TF2 Guide to Communication
Like any cooperative game, the key to success in competitive Team Fortress 2 is team coordination, and the cornerstone to maintaining that coordination throughout a game is good communication. While this might sound bleeding obvious, and for several players good communication comes quite naturally, the downfall of too many teams at all division levels stems back to basic breakdowns in communication that can be easily improved upon once identified.
In this article will endeavour to address some of the real basics in team-based communication for new and troubled players, skills which would be quite applicable to many games beyond TF2, as well as some class and role specific tips that may help out the more adept but lazy caller. For many players however the failure in communication comes from a lack of discipline rather than understanding and no guide, only concentration and diligent team mates will aid them.
Why listen to me?
I have been playing competitive TF2 in the Australian scene for over 2 years, half of which was at a division 1 level. In that time I’ve been in 7 clans and been core for every class and positional role except demo man. I have been a captain and lead-caller as often as not, and team members in the past have explicitly complemented me and sought advice on how to improve individual and team communication/calling.
During my stint in clan Intensity, we went through a phase whereby we identified communication as the root cause of our failures, having overzealous and ill-informed scouts, a silent apprehensive combo, and a few players who simply struggled to talk and fight. I have since seen very similar issues in many clans I have slutted in (especially at a division 2-3 level). We collected vent recordings and explicitly practiced and discussed our communication methods, which proved very beneficial.
A lot of what I say regarding specific roles in communication for classes is modelled off the players I have been with, and needs to be critically considered and adapted rather than blindly followed for any individual team. The personalities of your team members and many other unique clan factors will affect how you structure your team more so than what I recommend.
Tools of the Trade
You’re going to need a microphone, though a $20 headset will often do. It’s pretty tough to communicate properly without a voice. Once you team has mics you’re going to need a place to use them, as TF2s’ in game chat system leaves a lot to be desired. Ventrilo and Mumble (alternatively Teamspeak) are currently most commonly used and a server for these can be rented quite cheaply from various ISP and other hosts. Ozfortress rents cheap mumble servers specifically for Australasian clans, though there are other cheap or free options if you look around, and ask the right people nicely. Bother to take some time once the clan is setup to have everyone at an equivalent volume and acceptable sound quality.
Aside from verbal communication, it is possible (but not necessary) to use in game text chat, in the form of team directed binds, to provide some simple but sparing information. The only such binds I use personally are a medic ubering script and fake uber script as below, however I know of players going as far as item collection and respawn scripts and even enemy location binds.
bind mouse2 "+attack2; say_team UBERING;"
bind b "voicemenu 1 7; say_team FAKE_UBER;"
In general terms any information you have that would be of some benefit to your teammates but you realise they probably do not or could not know needs to be communicated. This includes overall team game plans, such as whether the team’s core (meaning the combo plus demo) are holding, pushing or dropped from specific map ground. It also includes any individual’s own actions that deviate from the default play. Sometimes it is as simple as letting an ally know you are supporting him. Also wrapped up in the basics of comms is relaying information about the enemy’s status; their position, class or rollout changes or any key threats that should be focussed.
Just as important as providing the team information is listening, absorbing, acting upon and in some cases confirming other teammates calls. Communication is a 2-way street. In my past clans it was just as often a lack of listening and not a lack of speaking that caused a comms breakdown.
For structure I will attempt to break down the various communication roles in the team, with the typical 6v6 classes or people that should be filling that role. These roles in reality for more organised teams will be dynamic and every player would contribute as appropriate, simply based on what he knows. For a team trying to find some communication structure however, it may provide a good model to work from.
The Decision Maker / Lead Caller:
Primary Soldier / Team Captain / The Best Speaker
Simply put it is the lead caller's job to decide what course of action the team, as a whole should be undertaking. This mainly boils down to whether the team, spear headed by the core, should be holding, pushing or dropping from their current location. It also entails specifically in pushes some brief details about the plan of attack, whether it be a quick basic description, eg “demo leads in top left, meet up with us bottom”, or a label for a rehearsed manoeuvre, eg “lets go valley rollout this time.”
Many members of the team can make calls similar to that of the lead caller's, but where any normal player makes a suggestion, eg “we can take courtyard”, the lead caller's word is decisive. Consequently whenever other players make such suggestions it is the caller's responsibility to quickly confirm or countermand these calls so that team members are totally clear on what is happening.
As a role in the team with great responsibility, it is imperative that the lead caller is both actively speaking throughout the match, most likely more-so than anyone else, and also has a capable head for making decisions on the teams best course of action. They should not however be a lone dictator, ignoring ally suggestions and new information that would affect the current course of action.
Scouts / Roaming Soldier / Everyone
As the caller has the responsibility of making team-affecting decisions, it is imperative he does so well informed as to the enemies’ movement. It is his teammates' job then to ensure his scope of knowledge is not limited to his own field of vision. Thus any key information about enemy behaviour, spotted especially by players not near to the combo, should be said; as clear un-opinionated information. eg “2 scouts left”, “medic low (hp)”, “combo pushing corner”.
