The Art of Calling an Unseen GameS

The scene is familiar: Midway through the first period of an NHL game, and the shot knots up the score. Randy Hahn considers the action for a split-second and leans into his microphone.

"The Sharks have come right back and tied this one up," says the television voice of San Jose hockey. "That goal is a real refresher - you get down early, but you've come right back and tied it up here in the first period."

It's 2:30 p.m., Aug. 20 in Novato, Calif. San Jose's next game will be 28 days and 400 miles away, in Los Angeles. Hahn is familiar to South Bay fans through his work on Comcast Sports Net. But he's in the North Bay today as the play-by-play man for NHL 2K10, cutting some final audio for the game before its Sept. 15 release.

It's a job Hahn could do with his eyes closed, and not because it's easy. It isn't. It's because there's no action for him to, as the sports cliché goes, call like he sees it. Conditioned by 30 years of broadcasting experience to follow the puck and react to what happens to it, Hahn's in a recording booth, facing a script and trying to imagine the game his next line will describe.

"It's hard to duplicate the adrenaline that you get at a live arena," admits Hahn, who joined 2K Sports' NHL franchise last year. "And when you're in the process of doing it here [in the studio], that's when you need to draw on your imagination and visualization, putting yourself in the moment. That's challenging."

Of the major sports video games, Hahn is one of the newer play-by-play announcers., beginning with last year's NHL 2K9. (NBA 2K10 has had a consistent turnover in its announcing crew; NBC's Tom Hammond also joined EA Sports' Madden last year.) 2K Sports brought Hahn in last year in a creative shift that had as much to do with Hahn's talent as his proximity to the studio. Being just an hour away allows for richer dialogue through a longer recording cycle, and re-recordings when necessary.

But starting over with a new announcer is still a considerable investment, as the entire library of player names and phrases, usually repeated with varying emphasis, must be recorded. Hahn said this took 120 hours last year, with recording sessions from February through June - right as the Sharks were sewing up the NHL's Pacific Division and entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The gig is at once the most optimal and the least optimal a sports announcer could imagine, according to Hahn, who in December will call his 1,000th game for the Sharks. "You literally are calling it from the standpoint of being inside the game," Hahn said. "That never happens in a real live situation. There's distance between us and the ice, and that's what's confusing for a TV viewer. As a play-by-play guy, I can't call a game off a TV monitor. But sometimes the video will more clearly show what happened, and the viewer wonders why I'm not calling that." Here, his call won't miss the action because it's all on a script.

The Art of Calling an Unseen GameS

Still, there's a repetitiveness, and a constant need to be in character that can create considerable fatigue. This year was nothing like last year, Hahn said. He spent about 30 hours in the booth for NHL 2K10, and most of that was adding names of new players. In 2008, his recording time was four times as long.

The key to the process, Hahn said, is a good audio director and a strict schedule. Rick Jackson is NHL 2K's audio director, and he would hold Hahn to five hours a day. It's about as long an announcer can go before he starts losing his edge, Hahn said - even though some days he wanted to keep going. When Hahn came back for the next session, Jackson would have Hahn warm up watching play sequences from the video game, and improvisationally calling the action as though he were doing it for a live game.

Then it was on to work. His session began with saying all 30 NHL teams - Sharks, Bruins, Leafs, Red Wings, etc. Then he'd say all 30 NHL cities - San Jose, Boston, Toronto, Detroit. Then he'd say them with a stronger inflection. Then he'd say them with an even stronger inflection.

"In the middle there, especially when you're alone, you just have to go through the work of getting through all the names and phrases, all of them said in varying intensity," Hahn said. "You want different levels of intensity, for the regular season, for the playoffs, and then a separate level for the [Stanley Cup] Finals. They all have to be incorporated. Believe it or not, physically, it drains you. You go home and you need an hour or two to decompress."

As the script moved into calling the action, Hahn settled into a pattern. If he was referring to a team, Boston, or the Bruins, became the placeholder name - not his Sharks. But if he was describing an individual player's action, the guy's name was always Thornton - as in San Jose's all-star center, Joe Thornton. "Because he's the man," Hahn said.

Other days, Hahn's booth partner in real life, color analyst Drew Remenda, would be in the studio as the two worked on their in-game interaction. ("There's a mode in the game where, if you pause it [for a long time] it goes into a mode where we take viewer mail, allegedly sent in," Hahn said. "We had a lot of fun with that.")

And finally, even though Hahn worked from a script the entire time, he said he was given complete freedom to change up lines or ad lib to create a call that was more natural. He also credits the game's writers for giving him a deep enough catalogue of lines. "You really have to play the game, several times in a row, using the same team or the same players in the same arena, to start hearing enough repetition that you say, ‘These announcers are making me sick.'" Hahn said. "That's always a concern with these games."

Hahn isn't a video game rookie. He was the voice of Konami's Blades of Steel 99 for the Nintendo 64 and original PlayStation, and can still recite the technical details of the undertaking. "We had to record separately for the Nintendo 64, and then more elaborately for the PlayStation," Hahn said, "yet even that took only five days total for both formats. It was not even half the dialogue for this game.

The Art of Calling an Unseen GameS

"This was a far more daunting project," he said. "When you start, it's really exciting - you're going to do a video game, which from my standpoint, the No. 1 lure of it is you'll be a hero in some teenager's eyes because you're in a video game."

The fantasy isn't lived by just the video game's players. Hahn was part of the committee that brought the NHL to San Jose back in the early 1990s, so it's fair to say he's keenly, personally interested in seeing the team win a Stanley Cup some day. But when it happens, he won't be the one calling the moment. He's a TV announcer, and the Cup finals will inevitably be broadcast on some network other than his employer's.

But in NHL 2K10, Hahn's already had the moment he - and 29 other hometown announcers - dream of.

"I have to do it for all 30 teams," Hahn said, "I absolutely had to do that, and the players have this jinx where they can't touch the Stanley Cup unless they win it, they can't talk about it. But I didn't feel like it was a jinx if I said, ‘And the San Jose Sharks have won the Stanley Cup!'"

Hahn's work on NHL 2K10 was more or less complete last Thursday. He recorded three he-shoots-he-scores calls - "That last one was Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals," he said - some interstitial dialogue, and several radio ads, some for Canada, some for the U.S. He rolled through multiple takes, shaving words and seconds off each read with a pro touch. But he still goofed around to keep the mood light, spoofing a John Facenda NFL Films voice to describe on-ice injuries.

"Enhanced 1:1 responsiveness," Hahn said, touting the Wii Motion Plus version of the game. "I don't even know what that means."

Having finished all the scripts, Hahn still had one more recording left before he could call it a day - or in the game's case, a year.

"This is Randy Hahn, voice of NHL 2K10," he says, "Thank you for calling 2K! To reach the name directory, press pound ..."

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 10 a.m. U.S. Mountain time.