Video Game Play-By-Play Comes With A Deadly Challenge

How many ways can you say one player killed another?

In competitive rounds of the first-person shooter "Counter-Strike," video game announcer Jeffrey Dickinson literally calls the shots.

He describes the gunfire, the bombs, grenades and skirmishes. He calls out each team's "strats" and comments on each player's moves. And he keeps things fresh by consulting a list, attached to his monitor, of synonyms for the word "killed."

"Demolished, destroyed, annihilated, defaced," Dickinson rattled off when asked to offer the list's highlights. He said sometimes his colleagues neglect to use the most obvious words. "No one says 'kill.' "

" 'Obliterating' is one of my favorites," announcer Alison Suttles said, "for rockets to the body."

Dickinson, 18, and Suttles, 30, are shoutcasters, the term used for those who provide play-by-play for online and in-person video game competitions. Shoutcasters lay it all out for the fans, breaking down the action and shouting lines such as "Here's the bomb ticking!" "He's going for that defuse!" "Look at the freak grenade kill!" They strive for the day when the most famous announcer associated with the PC and PlayStation won't be John Madden.

Suttles and Dickinson were in New York with two other members of RadioITG, one of the leading English-language shoutcasting groups and the official announcing team for this weekend's World Cyber Games U.S. finals. The weekend's tournament will thin a pool of about 184 gamers skilled in "Halo," "Counter-Strike" and half a dozen other games to 16 who will go on to compete in the world finals in Singapore. A publicist for WCG said about 40,000 gamers had competed in local and online tournaments leading up to the New York event.

The RadioITG announcers will cover the WCG tournament from the event floor, but they do most of their announcing online, hooking their computers up to matches waged between distant competitors tethered by Internet connections. Sneaky players will listen in on the commentary, trying to get an edge on finding out enemy players' hidden locations, but transmission lag often renders that kind of cheating useless. The intended audience for shoutcasting is game fans who can't see the games for themselves and want a sports-style broadcast experience. More than 30,000 people listened to RadioITG's shoutcast of last year's WCG world finals, the group said.

"We bring the games to the people, on a level they can understand," said Darryl Kucmerowski, 27, who specialized in calling "Counter-Strike" matches for RadioITG.

Shoutcasters don't just announce the action. They do pre-game and post-game shows and play music during lulls between rounds. They're challenged not just by finding new ways to say "kill" but by figuring out how much to say. "That's the problem a lot of 'casters face: what you filter out," Dickinson said. "I just overcome that by saying everything." Dickinson is one of RadioITG's speediest talkers. "My style is getting really excited and loud and talking really fast."

Video game play-by-play isn't lucrative work. Shoutcasters like Suttles keep day jobs and don't draw a salary for their video game work. And they work a lot of hours. In his first year at RadioITG, Kucmerowski, who does warehouse work by day, estimated that he shoutcasted more than 200 matches. "There was a time when I probably devoted four to five hours a day," he said.

Dickinson said he's kept a four-match-a-week pace. Each match can require three hours of preparation and actual recording. But at 18 he's been able to make time. He said he just deferred his first semester of college after getting invited by a Korean gaming group to shoutcast for seven weeks in Asia.

Shoutcasting has been around at least since the late '90s, according to RadioITG producer Jonathan "Wyatt" Hebert, 20, when the Web Sports Broadcast Network began featuring the video game play-by-play of someone known as Suicide Taxi (shoutcasters tend to use handles; Suttles is "Trillian," Dickinson is "Smeagol"). The software that early announcers most commonly used is called SHOUTcast, which led to the shoutcaster term.

Suttles discovered the scene in 2003. "I went to a convention and saw people doing commentary and thought, 'OK, I'm going to do that,' " Suttles said. That revelation set her on a path to being one of the few female announcers describing the fragging in matches of "Quake III." She got a little help from a couple of experienced announcers, something she attributes to "the female factor," but was thrown to the wolves early when she was called in to relieve two tired shoutcasters from a three-hour marathon match. Her first time out, she bombed. But soon she found her groove.

While none of the Radio ITG announcers have had training in pro sports, they said doing play-by-play for games follows models laid out by the major team games. Suicide Taxi's announcing most closely resembled that of a hockey announcer, according to Hebert, quickly chronicling back-and-forth action.

" 'Counter-Strike' would be like football, because you're running plays, essentially, and trying to quote unquote score a touchdown," Kucmerowski said. Dickinson said a slower-paced, start-and-stop strategy game like "World of Warcraft" might be announced like a baseball game.

The RadioITG group recommended that curious gamers who think they might have a feel for games commentary — and don't mind the lack of income — give it a try. But they warned it can lead to a habit of spontaneously providing commentary at the most unexpected moments.

"I have a recording of me commentating washing dishes," Suttles said.

"I'll just be walking down the street and I'll commentate a bird flying by," Kucmerowski said. "I do it all the time. My girlfriend hates it."

Check out www.RadioITG.com for links to the group's shoutcasts.