Madden Taps Gus Johnson for Video Games' Top Play-by-Play JobS

In a madcap dash covering the last seconds of 2009's first Sunday of football, the Denver Broncos won their game, Gus Johnson lost his mind, and Madden NFL 11 found its voice.

Today, Johnson, the exciting and excitable CBS sportscaster, officially became the fourth play-by-play man to hold sports gaming's top booth job. Teased at the end of this video a month ago, Johnson's hiring is hardly a shocker, and neither are EA Sports' reasons for grabbing him. After nearly 20 years of often sedate, always straightforward calls by the likes of Pat Summerall and Al Michaels, Madden badly needed the kind of high-five-yourself enthusiasm Johnson imposes on a game.

"Coming out of Madden 10 one of the biggest criticisms was the audio presentation," said Ronnie Morales, an audio designer with EA Sports Tiburon, the studio behind the game. "We felt the game lacked the energy it deserved. Football is a dramatic sport."

Indeed, and Tom Hammond - the play-by-play man of Madden 09 and 10 - isn't as iconic an voice as Michaels or Summerall to make a conservative playcall sound much more than boring, which, to be purely honest, he was.

"For a sports video game, that's not going to work. If you're running the ball, you know where you're at on the field," Morales said. "You want to hear that you just smoked a dude, you juked him, you're going all the way to the end zone."

So Morales and the Madden team batted around candidates almost immediately after Madden 10 hit the street late last summer, and Johnson instantly solidified his front-runner status.

In Cincinnati during the NFL's first week, Denver receiver Brandon Stokley plucked a deflected Kyle Orton pass and motored 87 yards for an impossible game-winning touchdown with 11 seconds left. It was - take a deep breath - the longest game-winning play from scrimmage in the final minute of the fourth quarter in NFL history.

But 90 yards on the final play happens all the time in Madden, to a narrative that usually treated it like an everyday occurrence, too. Johnson's volcanic reaction was exactly what the development team wanted gamers to hear every time they pull it off.

"He was No. 1 on our list of about three or four guys," Morales recalled. "That Monday morning back in the office, I saw Ian [Cummings, the game's creative director] and said, ‘I know you saw that game.' He said, ‘Dude, it's done.' If there were any doubts before, there weren't after that game."

Still, getting their man in the game wasn't as simple as placing a phone call to Johnson - who already had a relationship with EA Sports as one of two announcers on NCAA Basketball 10. Morales and the audio team went to work engineering a proprietary marker system for Madden 11 in which the game will examine a play as it materializes and cue up commentary from Johnson that is as emotionally accurate as it is factually so.

"There was a big middle-of-the-play focus, and a focus on open field progression, in audio this year," Morales said.

Madden Taps Gus Johnson for Video Games' Top Play-by-Play JobS

Giving an example two weeks ago at Electronic Arts' Redwood Shores headquarters, Morales ran the same play - a touchdown return by LenDale White of Tennessee (now Seattle) - to show the difference. Madden NFL 10's play-by-play voice, Tom Hammond, called out the yardage as White ran it off and little more, his voice brightening throughout the play but never exciting.

"It's true," shrugged Morales. "Very factual call."

Then came a prototype with Johnson behind the mike. As White slipped into the open field, Johnson seemed to pick up on it, calling out that White had daylight all around him. White then chugged away from pursuit, with Johnson calling out the defender left to beat, and once he was beyond any pursuit angle, Johnson indeed went haywire.

He didn't declare that White had "Gettin' away from the cops speed!" (that's for ex-teammate Chris Johnson, anyway) but Morales vowed that Madden 11 will deliver enough Gus-isms to drop jaws and light up message boards. The Madden team brought in two sports writers - feeding them a comprehensive library of Johnson's work - and had them develop lines for him to say at the beginning, middle and ends of a play, as well as pre-snap, all of varying intensity.

If there's a risk in taking in the high-energy Johnson, it's pairing him with the franchise's incumbent analyst, the acclaimed but laconic Cris Collinsworth. (The two have never shared a booth in real life.) Both men recorded lines together, but the bulk of Collinsworth's audio library was already in the can with Madden 10. The team had him focus on pre-game analysis for this year, figuring it prohibitive and counterproductive to have Collinsworth re-record everything to match a personality so different from his own.

At the same time, Morales didn't try to stage-manage Johnson's call. "I never once said, ‘Gus, you can't say that,' or ‘Gus, that's too loud,'" Morales said. "If something did not sound right, we'd move on but it wouldn't be something we'd leave in. Sometimes I'd go, ‘Gus, that was a good line, can you say it lower.' Or he'd say, ‘Ronnie, is this too much?'"

Still, "it was a huge worry of mine," Morales said. "I was at first thinking ‘This shit's not gonna work, we're gonna have to go with a one-man booth or something.' But they really came together."

The problem, Morales said, is that Johnson is so eminently quotable, nearly every line is worth saving for some instance. The key would be in balancing out his intensity, making sure Johnson said enough good things at relative levels of enthusiasm so that the engine the audio team built to dynamically recognize plays had a credible library to support 10 yard runs, as much as it did for even bigger plays.

Johnson's call is the major component of an overall audio presentation upgrade for Madden 11, but not the only one. Gamers will be treated to authentic stadium chants such as Green Bay's "Go Pack Go," and San Diego's "Super Chargers" cheer. Individual players will get their own crowd cheers, like Seattle's T.J. Houshmandzadeh's "Housh" chant. During pre-game, each team will have a huddle-up hype session with audio recorded by current players, such as the "Win! Again!" chant that cover man Drew Brees made famous in last year's Super Bowl run.

But those are specific teams, players and instances. Unifying it all will be Johnson's call, and EA Sports sounds serious about making him more a supporting character than a supporting feature of the division's flagship title.

"There will be some really marquee lines in here," Morales said. "Some lines will be controversial, some have never been heard before. We expect people to be going online to their blogs or to Twitter to talk about what the game just said. We're pretty friggin' stoked about it."

Tomorrow in Kotaku's Stick Jockey: Look for an interview with Johnson about ascending to the top spot in the Madden booth.