Becoming a Better Commentator

Sonny Go: Pro Wrestling Commentator

Anyone who has given commentary a try, whether it’s talking over MMA fights and pro wrestling matches alone in your room (like I did) or recording boring let’s play videos or game replays that you then upload on YouTube for no one to watch, would know how hard it can be. You have to be able to talk fast, maintain high energy, and be both informative and entertaining at the same time. This is something I would like to get better at in 2022.

I’m only one of those things. I’m quite informative, but to the point of being boring as hell. I go off on tangents in conversations, get too hung up on small details, and leave people’s eyes glazed over. But I know I can be funny if I’m not trying to be informative, as I’ve seen from feedback on my occasional vlogs. It’s either I’m straight-laced or I’m a massive dick.

The challenge here is finding my voice by bringing these two sides of me together into one. I’ve gone through tons of ideas on how to do this. I created alter egos, tried different voices, came up with one-liners, and so on. I’m naturally a low energy guy who tends to mumble while the job requires high energy and snappy delivery. I’m being stretched to my limits here.

This is a look into commentary, that weird profession of describing things happening in front of spectators for the purpose of making a broadcast more informative and entertaining. It’s a job as old as sports on radio and TV, it’s not taught in schools, and it has been fairly harmful to my mental health. Despite that, I want to do it because it can be fun at times. But goddamn it, commentary is hard work.

One Man’s Commentary is Another Man’s Irritation

For me, the first step towards improvement is removing the mental block imposed by decades of conditioning. It’s the fear of saying something wrong, bad, or offensive. The anxiety that comes from the feedback loop of saying something slightly undesirable, followed by a flogging with a belt or a pulling of the hair is hard to overcome. However, if I’m to be able to live with myself and excel in this field I’m trying to break into, I have to remove from my brain that I can somehow say something that may be offensive.

Unless I blurt out something racist, sexist, homophobic, or so on, then I won’t have to worry about saying something I’d regret in my commentary. I’m a not-so-straight Chinese man with mostly progressive beliefs, so I don’t think I’m in any trouble of uttering anything that will have me abruptly canceled. However, thinking about it more, I realized that what I’m truly afraid of is saying something wrong. I care not for offending people; I care about always being right.

I remember when Minoru Suzuki wrestled a match in AEW and the play-by-play commentator Excalibur (likely) erroneously pointed out that Suzuki was a student of Billy Robinson from the Snake Pit in Lancashire, England. Suzuki is actually a protege of Karl Gotch; he must have been thinking of Kazushi Sakuraba. While there may be some crossover between the two catch wrestling masters, their training methods and philosophies do have differences.

As someone who is a stickler for details like that, I was annoyed by this oversight. However, it then made me think of being in that same position. Since I’m still small-time, I won’t have to worry about scrutiny from people all around the world like Excalibur likely experienced many times in his commentating career. However, that’s not really what scares me as it’s just part of the job. One man’s commentary is another man’s irritation, as I heard from a British cricket commentator on YouTube.

What irks me is how I’d beat myself up for my mistakes and lack of energy for weeks at a time after a show. Watching my work back once it has been finished can be an excruciating experience. For instance, in the most recent show we had, I miscalled a kick to the chest as a kick to the midsection. To be fair, I was calling the match from ringside and was adamant about doing it live, so I had to call what I could see. I don’t know if anyone caught that mistake, but I sure did. That’s going to sting for quite a while.

Esports Commentary is FUCKING HARD

Believe me, I’ve tried getting into it, and it fucking sucks for me. My brain is too slow for it and I’m not as interested in esports games as I am with martial arts and pro wrestling. Things happen so much faster in games than in fights, which is a fact that may blow the minds of casuals.

Yes, video games are faster than physical combat. Take that in, nerds.

My (more successful) counterpart in the Philippine pro wrestling scene is Poch Estrada, also known as PochSpice. I may be able to say that I’m the better ring announcer, but not so much the better commentator. I admitted he was superior within five seconds of listening to his Tekken commentary in Rev Major. He’s a better talker and he’s easier to listen to. Perhaps the only thing I have over him is my technical knowledge in pro wrestling and martial arts.

But maybe he also trains and actually knows more than I do. Who knows?

I say if you can cut it in esports, you’re a pretty good talker. I have my work cut out for me as I tried to do some esports commentary a decade ago and realized that I had no talent for it. But now that I’m needed in pro wrestling, I have to leverage my strengths and find a way to shore up my weaknesses. I regret not trying harder with esports and video game commentary in prior years.

I Refuse to Use the Broadcast Voice

I have the same opinion as Sajam. I hate that voice and I’ll likely mentally deteriorate if I end up using it for a living. While it’s great for enunciation, making yourself easy to understand, it sounds artificial and even annoying. If I ever use something like a broadcast voice, it’ll be my parody of the British TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson since I’m such a big fan of his. When used sparingly, I can mock seemingly important situations.

But the thing is that if I want to actually get good at this, then I’ll have to use that voice anyway if that really is the right thing to do, whether I like it or not. After all, it’s about what the audience wants, not what I want. The pro wrestling and combat sports commentator Mauro Ranallo does use that voice, which makes him stand out. Meanwhile, the combat sports commentator Michael Schiavello is a natural with his broadcast voice, so he doesn’t seem to have to force it.

