In Defense of Color Commentary

As I said in an earlier post, I’m a permanent judge on SC2GG Commentator Idol, presented in association with Voice of eSports.  My main focus in judging the contestants’ submissions is what’s known as “color” – in commentary, this means essentially things the commentator says that distinguish him or her from a person or computer who’s only analyzing the technical and strategic aspects of the game.  This includes, but is not limited to, analogies comparing what’s going on in the game to situations in real life, fiction, etc. and expressions the commentator uses to convey the excitement of the game.  This approach has generated some controversy over the importance of these aspects in StarCraft commentary, and to that end I composed an explanation for why I think color is a valid judging criterion for Commentator Idol.

Technical knowledge is an extremely important factor when it comes to commentary, but if it were the only factor then anybody with sufficient technical knowledge would be a great commentator. This is not the case. Commentary adds entertainment value to a game, and although StarCraft is more entertaining automatically if you can understand what’s going on from a strategic perspective, there are other ways to increase entertainment value that affect the final product.

I’m a person who doesn’t care all that much about the commentator’s technical knowledge beyond a certain point … if the commentator says the player is going for a 3-hatch build instead of a 9-pool, that’s one thing, but if he says the mutalisk micro was slightly off when really it was that the terran had brilliant turret placement during one particular harass, it doesn’t really matter to me. The commentator can have the best technical knowledge in the world, but if he or she is boring or annoying to listen to, I’m not going to listen.

Color is about being able to make the commentary interesting beyond just saying what’s going on and why in a StarCraft context. There is a world that exists outside of StarCraft, and the two, in my opinion, should not be kept separate. Fundamentally, if you want StarCraft to appeal to a more general audience than just the people who play on ICCup, you have to be able to make StarCraft relevant to the real world – the world of people who have other interests and values that don’t relate to one particular game, and the world of people who want to be entertained. Good color commentary makes the outside world relevant to StarCraft, and in return, makes StarCraft relevant to the outside world.

There are many cases where people use sports metaphors for non-sports phenomena without a second thought. Kissing is "getting to first base" and the working world is called the "rat race." People are often told to "go for the gold" or "keep your eye on the ball" by motivational speakers. It’s firmly established that sports are relevant to life, and part of the reason why that happens is that sports are enjoyed by a large population of people, many or most of whom don’t understand or care about the higher-level technical details of a particular game. If someone who doesn’t understand StarCraft that well watches a commentary and doesn’t understand that a particular skirmish is key to the outcome of the game, he or she won’t understand that fact any better if the commentator just describes it technically. If, however, the commentator says that this particular timing push is like Napoleon going into Russia or like trying to bake a cake without flour, the significance becomes much clearer.

The bottom line is that Commentator Idol is not looking for a commentator who appeals only to diehard StarCraft fans or players. A good commentary should be very technically accurate, but it should also be exciting and leave a first-time viewer wanting to see more, even if they don’t understand exactly what’s going on. Color helps bridge that gap and make sure StarCraft appeals to a greater population and not just those who are D+ or higher on ICCup. Is competitive StarCraft just a niche novelty or can it also be a general spectator sport? Color commentary is a lot of what lets StarCraft make that transition.


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