The Legend of Dave Campbell and Rex Hudler who Accomplished the Impossible
The lone bright spot of sports commentary in gaming
I remember playing the NBA 2K15 with a friend the day the demo was released. A girl walked by the television and questioned if she was watching a real basketball game.
The graphics, presentation, physics engines, and gameplay of sports titles like NBA 2K, FIFA, Madden, and MLB: The Show, are a display of technological magnificence. The dedication to crafting the modern day sports simulation is single to none when it comes to the major developers including EA Sports, 2K, and SIE San Diego, who create the franchises listed above.
It’s a thankless job. Outside of the ridiculous amount of money to be made. Every year a new game is demanded with new features being clamored for and gamers complaining about every aspect of the games’ mechanics and design. I’m one of those complainers, within reason of course, but I like to see these games continue to get better.
Which leads me to Dave Campbell and Rex Hudler, two of the most significant figures in sports gaming. The two former baseball players turned broadcasters, along with FOX Sports broadcaster Matt Vasgersian, accomplished what no other sports title had done before.
MLB: The Show created the most realistic and entertaining form of a sports broadcast through commentary.
To provide you with some perspective on my sports gaming background, I’ve played: Madden, FIFA, NBA 2K, MLB: The Show, NHL, MLB 2K, NASCAR, Tiger Woods golf, WWE 2K, NCAA Football. All of these sports franchises have had announcers with the exception of NASCAR.
In MLB: The Show 10, the three man booth of Vasgersian as play by play, and Hudler and Campbell as color commentary, was the closest a video game has ever gotten to resembling an actual broadcast announce team. I can only imagine the countless hours and time put forth into research, writing, recording, and the eventual cost of that work. But thank God for SIE San Diego, because it was worth it.
I put a lot of hours into MLB: The Show 10 and heard just about every call imaginable. Yet I would still wager there’s a couple commentary pieces I haven’t heard yet. The depth of the commentary is impressive, which is the immediate downfall of commentary in the other sports titles.
The MLB: The Show series began in 2006. The three man booth of Vasgersian, Hudler, and Campbell ran until 2011. Hudler was replaced by Eric Karros in 2012, and Campbell replaced in 2013 by Steve Lyons. Vasgersian is still the voice of the series and probably will be until the end of time.
When I got a copy of MLB: The Show 14, the first thing I noticed was the disappearance of Hudler and Campbell. Vasgersian’s voice remained, but a lot of the calls he made were either the same or similar to the script of the 2010 game. Ultimately, I found the 2014 commentary added very little to my playing experience.
There’s so much to worry about in the production phase of a major sports title: the physics engine, the graphics, the game modes, the online experience, creating some random bullshit mode where you compile random players for no reason, et cetera, et cetera, and more et cetera.
A sports sim broadcast seems to go from set piece to set piece. Here’s the same couple pre-game shots and generic pre-game commentary. Here’s the halftime replay section. More replays and generic commentary for the post-game. It’s an arduous process that no gamer dares sit through more than twice.
Now I’m not going to worship The Show ’10 as if nailed every single aspect, but it’s worth rewarding the awareness of SIE Studio that the way the game is presented from a broadcast standpoint really does matter.
Especially in baseball, commentary is an essential part of the broadcast. There’s a lot of lulls in baseball. Broadcasters turn into adept storytellers, filling the dead time with life.
Consider John Madden’s Madden series. This is what John Madden had to say to Grantland writer Tom Bissell about doing commentary recording sessions, “the most difficult part of any part that I’ve ever had in the game and the least amount of fun.”
The commentary for Madden has never been good. You can argue that the recent two years of bringing in Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis has been okay because they update the commentary week to week, but the commentary I’ve heard has all been vanilla.
Most sports games have vanilla commentary. Enter Hudler, Campbell, and even Vasgersian who all have moments of criticizing players in-game. It’s not a direct assault like, “Why can’t Ubaldo Jiminez throw the ball over the plate?” Instead, the commentary team make indirect comments that criticize performance whether it be the player or the computer. It mirrors real life.
Hudler and Campbell will absolutely lambaste a player who’s swinging at wild pitches. A pitcher who can’t find the strike zone, he get’s called out. Taking a bunch of check swings, expect a harsh reaction.
Hudler and Campbell also note game situations which other sports franchises don’t often have in their commentary. If a player is nearing the cycle or a no-hitter, there will eventually be a comment on it. A career milestone? There’s commentary and graphics to boot. The game always keeps you informed whenever something special may occur.
Hudler and Campbell also help teach the player in the game, which I believe is the most ingenious part of their commentary. Hudler and Campbell make the player aware of situational baseball settings sometimes before or after the fact.
Let’s say there’s a player on second with one out. The goal of the batter is to move the player on second to third or home if he can get a hit. Hudler and Campbell talk about this situation during the game not only from the batter’s perspective, but the pitcher’s as well. The pitcher will throw certain pitches to force the batter to hit a ball toward the shortstop to hinder the runner from advancing. The batter will attempt to send the pitch toward the right side of the field to move the runner.
Hudler and Campbell teach you the game while you’re playing. It’s so subtle and well executed that you wouldn’t notice until you recognize yourself employing actual baseball strategy to in game situations.
MLB: The Show 10’s commentary is incredible and every other sports franchise PALES in comparison. NBA 2K, which puts in the most commentary effort to its product, doesn’t have these nuances where commentators can effectively critique the game. I’ve never known Madden, FIFA, NHL, and PGA Tour to be anything but a disaster, because EA Sports loves being 5 years behind 2K.
A new PGA Tour Golf game is the sports franchise that could heavily invest in great commentary because of the pace of play and strategy behind every golf shot. That being said, there hasn’t been a golf game released since Rory McIlroy PGA Tour 2015.
Let me also mention that MLB: The Show 10 is a very good baseball game, so the commentary enhances the finished product. When I got MLB: The Show 14, the game is still very good, and I liked it.
But because of the trio of Matt Vasgersian, Rex Hudler, and Dave Campbell, I loved MLB: The Show 10. The game is a model for all sports franchises that presentation matters, and it’s not just fancy graphics engines or Shaquille O’Neal doing a half-baked pre-game show.