While relayed data should be short and sweet, often such calls can be accompanied with simple strategic calls/suggestions, such requesting help from the roaming allies, or focus fire on vulnerable targets. These sorts of mini calls can make or break any single encounter however it is important that calls for focus fire can and are followed by those who are reasonably able to (and not followed by those who know they shouldn’t for other reasons) and as such need to be used often but not excessively or overriding each other. Focus firing everyone is not a clever tactic. Also always keep in mind the objective on TF2 is not always to get kills, but to cap points. A dead player is just one less threat for 15 seconds, or a lack of stickies on a point, or a 50% uber advantage, all things done to make it easier to cap out. (This point is too often lost on players who chase meaningless kills and throw away their own life too often).
The Status Updater / The Glue
If reconnaissance is about opponent status, this is related to basic information about your own team. This includes frequently saying your combo location, uber percent (and tracked presumed advantage), and when both teams use uber. I call this role the teams ‘glue’ because its key objective is to indirectly keep everyone together in-sync. By regularly announcing the location of the combo, roaming players can make quick assessment as to whether their relative covering position is correct or if they are becoming isolated, and also where to go for a quick buff.
Syncing information with the caller to produce exact timing for roamers to attack simultaneously from other angles is also imperative. If the caller said, “let’s push” the supporter will then soon after say “we’re into left courtyard now” or “scouts enter now”.
Medics generally have the most time and space to chat, as they don’t need to aim and more so observe, but they should have the worst positioning to see the battle unfold. Thus a medic must be quite active in what he says relaying this basic info, but rarely is a medic a good lead caller as his enemy information will be mostly second hand. As a medic specifically, at the back of the team, you are also in the unique position of being able to quickly assess teammate group positioning and health, and should take initiative to call fall backs if many allies or if you are critically low hp. If your caller overrides this then accept it, and abuse them after the game if you were right.
A good Medic tip: Having a panic word, whether it be “help” or “pineapples” is a good way to clarify to your primary soldier and scouts whether your “scout on me” call is really worth them risk turning to save you and not superstar rocket jumping onto their combo.
Aside: Uber Tracking
Tracking ubers is not rocket surgery. It takes 40 seconds minimum to grind an uber (30 for kritzkrieg). Generally speaking all you need to estimate the enemy uber status well enough is to use your own uber's status as a relative benchmark. Recall when they popped their last uber compared to yours, or note your percent when their medic respawns (press tab alot!). Factor in any notable times you werent healing or noone was grinding, and just assume your opponenets arnt making similar errors, as caution favours the ignorant. More importantly (especially on defense of A/D maps where teams often forget to do this) be diligent in reminding your soldiers to self damage or 'grind' when no combat is occuring to ensure you get that uber up in minimum time.
The Team Player
Everyone / non caller
Just because you’re not someone of responsibility like the caller doesn’t mean you do nothing. Say what is important, do what you’re told, give info on if what you are doing is working and you want support, but generally spend more time listening and making reactive decisions then wandering aimlessly or undermining the caller. To repeat myself from before; you need to say if you are doing anything unexpected; things such as back capping, flanking, leaving for ammo, hiding in Jew-spots, chasing the fleeing medic etc.
Think about what information you know that would help your allies in a fight. Upon death say the hp of the enemy that killed you if he’s still duelling. If it’s a sniper, or a sentry or any other hidden or dangerous flanking player, use the zoom kill shot to relay their exact location or direction of movement. As a soli give your medic warning before you jump away, or let your scout partner know you are leaving him for health in a mid range 2v2 duel. There is nothing worse than abandoning a teammate and not giving him ample warning.
Steps Towards Improving Comms
Something is better than nothing
The worst of uncoordinated teams are those with a deadly silent Vent. Get into the habit of saying the basic things outlined above, both what they are doing and what you are doing. Say “ok” occasionally to plans, even if just to verify you are still in the channel. If you’re silent, teammates wont think you’re mysterious, they’ll think you’ve timed out or are a retard. Many players have an issue multitasking talking and fighting. With the rare exception of complex solo duels or 1v2’s this is an unacceptable deficiency and something you need to practice, more so than your godly middies or meat shots.
The More that is said, the less that is heard
So your team is over the hurdle of saying nothing but now Vent is a clutter of noise that isn’t achieving anything. Learn to listen. Make decisions based on information you receive as well as provide. Do not repeat things already said by teammates and avoid repeating yourself for emphasis unless is it truly paramount. Instead use varying urgency in your voice as you prioritize the value of the calls you make and use priority to judge whether what you are thinking really needs to be said. Everything you want to say is not as important as you may think it is. For low priority calls, eg “that you getting low on ammo”, wait for a moment of calm dead-air in the vent channel, whereas only for the critical calls, eg an enemy popped Kritzkrieg, should you shout over the top of people. Say things concisely in as few words as reasonable.
