Everybody loves and hates talking about commentary. Along with rectangle controllers, gameplay modifications, rule set discussions, and Hungrybox, commentary is one of the most high engagement topics you can find on Smash social media. For a long time, I dreaded seeing it come up, even when seeing my friends talk about it in private. Therefore, I’d like to throw my hat in the ring and add to an already saturated discussion. Today’s column is dedicated to commentary.
Don’t leave! I promise this will be infinitely less irritating to read than whatever you’ve read on Twitter. Instead of sifting through posts about how Commentator A isn’t funny, or how Commentator B is inadequately analytical, or how Commentator C is too meme-heavy, you’ll be reading my personal opinion on what makes for great commentary. That’s right. I, the author of a weekly Melee vent space, am going to be positive, rather than negative.
This is obviously a subjective topic, and by no means all-encompassing, but I’ve come up with five elements of strong casting, as well as one commentator that I’d like to highlight for each element. After that, I’ll reveal my pick for best commentator of the year, how they excel in all five elements, and the secret power that they have which separates them from everyone else.
One final note before I continue: if you are a commentator and you notice that I have not included your name in this column, please do not rage in my DMs about it. I am friends with many of you and think you’re all great in different ways. If I don’t, I wouldn’t shy away from telling you if you asked me directly. Again – this is just my opinion.
Element 1: Chemistry with Partner and the Audience
When we talk about great commentators, one of the first topics to come up with is chemistry with co-commentators. Does this person make this other person feel comfortable? Is it detectable by the audience? Does this person balance their commitment to their co-caster and their audience well?
It’s a lot to think about. If you’re too palatable towards your audience, you come off as fake. On the other hand, if you’re a little too familiar with your partner, you run the risk of your audience muting the stream. The best person at balancing the relationship with co-caster and viewer, as well as maintaining chemistry with both is Phil.
Truthfully speaking, you don’t have to look at a 2022 set to see this in action. From 2009, when he’d often play the support role to HomeMadeWaffles, Phil has always been unusually smooth. In the set above, I want you to take note of how comfortable he rolls with the punches. The first minute, when Toph sets up Wheat to say a few words about top eight results, Phil instantly mimics Toph using his hands to react to something Wheat says. He then picks up on the rhythm of Wheat’s narration and starts engaging with what he’s saying before the match. Phil does this, by the way, while not significantly interrupting Toph or Wheat, as well as not isolating the audience.
Vibing with Toph is expected, as the two have been premier commentators for a long time, often with each other. What’s more surprising is how Phil immediately picks up on the communication style of Wheat, a newcomer to the commentary metagame this year. Few commentators do that as effortlessly as Phil. I would go as far as to say that if this column were about greatest commentators of all-time instead of 2022, Phil would be my pick – primarily for this trait.
Element 2: Telling A Story With What’s On Screen
You’d think this would be obvious. All commentators have to tell the story of a match. They do it by setting up the players and commenting on what’s happening on the screen. Surprisingly, a lot of commentators don’t do this, though it’s not always terrible. In some cases, it’s actually preferable to get the viewer interested through some other means, be it a farfetched anime reference or 999 IQ galaxy brain question, than it is to hear a commentator say, “yeah Zain could have down-aired there instead.”
Nonetheless, these two things make for telling a story: an integral part of casting and one that I’d argue that people should err toward doing rather than not doing. My favorite example of storytelling during a set in 2022 didn’t come from Scar at a major. It came from Chroma at a regional.
There’s magnitudes of ridiculousness to Chroma’s storytelling prowess. “We got SWOOPER back on regular controller and here to murder everyone,” already tells the audience two things: the Samus player they’re watching on stream tried playing on another controller (and presumably failed) and he’s all business against literal iBDW, someone they’re all familiar with. Chroma follows it up with “This is a Samus that confuses and perplexes me, but sees untold success,” which naturally escalates what was brought up before and concisely sets up what they can come to expect from this set.
