Around 2 years ago, at the release of Marvel vs Capcom 3, I discovered the Fighting Game Community (the FGC). I'm not much of a competitive gamer myself - I've enjoyed playing online against others in some video games, but really have never been particularly good at it. Moreover, my hand-eye coordination sucks - I would never really be good at fighting games, and when I was a kid and had SF2, Mortal Kombat, and another SF variant for the SNES, I never could do any of the moves reliably (I'm sure had I put time into it I could've mastered that much, but still, games that require quick inputs in specific directions have always been tricky to me).
But since my discovery of them, FGC games, streams and tournaments have been something I've been fascinated with. Fighting Games are essentially nothing more than a variant of chess played at high speeds, with strategy and action mixed in a perfect amount to create an awesome product to watch. Top level play is absolutely thrilling to watch and if you haven't ever given it a try, I encourage you to do so. It's pretty awesome. So I've become the dedicated stream monster of FGC events, and rarely miss a major.
That said, there's one element of FGC streams and tournaments that has always bugged me as not being quite up to the level I think it can be at: and that is fighting game commentary. Don't get me wrong, the FGC has its share of classic commentators: from Ultradavid and James Chen (UltraChen) to Yipes, from Magus1234 to Arturo Sanchez (Sabin), etc. etc. etc., there are a ton of guys who are on the mic a lot at FGC events and attempt to commentate the matches for the stream monsters and to explain what's going on and to hype it up properly. Yet while so much of the commentary is done right, leading to some classic moments, there are a lot of things the commentator do which make it harder for people to watch and enjoy the FGC as much as people could.
I've been rewatching EVO's Top 8s and QFs/Semis while on my commute, and came up with a few thoughts on how FGC commentary can really be improved at getting people who aren't big time fighting game players into the action:
1. Explain the Matchups
This is easier in some games than others (Solo games as opposed to team games), but one aspect that is common across every fighting game EVER is that a lot of how a match is played is dictated by the matchup between the characters chosen by each player. A Balrog (Boxer)-Akuma match will play out much differently than a Balrog (Boxer)-Makoto matchup in SF4, for example, just because of what options each character has. And then individual playstyles of various characters can be extremely different, leading to totally different results (contrast Tokido's matches with PR Rog with Infiltration's from EVO).
Of course we can't expect the commentators of every game to know the playstyles of every competitor in a tournament, especially before top 8 (more on this in a bit). But there's no reason commentators shouldn't know how various characters matchup against each other and what each character is seeking to do in a match. And that information is something that commentators should TELL THE VIEWERS at the beginning of a match, if not pre-match (Button checks are an excellent time for this if you already know the characters to be used).
So when you see that Boxer-Akuma matchup coming up in Winners Semis, start the match out by explaining what Akuma wants to do in the matchup and what Boxer needs to do to counter. It enhances the viewing experience if the guys following the match know what each player is TRYING to do, so they can see truly which player is being more successful and when one player or another is going wild with an unconventional strategy.
For example, a first time viewer of the AE Top 8 wouldn't know that Gen's shtick is that he has two stances, each of which carry different moves (and just as importantly, jump arcs), allowing for crazy mixups. And in the commentary, while this was referenced a few times, it wasn't talked about at the beginning of the matches, so first time viewers did not quite have a clue why Gen is so technical or what Xian was actually pulling off.
Obviously this is harder for some games: In Marvel, you can't really explain 3 characters in the time alotted, and playstyles are more important. Still explanations are possible. Moreover, in games like Marvel or KOF, while individual character matchups are hard to vocalize, players will often switch out various characters for matchups (or order in KOF). When that happens, EXPLAIN what the difference is! In KOF Top 8, Reynald switched his anchor against Verna from Kim to Chin, but to a casual viewer, they'd have no clue what the difference is (I can tell the difference in their moves myself, but why that would be a better anchor in that situation is something I don't even know).
Seriously, this one little addition to a broadcast of matches would enhance viewers' perceptions immensely.
2. Don't Use Terms And Acronyms Without Defining Them
This is a major problem with FGC commentary: there are a ton of terms, often game-specific but sometimes not, which are thrown out by commentators as if they were part of every day english. And while terms like "frame trap" or "option select" may be common to the average FGC member, they are complete gibberish to the casual fan, and make a broadcast frustrating or even indecipherable.
