I have always been a fan of classic Play by Play (PBP) and Color commentary since the roles lend themselves so well to the clarity of the story. When the PBP caster is talking, it’s a signal that important action is ongoing, so it’s a good time to pay attention to the screen. Conversely, when the Color caster is talking, it’s a good time to take a breath and understand the takeaways and key factors moving forward. This continues to be the only commentary style across traditional sports in the US (I can’t speak specifically to commentary elsewhere).
So as could be expected, the first time hearing Hybrid Pairing commentary in Overwatch was both confusing and jarring. Why were both people doing Play by Play? And now one person is doing Color? How do they decide who should talk when? I had a tough time following the storyline, always felt the hype was at the max, and generally didn’t enjoy it.
That is until the Overwatch World Cup group stage in Sydney from July 22–24. Thanks to the masterclass by UberShouts and ZP, I’m convinced that it can be just as entertaining, clear, and informative as traditional Play by Play and Color commentary.
What do casters even do, and how do they achieve it?
For the discussion here, I want to define the role of a caster as follows:
- Communicate what is actually important
- Justify why the what is important
- Do so in an entertaining manner
And they achieve this with three components:
- a clear storyline
- vocal energy that is consistent with the story
- spoken word that enhances understanding
Below I’ll compare and contrast how UberShouts + ZP and Doa + MonteCristo address these components above with Hybrid Pairing and Play by Play/Color respectively. Through this, we can see how both styles can be used by casters for Overwatch.
Part 1: Who says what? Communicating the storyline
As with any engaging story, there is an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution, also known as Freytag’s Pyramid. For traditional commentary this manages itself very logically — Color should set up the exposition and lead into the rising action. PBP takes over in the rising action, climax, and hands back off to the Color commentator sometime in the falling action. Color concludes with the falling action into the resolution.
The challenge with fast-paced esports titles like Overwatch is your storyline is more like this:
Fights can go for so long that it can be exhausting for both the caster and audience if the rising action and climax seem to continue endlessly. To handle this, the casting methodology must be used strategically. Below we can see how both casting duos craft the right storyline.
Story Line with Play by Play and Color
Listening to this extended team fight, you can hear these distinct sections:
- Doa (PBP) 0:00 — Doa talks through the action of three ultimates (rising action) which do not finalize kills (rising action continues). Then when Nisa triggers transcendence (climax), he hands off to Monte
- Monte (Color) 0:22 — Monte takes the handoff and discusses how the delayed support ultimates for both sides resets the fight and hands it back (exposition)
- Doa (PBP) 0:31 — Doa discusses the opportunity for the Link on the upper ground (rising action), but hands off after he is chased away by the Kiler4Fun (climax)
- Monte (Color) 0:43 — As the fight is clearly over, Monte discusses why Portugal was able to hold by using their ultimate advantage (resolution). Monte immediately follows up saying Italy has put themselves in a good position for the next push (exposition of next fight)
Doa, by handing off, is signaling that he believes it is a good time for Monte to discuss resolution or exposition. When Monte hands off, it is because the exposition has turned into rising action. Due to their clear roles, team fights can be discussed seamlessly since a handoff also communicates the interpretation of the stage of the fight.
Story Line with Hybrid Pairing
Similarly, ZP and UberShouts also use handoffs at specific stages of fights. However, the difference is that there is no pre-defined role, so handoffs can happen in a more flexible manner. Handoffs happen every time something important has just ended or just started. This allows the flexibility to draw attention to specific points even within one teamfight.
- UberShouts (PBP) 0:00 — Talks through Linkzr’s back capture attempt (rising action) Linkzr is killed (climax), and leads into describing Spain’s positioning (handoff with falling action)
- ZP (Color) 0:09 — Describes how Taimou had to retreat during the tactical visor despite Spain’s positioning (resolution)
- UberShouts (Color) 0:24 — Brings up the success that Finland did have with the back capture (resolution) but suddenly hands off as the sound barrier from Finland initiates the fight (handoff with rising action)
- ZP (PBP) 0:33 — Talks through Taimou’s flank looking for targets (rising action), when Toxiken’s defensive dragonblade is activated into the strong attacking team yet still finds a kill onto the D.Va (rising action) as Taimou finally is killed by Bromas, ending the offensive push (climax into handoff with falling action)
- UberShouts (Color) 0:48 — Describes how Finland couldn’t handle Dhak and Bromas in their back line (resolution)
As I mentioned at the start, it is the job of the casters to communicate what is actually important to the audience. The above illustrates how handoffs used as a tool to signal the beginning or end of something important. In a VOD review of his OWWC casting, UberShouts describes how he and ZP take “very small bites” out of fights given the style (here’s the clip to which UberShouts is referring). Compare this to how PBP and Color are traditionally meant to handoff at a specific stage of the storyline. Given the variability in the complexity of team fights in Overwatch versus other titles (especially MOBAs) Hybrid Pairing is the most straightforward technique to fit whatever happens.
For a seamless storyline between the casters, both must interpret the same moments as important. If not, both the storyline and handoffs will not be continuous.
Despite how quickly the action is moving, ZP and UberShouts are identifying the same key moments. Listen for the seamless storyline continue through the handoffs. For this to occur, the person receiving the handoff must see the team fight in the same way, anticipate the handoff, and jump in at the right moment. Jump in too early and you cut off the last person — too late and it’s an awkward pause. Caster synergy is especially critical in Hybrid Pairing versus PBP and color.