As the set continues, the theme of “this guy plays weird, does stuff that shouldn’t work and somehow wins,” comes into fruition. When TheSWOOPER starts playing around iBDW on the ledge to success after Game 1, Chroma directly calls back to what he already brought up as something to follow in the set. One of my favorite lines is when he explains Samus fair from ledge in the following terms: “So everyone’s like, ‘yeah you just hold down,’ but, like, in tournament, something weird happens and then now you’re getting three-stocked.” It’s a universal experience that the viewers, co-commentators, and one of the players on screen are now thinking in line with each other.
Element 3: Humanizing The Players
Radar is an interesting fellow. In spite of having questionable opinions on topics like fruit tier lists, something he does well is set up stakes for each player. During sets, he’ll go beyond just briefly recapping how a player’s been lately performing. He usually brings up something that he asked a player the day before and what their response was. It’s frequently along the lines of what their goal is heading into a set and what they’re hoping to accomplish by the end of the day. His research shows and it’s not too detached.
It sounds small, and yet these kinds of contributions give viewers a reason to care even during downtime, as well as the context of what a potential result could mean for the people on the screen. Watching his GOML 2022 block with turndownforwalt, it would be easy to point out his setup of the iBDW-Hungrybox rivalry and its ending as the most classic viral moment. I’ll get to that later.
For now, what really stands out is Radar’s showing during the Moky-Joshman set. In the re-played Game 1, Radar brings up a specific example of what Joshman says he’s looking for in the Fox ditto – specifically baiting the opponent into whiffing a grab – and it’s immediately followed by that exact sequence. The next game, he reminds the audience of the fact that GOML is Joshman’s last performance in North America before he returns to Australia, adding emotional stakes to one of the people on screen.
There’s one final thing with Radar that I want to mention, since it received mixed feedback: his acknowledgement that moky is occasionally held back by mentality issues. The idea that this crosses some kind of line is bullshit. Worse yet, it infantilizes moky. It’s abundantly clear during this block how much respect Radar has for him as a competitor. Furthermore, it’s just true that moky deeply cares about Melee, is dealing with the pressure of playing in front of his home crowd, and that he often tilts. You cannot compellingly cast a set without honesty and without acknowledging the humanity of your players.
Element 4: Knowing When To Speak
One of the most important things a good commentator can do is cut out all of the obvious “don’ts.” These include saying wrong things about what’s happening on screen, interrupting your co-commentator, making an unfunny joke, artificially inflating (or deflating) the vibe of a match, ranting about something that’s not of high value to the viewer, and generally being annoying. These are minimized when you know when to speak and when to shut up.
I’ll be honest, most commentators, including strong ones, are actually pretty bad at this. When they awkwardly interrupt their partner, they run the risk of either having to over-correct or make their co-caster feel uncomfortable. When it comes to knowing when to speak, when to shut up, and how to handle the gray areas involved in these skills, Toph is unusually good.
There’s approximately 99 pitfalls during the above set that most commentators would have fallen into. While HomeMadeWaffles is setting up a storyline behind the Fox-Sheik matchup, Toph could have easily interjected him. Many commentators would have interrupted their partner to yell “oh my GOD” at a sick clip, even though it was early in the set. Toph did not.
The more deliberate your contributions are in commentary, the less likely it is that you’ll impulsively say something that detracts from the viewer experience. The byproduct is that when you actually say something, your audience is more likely to listen to you. There’s not a single match of Melee with Toph on commentary where I don’t want to hear what he has to say. No commentator is free from making mistakes. All of them have situations where they awkwardly figure out when they can talk, make inappropriate analogies, and try to revive bad bits. Even Toph has them. It’s just pretty rare.
Element 5: Meeting The Moment
Play-by-play has its pros and cons. To start off with the negatives, it’s often dry. When you do play-by-play, you run the risk of limiting your commentary partner to the match itself or what they’re thinking, irrespective of what you’re saying. If what you say doesn’t match the gameplay, the audience can quickly tell. Bad play-by-play is the most lifeless or insincere form of commentary. If you’ve heard it, you’ll know.
You might even think, like I did, that play-by-play is the “easy” approach to commentary because it’s the most straightforward. Now, I’ve changed my mind. Good play-by-play requires a crazy amount of restraint and an ability to appropriately meet the moment. Let’s take a look at how Walt does it.
