The Shutdown Corner Interview: Jim Nantz of CBS Sports, Pt. 1

Jim Nantz has done just about everything in a sports broadcasting career that spans almost 30 years. He's called Super Bowls, and he'll do so again at the end of the 2012 NFL season. He's interviewed the Masters winner in Butler Cabin many times, and he's also been the main man behind the microphone for the NCAA Final Four. He is the second broadcaster in history to call all three events -- Brent Musberger also did all three for CBS.

One thing Nantz hadn't done before, though he had experience in voicing for video games, was to call all the action for the Madden series of video games for EA Sports. That changed this year, and now, Nantz and NFL booth partner Phil Simms are the voices you'll hear when you're playing the game. In Part 1 of an extensive two-part interview about a great many things, Jim gave us a very interesting look inside the process of speaking and assembling all the sound clips required for a realistic NFL video game experience.

Hint: It's a LOT more complicated than you may think.

Shutdown Corner: How were you first approached to do Madden '13?

Jim Nantz: I had already been in the EA family, so to speak, having done the EA Tiger Woods game. That went so well that I got a phone call one day, and they said, "Hey -- we'd really like you to be involved in the Madden game." Which, of course, I loved. I loved the fact that they were attempting to pair me with my real broadcast partner at CBS, Phil Simms, and I heard what the game plan was for Madden '13. They were out to make this the biggest game-changer in the history of the franchise, and all they talked about was making everything authentic. "Real, real, real" was the operative word. And I jumped all over that. Once Phil was also involved, I said, "Let's go."

SC: You get in the studio, and you're obviously recording all the calls, there's going to be some interplay between you and Phil. But football is such a random game, and they program so many possibilities into Madden, how long did it take to get everything done, and what was that process like?

JN: The process is so tedious, and when you walk in, it's actually overwhelming. You go into each session, and you see the stack -- the Manhattan phone book -- that's in front of you, of all the suggested lines that you do knock off. And then, you veer off for every suggested line and wing it, and add nine, 10, 11 takes of your own. Same scenario, same situation, different way of expressing it. That's the draining part, to keep being creative enough to come up with different versions of the same 3-yard running play off right tackle.

SC: Just as an example -- say, a Ryan Williams 7-yard run to the left. How many different ways would you call something like that?

JN: Up to 10. But the names actually get what's called "stitched," so that the names can be added in, and that's one of the little secrets of it. That doesn't make it any easier. Because there are so many different algorithms to try and figure this out, where you don't get the same call twice.  But the names are stitched, and I've had to say "Ryan Williams" about 15 different ways. I'll have different inflections of "Ryan Williams," and then I'll describe a 7-yard run off left tackle about 30 different ways. Then, Ryan Williams can be stitched in there, or LeSean McCoy, or Ray Rice.

SC: So, EA will put the player and the play together, based on the need.

JN: They will stitch it together in a lot of different places, but the neat thing -- and I wanted to hear it -- is that you really can't tell. Another thing, and this you could not edit, was the amount of time that Phil and I spent in the booth together. That really never happened before in the history of the franchise -- two guys interacting, and sometimes, interacting with the wrong inflection, coming in off of a question or a follow-up. That wasn't going to be the case here -- we wanted it to be authentic.

To answer your original question, we went from mid-October, to the week of the Final Four [which Jim was calling for CBS in late March]. I actually went from the regional championship game down in Atlanta and hurried up to New York to do a couple more days in the booth with Phil before I headed to New Orleans to call the Final Four and the championship. Here and there -- getting schedules to mesh. Some of it was done alone, and a lot of it was done together.  We used different studios when we were on our own. I'm all over the place, because I've got three different sports to manage, and now, I live in California. But when we did it together, we voiced it in a place called Vioxx, on 9th Avenue on New York.

SC: You're obviously so practiced, and Phil's done this for a long time -- he used to play the game, and you know the game. But when you started doing this for what is essentially an artificial football experience, did it take time for each of you to get in your roles and not feel wooden?

JN: It's not so much your role -- it's the ability to have your voice at the right level to match up with the scene that's there. The crowd noise, the ambiance, and the entire vibe of a stadium. Because any experienced broadcaster knows -- you get in the booth, and you get on the air, you put the headset on, the whole time you're modulating your voice against that peripheral sound. It's something you're playing against. And you're trying to find that sweet spot to rise just above it, so that you're cutting through. When you're sitting in a sound booth and there's no game taking place, you're not even narrating to the game or the graphics. To get the voice in the right spot -- that was always the key. That was the hardest thing of all, and it was important to me that it sounded right on.

SC: When did they debut it to you and say, "OK, Jim and Phil, here's how it looks and sounds?"

JN: We'd record a couple of different sequences, and I'd come out of the booth. Maybe do 50 or 60 actual recordable lines. I would ask them to match it up -- there was a track with crowd noise, and eventually, we did have crowd noise pumped into our headsets as we were doing it. Just a constant stream of crowd noise that later gets edited in.

SC: All told, and I don't know if they gave you an actual number, but how many sound clips would you estimate you did overall?

JN: The claim is 9,000, and I like the over [laughs]. I felt like I was doing 9,000 per session! You have to understand -- a pass play across the middle with a tackle by the middle linebacker -- they could give you the scenario and they would, but they would ask you to spin it off and tell it a different way, each time saying it with different verbiage. I prided myself on trying to give them a lot of different options -- the same thing I had done with the Tiger Woods game. Just letting your mind open up, and saying something that was real. I'm not looking to say something stupid or profound, like, "Wait -- you wouldn't have said that on CBS!" That was always the measuring stick. Is this something I would actually say on the air?

SC: I have to ask, although the New York Jets would not want me to -- did EA ask you to do a Tim Tebow Wildcat package?

JN: We did some scenarios with Tebow. Yes, we did. Not a lot. But I do think that if you put Tebow in the game and run the Wildcat, I think you're going to have options.

In Part 2 of our interview with Jim, we discuss his first actual video game narration experience, the state of the NFL today, how he balances the need to be buzzy with the need to be relevant, and how a guy manages to become the voice of three different sports at the same time. Stay tuned!

What to Read Next