount of work to achieve the same level of insight. FIFA can, however, start heading in that direction, and multiple commentators would be a great start.

In terms of who should be picked, there are a variety of strong options, the likes of Guy Mowbray, Steve Bower, Jonathan Pearce and Simon Brotherton on the BBC; Rob Hawthorne, Alan Parry, Bill Leslie, and Daniel Mann from Sky; and Darren Fletcher and Ian Darke, the principal voices on BT Sport. Then there’s the broadcasting icon that is Barry Davies, who is currently criminally underused, his talents currently being wasted on the reality show The Jump on Channel 4. Davies would be the perfect fit in so many ways, he’d have the time to produce something special, his policy of believing that some moments should speak for themselves would cut down the workload a bit, and he even has previous football game announcing experience (as anyone who heard his “no, there’s not something wrong with your TV set, it is snowing in Brazil” bit from Actua Soccer will fondly recall). Moreover, while he’s in fact older than Martin Tyler (Davies is 79), his commentary tends to focus on the action rather than nostalgia, and his long stint on Match of the Day means that he’s still the childhood voice of football for many of today’s millennials.

On the analyst side, some famous pundits could add sparkle to FIFA’s presentation and have a real connection with the target audience. Thierry Henry and Gary Neville are obvious choices, especially if FIFA wanted to ape NBA 2K’s CGI introductions, while other suitable names include Graeme Souness, Martin Keown, Glenn Hoddle, Rio Ferdinand, and Jamie Carragher.

Another option would be to copy what Madden did last year and hire a less experienced commentary team that would have more time to devote to the project and could record regular updates that reflect what’s happening in the real-life football season. With no UK equivalent of college football broadcasts, finding candidates for such a role would be difficult, but with adequate compensation, people with TV or radio experience could surely be found.

Whatever approach is adopted, something really needs to be done, the current FIFA commentary is not only often irritating but breaks the sense of immersion that the rest of the game works so hard to create. It’s the main thing holding the series back, an issue that persists while attention is lavished on graphical upgrades and gameplay tweaks, but one that has a massive impact. Fixing it will require hard work and a fresh approach, but the examples of what to aspire to are there, and it’s only by heading in that direction that FIFA will realise its true potential.

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