When there’s a lull in the gameplay, Walt matches it, never underplaying what happens. When something exciting occurs, how he reacts is how I imagine an average viewer would react to it – thrilled, and yet he’s still attentive to how the rest of the set will play out. Most impressively, he never positions himself above the match. His reaction never, not even for a second, distracts you from the game flow. In a sense, it’s a very ‘professional’ approach, but it’s not soulless.
Traditionally, play-by-play shines the most during “hype” climaxes of sets. Walt’s best decision during Hungrybox-iBDW’s ending comes in two parts. First, he does a usual “AND THAT’S GONNA DO IT!” call. He then does something that I think so many commentators would have not done – recognize the situation. iBDW begins his immortal reverse pop-off. The whole venue, and the audience watching from home, for that matter, is pulled into the Twilight Zone. Walt’s voice is nowhere to be heard. You hear the player mics pick up the most awkward, unfiltered, unhinged stream moment of the year.
A bad commentator would have lifelessly repeated the surreal sequence of events – or worse, make it all about their reaction. Walt is not a bad commentator. He deliberately holds himself back, processing everything in real-time. Then, after not saying a damn thing for what feels like forever – even when Radar briefly goads him – Walt responds, “we’re gonna get that one on a clip, right?”
The Best Commentator (and his secret strength)
I’ve mentioned five commentators whom I see as strong examples for the aspects of casting that I’ve analyzed today. If you remember though, I promised that I was going to reveal my choice for best commentator in the scene. It’s Vish.
This set – funnily enough, the best set of the year so far – features Vish at his A-game. He seamlessly matches Chillin’s energy as his support guy for most of this set, taking the lead when he needs to and correctly pointing out what mixups and decisions on the screen the audience should be looking out for, getting Chillin to join in as well. He doesn’t dive into the details behind Zain vs. iBDW like he may be tempted to, but he doesn’t let the head-to-head count tell the full story either.
Instead, he confirms the head-to-head and tells the audience the story behind the numbers. Vish positions Zain and iBDW as two members of the “new” generation of top Melee players, the latter who was frequently big-dogged by the former until finally overcoming him in their most recent set. It suggests that what viewers are watching is a set that exists in a relative crossroads within a rivalry that previously seemed pre-determined. Not only is this a good story – it’s true, and Vish earns trust with his audience.
Vish’s analysis throughout the set also shines. He correctly pinpoints the decisions that the players are making, along with their adaptations. Yet rather than dominating the mic he picks his spots carefully, letting Chillin shine and never getting in the way. You see the two best friends’ years of commentary experience and it never feels like they’re saying empty words. It’s the best tournament gameplay Melee has to offer, casted by two guys who immediately know it, share it with the audience, and never take anything away from it.
Truthfully speaking, this quality of commentary has come in every major block that Vish has had this year, from both himself and his partner. He fits with everyone you give him, picking up on their communication style and what interests them. He’s able to pinpoint what’s happening in the game and quickly tell that to an audience without lecturing them. He talks about the players behind the televisions and gets you to care about them with a mix of personal anecdotes and clear research on them, as well as how they play the game.
I thought for a long time about what makes Vish different. What could propel someone to be so outstanding among a strong field? Initially, I thought it was the commentary head-to-heads and notes he paid me to give him. I think I actually know what it is though. It’s not just hard work; that can lead to commentary being clinical. It’s not even passion; that unchecked can lead to commentary that distracts you from gameplay. It’s the secret key to great commentary: warmth.
Above everything else, a commentator is a welcoming face and voice for the audience. They tell you why you should care about what you’re watching without lecturing you. They never act above the game and they don’t inflate its importance either. A strong caster doesn’t act too familiar with their audience – just enough to where the viewer feels welcome; a sense of non-intrusive familiarity; inclusion; like they belong.
Melee has many great casters. It only has one Vish. He’s the best in the game right now – the king of Melee commentary in 2022.
POST-PUBLISH NOTE: If you are an aspiring commentator who wants additional resources for being as great of a caster as Vish, do what he did – subscribe to the Melee Stats Patreon or hit me up. We’ll work something out.