"Gus," I say, "tell me how you feel about the term ‘apeshit.'"
"Well, I don't know man," Gus Johnson, the new voice of Madden NFL says with a taken-aback laugh. "I mean, I didn't say that word, did I?"
No, he didn't, although the reply is a little revealing - maybe he's thinking he got caught up in the moment and did and doesn't remember? For if there's any sportscaster both capable of saying the word and living up to it on live TV, it's Johnson.
After all, he's the guy who, as the New York Knicks' television announcer, once punctuated a Wilson Chandler dunk with a spontaneous "Hell yes!" No matter how much Knick fans loved it - an expression of solidarity, of their years of frustration, of just acknowledging, in the vernacular, a goddamn-did-you-see-that play, he's adamant today that he never used the word on air.
"No, I said ‘Aw yes!'" Johnson said, between a recording session and interviews at Electronic Arts' headquarters earlier this month. It reminds me a little of another New York television personality, no less beloved, just as convinced he didn't say the thing everyone heard.
Well, he did, and hell yes, this is all part of why EA Sports hired Johnson to helm the broadcast audio of sports video gaming's biggest selling, longest running and most recognizable franchise. Johnson, 42, laughed when I compared the job to the role of James Bond. But the guy playing that part matters to a lot of people, and if Pat Summerall was Sean Connery, and Al Michaels was Roger Moore, then Madden 10's Tom Hammond was George Lazenby - a competent seat-warmer, hardly iconic. The series had to come back with someone who was larger-than-life before getting the job.
Johnson most certainly arrives on the set with a ready-to-wear following. Of all play-by-play announcers, he is the voice of the younger, hipper sports fan - the one who rewinds his DVR, IMs a friend about what he heard, puts it on YouTube, tips it to Deadspin and, most importantly to EA, will commit disposable income to video games every year. Your grandpa may hate him, but no one aborts a trip to the fridge because Gus just said that coming up except on the west coast it's 60 Minutes followed by Murder She Wrote.
"Outside of the energy, I think it's the connection," said Ronnie Morales, an audio designer on the game. "Gus Johnson has a social following. I've seen a lot of Gus Johnson stuff on YouTube, I've seen a lot of fans of Madden create Gus Johnson-like Madden clips, and that was before we knew Gus was going to be in the game. He's perfect for our demographic."
The volume and the Gus-isms ("I get buckets!" "He's in shape!" "Rise and fire!") are only part of that. Nearly every sports writer and broadcaster talks about being a fan, but it often comes across as an obligation of representation. Johnson, quite authentically, is one. He won't talk about a game pretending that he saw something you didn't. Bringing up a big moment, it's easier for him to remember what he felt, not what he said. His career highlights aren't résumé lines, but ticket stubs, the kind you keep forever in your wallet.
People are convinced this is a schtick, and Johnson understands the criticism. He even admits to getting into character before a broadcast, but the character is still himself, a guy growing up on the west side of Detroit.
"Sometimes I do," Johnson admits. "You can't help it. I do sometimes, I don't want to disappoint anybody, especially the people who are my fans. But when I call a game, I erase my mind - at least 90 percent of it - and just try to react to what I see. I think that's when my best stuff comes out, and I do feel like your fraternity brother, sitting next to you on the couch."
"You know, you're from San Francisco, I'm from Detroit," Gus says, wearing a red Detroit Tigers cap, going headlong into a reverie about his teams. "I'm sitting there, I'm talking trash to you about how my Pistons are gonna beat your Golden State Warriors. How my Lions are going to destroy you, how Barry Sanders is gonna run all over Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers. I got Monte Clark praying, you know? I remember that shot. Do you remember that shot? Against the 49ers in a playoff game?"
No? Where were we again?
But for the bond it can create with a fan watching his real-life broadcasts, Johnson's reactionary, emotional nature presents different risks in a video game production. Madden sells zillions of copies and serves up millions of unpredictable plays, and the job of announcing the game is still one of saying enough lines that the commentary can be applicable to unprecedented situations, without being too repetitive. It is still something done in a studio, with no crowd, no viewers, and nothing at stake in real life.
Johnson fires himself up for it by remembering a lesson from Spike Lee. Called in to do the voice-over for the climactic sequence of 1998's He Got Game, Johnson was surprised to find no script when he arrived to do his lines. Lincoln High's comeback in that story was largely improvised by Johnson, whom Lee told to just go into the booth and imagine a game.
"Spike told me, when you're doing things on TV or in movies, you've got to go over the top," Johnson said. "There might be no energy or emotion around you, but we'll put in the crowd, the special effects, the emotion of the moment. He said, ‘You might think you're sounding crazy.' But the end product is something very rich and exciting."
In the studio, Johnson polished some of his commentary while several reporters watched, covering more bread-and-butter plays than the kind of monster runs for which EA Sports has written new programming to deploy Johnson's signature lines. Still, Johnson infused each call with a kind of cabaret singer's throaty burn, at least foreshadowing a big play even if none arrived.
EA Sports brought in two writers, who both studied Johnson's library of footage and wrote unique dialogue to suit that character. "The paperwork, man, it was up to here," said Johnson, reaching two feet over his head. The length of a booth sessions for game sportscasters are, generally speaking, strictly limited to avoid burning out the talent. Many get to the end of a day and still feel like going, only to be held back. Johnson said he'd usually hit the wall after about a four hour session, because of the intensity of his recording.
He knew a little of what to expect, having been one of two play-by-play announcers for EA Sports' NCAA Basketball 10. (Although Johnson is CBS's announcer for its Strikeforce MMA broadcasts, Johnson will not be the narrator for the Strikeforce-licensed EA Sports MMA.) He also knew he'd held back a little for that game, and that Madden would expect more.
But when he got the offer to do the game, there was no second-guessing, regardless of the commitment it required.
"I couldn't refuse it," he said. "I wouldn't refuse it. I'm honored just to be on a video game as a broadcaster. This is the greatest sports video game of all time, and these businessmen at EA Sports have given me the job to carry their biggest brand. This is it. This is the Wheaties box."
But even on a title with a 20-year history, there aren't any mentors out there to provide advice, as Johnson has gotten in his broadcast career, for such a difficult and demanding job. For that, Johnson turned not to his peers, but to his fans and his friends. And they told him something he already knew to do.
"They all said, whatever you do, just bring it," Johnson said. "When I score a touchdown, when I get up and high five my friend, and when I talk trash, I want to feel like I just scored."
With Gus Johnson along for the ride, going apesh- well, just being excited with you, too.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.