The 4 S’s of Commentary

Situation, Strategy, Story, Spice

These are the 4 S’s of commentary I came up with one night when I was thinking about how to improve my own commentary after tons of practice. I took notes on my weaknesses and faults. Becoming a good commentator takes a lot of hard work and self-assessment, and I’ve been struggling for the most part.

My problem has always been getting tongue-tied in the middle of the action. I’m the type of person who has to think about what he has to say. I’m not one of those people who can seemingly talk for hours without pause.

That’s because of how my brain works. If it were a computer, you can say it has petabytes of storage, but runs on a Celeron processor and 1GB of RAM. I’m not that quick on my feet, but I tend to know a good bit about whatever I’m talking about.

The one thing that has enabled me to curtail most of my verbal weaknesses is preparation. I would prepare notes before every event, arranging them in bullet form and making them easy to glance at during each match.

Let’s go over these 4 S’s.

Situation is what’s happening at the moment. This is the play-by-play that most struggle with. The important thing to keep in mind is to pace yourself and call out what happens as economically as possible. This requires constant practice. Remember that it’s not analysis, so don’t overthink it when you’re doing play-by-play. Just call it as you see it at the moment.

Strategy is analyzing the game plan that each competitor may be utilizing to defeat the other. This is best done by commentators with a deep knowledge in that competitive field. If the commentator isn’t as knowledgeable, he may either consult his notes or defer to his partner (if he has any) to comment on what the competitors may be aiming for in the match.

Story is whatever events led to that matchup. This brings up the human side of competition. Talk about what led to this match, what each competitor had to go through to arrive at this moment, and the obstacles that could’ve kept it from happening. You may bring up the history of each competitor and whatever interactions they’ve had outside of competition.

This is a lot easier if the competitors have some sort of rivalry or feud. While the sport itself may be fun, it’s the story that makes people want to watch and root for either side. It’s what sells tickets and pay-per-views. It can be the most technically-significant game of all time, but it won’t even be a footnote without a story behind the competition.

Spice is anything optional that you can throw in to liven up the commentary and make it more entertaining. This is where the commentator can get a bit creative. It can either be a one-liner, analogy, anecdote, trivia, or anything else that you can bring up to let viewers learn a bit more about the match or the competitors.

Throwing in spice is a lot easier to do if you’re a heel commentator who can afford to talk some trash (without completely burying the competitors). This requires finesse in walking that fine line between tasteful humor and overt bias. Plenty of commentators fail in this, even the big ones. Good spice is entertaining; bad spice is annoying.

Purpose of the 4 S’s

I created the 4 S’s as a mental checklist. Whenever you get hung up, you can proceed to the next S to keep the momentum going. You also have the option of letting the action breathe, but you don’t want to leave too big a pause as it’ll get awkward. After a couple of seconds, proceed to the next S with a couple of sentences, then either keep going or move on to the next S.

The ratio between these 4 S’s for a play-by-play commentator is somewhere around 50-30-15-5. For half the time, you’re calling out the situation by doing play-by-play. The other half is for everything else.

But if something new is happening, you have to get back to talking about the situation right away. Your tangents have to be short, your descriptions have to be succinct, your language has to be simple, and your delivery has to be snappy and smooth at the same time.

As explained in the Core-A Gaming video above, it’s best not to use complicated words, which is no small feat when talking about video games or martial arts as it’s riddled with technical terminology that casual viewers may not know about.

My 2022 Goal as a Commentator

Seriously, this is the question I’ll be focusing on for most of 2022. I’ve been recently assigned as commissioner of Manila Wrestling Federation, one of the pro wrestling promotions here in the Philippines. I’m also a ring announcer and commentator for the company, so I have to do a lot of spontaneous talking. Also, I mean to do more streaming and content creation for the year, so I have to find out more than ever what goes into having a brain that’s good at public speaking.

It’s not the talking in front of people that scares me. In fact, I could take off my pants and piss at the audience if I really wanted to, and I wish I could. I have a certain disdain for audiences, especially in pro wrestling, who are fickle and incessantly annoying. I learned since 2017 that I personally shouldn’t read stuff regarding my work, preferring to hear it upfront instead due to my tendency to brood and stew for weeks at a time, which is not good for my mental health.

In fact, right now, as I write this, after the premiere of our first ever wrestling show in two years, I’m feeling slightly incensed at a fan who made a lengthy post on his thoughts on the show, which contained criticism regarding the rookies featured in the show that I had actually attempted to clarify in my commentary. It’s like my work falls on deaf ears. (Actually, this is just a small nuisance and it’s not something worth getting overly flustered with.)

But what I do feel really bad about is my commentary in that show. It’s fine, but it could be so much better. It was like the practice I put in during the past two years was in vain. Maybe I wasn’t consistent enough and that it didn’t consolidate well enough in preparation for this event. Maybe it really is more about talent and life experience, so practicing now is far too late. Maybe it’s not really practice that can help me, but finding what may be slowing my brain down and removing that to get things really going.

It’s time I really put thought and study into what makes people good at this stuff. Freestyle rappers, stand-up comedians, television presenters, vloggers, actors, sports broadcasters, and so on do this stuff for a living, and I want to get close to their level. While it may be too late for me to acquire the prodigious talents of the people I admire on television and the Internet, maybe I can get some of that rub I desperately need at this point.

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