Spencer Loucks is not a sports commentator. But at the moment, he’s playing one on the internet.
When the world isn’t shut down, Loucks works at the Yacht Club where he bartends, runs karaoke night and puts on comedy shows. He’s also a freelance writer and has various side projects, including a web comedy series he hasn’t worked on in a while and a kids’ cartoon series he hopes to get off the ground.
But in the meantime, he’s devoted himself to calling baseball games. Or at least, simulations of baseball games.
“I’m not big into sports, but I really, really, really like Cubs baseball and have ever since I was little,” Loucks explained by phone. He wasn’t thrilled when the baseball season was postponed — first for a few weeks and now until, perhaps, June as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.
“That made me really sad because Opening Day is usually around April 1st, and that’s one of my favorite times of the year usually because it starts to get warmer and baseball starts and it is just great all around,” he said. “And now, that all kind of went out the window.”
But Loucks had an idea to make the lack of real baseball easier to bear.
“So I said, ‘Hey, I bet I could do commentary on video games of the actual season and maybe people will watch it.’ And regardless, I can have a little bit of fun.”
He loaded up MLB The Show, a remarkably realistic-looking game for the PlayStation 4 and launched into the Cubs’ 2020 season. At first, the games were prerecorded and edited before he posted them to YouTube, but now he’s airing the games live on Twitch. He calls the action as though he were up in the booth at Wrigley (or, when the team is away, at whatever stadium they may be visiting). During most games, he calls a friend — often a musician or a comedian — and does an interview with that person while the game unfurls.
If nothing else, he’s developing a new skill.
“I’ve definitely improved on baseball commentary even if it is fake in the virtual world. I’ve gotten a lot better at calling baseball.”
But he isn’t developing his skills as an actual player of MLB The Show. Because he isn’t playing.
The video game simulates full games, full seasons, several full seasons — heck, the AI can even make trades during a simulated season. All the minor league teams are in there, too. It adds up to an impressive amount of detail and realism — even if it does seem odd to put all that effort into a game that barely requires a human participant at all.
Of course, you can play, but that’s not what Loucks is up to. He sets the Cubs lineup for each game based on information provided by the game about each player — and his own hunches. But he lets the game itself take over from there.
“There have been times when I’ve been tempted to play. I haven’t … There’s been once or twice where I’ve accidentally, when they’re the visiting team, taken the first pitch. But I’ve never swung … Aside from setting the lineup at the beginning, I don’t want to mess with the season at all. Fortunately, they’ve been playing well enough that the temptation has been small.”
While Cubs baseball fandom often spans generations in a family, Loucks’ virtual games are not necessarily intended for a family audience. During the first game of the season against the Cubs’ arch-rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals (this writer’s favorite team), Loucks called up a guest and the conversation immediately turned to masturbation.
Still and all, Loucks is trying to limit the amount of swearing in his play-by-play.
“For sure I would say that I’ve gotten better about swearing. I’ve been saying ‘flippin’’ a lot. I still do drop regular F-bombs, but I feel like I have not been going to the swear words as much.”
Of course, real sports broadcasters must avoid profane language — and be adept at calling the action while attending to other duties as well.
“I have a newfound respect for commentators because they really do bring in, you know, actors around the seventh inning, the seventh inning stretch, and they’ll talk to them for an inning or two,” Loucks said. “After doing this, wow, it’s really hard to keep up a conversation with someone while also paying attention and calling a baseball game. I just fall apart half the time when I’m trying to do it and then just kinda concentrate on one or the other.”
He’s perfectly comfortable with that.
“I wanted it to be half real baseball commentary and half absurdity and silliness. Because it is silly. It’s silly to watch a video game and pretend like it matters and pretend like it’s really happening.”
That said, Loucks is quick to acknowledge that Eastern Iowa is full of loyal Cubs fans who, like him, may be longing for the real season to get underway. Until that can happen, Loucks is happy to offer an alternative.
“They may as well come into fantasy land with me because there are no traditional real sports.”