For example, in the Smash QFs, Semis, and Top 8, the term "DI" was thrown out constantly, multiple times per match ("Great DI" said Prog about 100,000 times). To the casual viewer, the response to this is simple: "WHAT THE HECK IS DI?" (Apparently it's Directional Influence, a term when explained is pretty easy to understand but is something I guarantee 99.99% of people who've played Smash are unaware of). I watched every bit of Smash outside pools, and not once did any of the commentators define "DI." That means every time the commentators talked about it, the casual viewers completely missed their points and were left shaking their heads.
I don't mean to single out Smash here - in several matchups in SF, you'll see things like "frame trap" or "option select" thrown out constantly, but to an ordinary viewer these words mean nothing. In Marvel, "chicken blocking" is a pretty standard term, but it means nothing to an ordinary viewer. In Anime games, the term "Call out" is used instead of "read" for some reason, which will confuse a lot of people. Hell, even "overhead," a standard fighting game term, means nothing to most casual viewers: how would they know from that word that it means an attack you need to block high, but that word will be thrown about in a TON of tourneys.*
*Even worse of course, is the 3d game phrase for overheads being "mids", which does not imply that you need to block high at all.*
You can't define every term. But you can, in the first few matches of a broadcast, particularly top 8s, go over what those terms mean the first few times they're used. That's enough to change gibberish into vivid language.
3. Don't try to explain every move by the players - You do NOT need to identify every move as it comes out.
In sporting events, it's frequent to have a play by play guy along with a color commentator, and a play by play guy narrates the events of the action. Sometimes, especially on radio, they'll literally describe each play as it happens.
But fighting games don't need that. WE CAN SEE what is happening, so you should only truly narrate what specific moves are being used if they're rare or part of a consistent strategy. This is ESPECIALLY the case in games where moves have names based upon the numpad: sprouting out talk about how 5D is an especially good move is a great way to lose every person you're broadcasting to. But this applies even where the moves are simply "toward fierce:" unless there's a specific reason we need to know a move is that specific move, don't waste your time telling us about it.
MK, Injustice, Tekken and other games where moves are #s (1,2,3,4) or letters (KOF's A,B,C,D) don't require the commentators talking about how "got him with Jump D" or even worse "Back 2-3, Back 2-3, Back 2-3," etc. Like the undefined terms above, that is simply creating gibberish that loses the viewer and hurts the viewing experience.
Talk about the strategy each player is using during a match. Don't talk about the individual moves as he's doing them.
4. Do some homework about the Players and their previous matchups against their opponents:
This one is only for later stages of the tourney, particularly in top 8. At that point, you know all the players left before the day begins, and who is facing who. And chances are that the players involved have faced each other before, or at the worst they've faced players with the same characters. You know what enhances a broadcast? When you inform the viewers what was the outcome of those matches.
This was done excellently by Prog in Smash, where his gigantic collection of notes enabled him to tell us each of the head to head records of players in the "big 5" of Smash. The viewers knew who had won before and how close certain matchups were, making the differing outcomes particularly exciting.
By contrast, there were missed opportunities in the AE top 8 at EVO. Sako and Xian had played a month prior in Topanga Asia league, which the commentators were aware of (I'll admit to tweeting some of the results of that league to James Chen during the event to explain Xiaohai's odd counterpicks against Evil Ryu in the semis). The match was 9-7 Sako, and Sako went solely with Evil Ryu at that time. Instead, James actually got the result wrong on the stream (Actually what he said had to do with an irrelevant Xiaohai-Xian matchup from Topanga Asia League, which wasn't the match that recurred at EVO. Whoops!). Cmon, there's no excuse about that.
There's an easy way to do your homework about this actually - find the players before they go up to play in top 8 and ask if they've played their opponents before. Chances are: they remember pretty well, and in 5 seconds they can give you info that will help make your broadcasts more interesting. And when you get results that differ from the past, suddenly viewers will understand why it's so damn hype.
FGC matches can be incredibly hype, and good commentary can really bring through that hype to the viewer. And if done well, it can transform the first time viewer into a multi-time viewer, and can transform guys new to fighting games into those who want to actually start playing them.
The suggestions above are just a few of the ways FGC commentary can improve toward that goal, by removing the gibberish and nonsense from broadcasts and explaining the matches better such that the casual viewer can truly understand what's going on, what's pretty damn hype, and have a good idea of what they themselves can do to try and get themselves on that stage..