Making Comms Cleaner
Sometimes comms are really good but other times they turn to total crap? Often all its takes is one foul-up and some ill thought out words to break everyone’s focus and motivation and the slippery slope begins. While for many it is impossible to avoid raging, make an effort to minimize it and when you cant, extended rants or abuse at teammates are intolerable. Be aware that many players instead of rants will go completely silent when they rage. It is unacceptable for the lead caller to fall into this trap, but otherwise is often better than the alternative.
Avoid any sort of strategic analysis or justification during the game, just do what is said and bring it up later. The thought and word clutter will distract both you and your allies and may cause someone to autopilot walk into a trap. On a similar note, if you're dead and a remaining ally is deep in focus and aware of his situation, backseat instructing will only distract and irritate them. Once again, if you're repeating things teammate's say a lot, it means you arn't properly listening.
It’s not what you say but how you say it
When you press your talk key, rarely say more than about five words at a time. You don’t have to be creative with your semantics; the same phrase structures will be easier to interpret. Be disciplined in how you speak; when that sniper kills you say his location, don’t bemoan your ill fortune. As a team it is also important you collectively know the names of the different locations on any given map. Spend some time going over this in practice and where possible avoid using lefts, rights and other relative terms (eg ‘in front’ or ‘behind’ without any player or landmark reference). Intuitive names will be much easier to remember, eg calling the big rock at gpit B "Rock", not "Region 12a".
Knowing what you don’t know is as important as what you do know:
- Is the left courtyard or dropdown possibly uncovered, as you are still dead / getting back?
- Are their scouts’ locations unknown?
- Do you know if they have an uber fully charged yet?
- Did a util player just respawn, known for switching to sniper/spy on last attacks?
- Is the demoman missing/slow on rollouts, possibly coming from valley?
Often this sort of information can be just as useful in deciding whether the push or drop back, considering unseen threats and avoiding a trap. Once you know what your role in the team is, get into the habit of alerting players when something on your end is troubling, even if it's just a gut feeling.
Supportive Calling / The Understander
So you are in a developing team and probably not the lead caller, however from previous experience or capability you are doing your own role well enough, both in Ventrilo and in game, and know some of your teammates, perhaps the caller, are making tactical mistakes. The issue becomes to what extent should you assert authority to tighten up your team’s play, at the risk of creating a conflict in the loosely defined hierarchy of who to listen to in times of disagreement, or treading on people’s toes and sensibility. I see this as an undesirable and all too common a situation.
In the main, players will not mind brief and occasional cross calls telling them exactly what to do differently. They also realise this sort of coordination is what brings victory. If you want to be considerate, use impassive terminology eg “our secondary soldier needs to be covering the high/right door.” No player likes continuous berating criticism but if they regularly can't take any advice or just wont listen, I would seriously consider talking to your captain about chatting with them in a better setting, or finding a less prima-donna replacement.
When you feel clan members are starting to wane in the consistency of their calls, use non-condescending questions to reengage them. Eg “What’s the plan captain?" (use names) “What is our uber advantage?” Generic quick compliments can also help motivate a team without sounding patronizing. Remember that in a team game, even if losing the match is not really your individual fault, everyone loses together and you should make an effort to pull it together rather than laude over the problem like you're immune and helpless. Try saying, “let’s keep up good clean comms.”
Typical Bad Phrases:
- “OMG, how did he live that?!” (Shut up and say his hp/location)
- “They have a sniper?” / “Sentry got me.” (Where???)
- “Watch out” / “Spy behind you!” (Better than no warning but the lack of context will panic and confuse everyone else)
- “Medic/Demo/etc down” (referring to an ally not and enemy. For allies I would instead recommend a clearly different syntax such as “Our medic is dead” or “We have no medic.”)
- “God im so good that this game!” (I dont care how great your aim is smartass, steve)
- “F*ck, why didn't you uber me?” (advise, dont abuse. try "please tab me next time we push if possible medic.")
Typical Good Phrases:
- (When told what to do or receive important relevant info) “Ok.”
- (When things are getting messy) “What’s the plan?”
- “It’s 3v3 vs a medic demo scout” (says the dead helping teammate towards the mop up end of a close rollout.)
- (While attacking last and losing a scout duel) “Left side scout has about 40 hp.”
- “I'm in position” (when your teams knows what this means, eg preset holding spots, or just told to go somewhere.)
- “I'm down/dead.”
- “Focus that demoman on front right.”
- (As medic) “Wait up, everybody is low hp.”
- (when flanking) “I’m behind them and they do/don’t know it”
- (on rollout) “I'll go right, look for me jumping aggressive into them to push across.”
For an insight into how a particular top tier TF2 team runs their vent channel, check out this link to Jaeger’s blog, with 7 different full vent recording and attached demos. Keep in mind that the more aware and in sync a good team is, the less many basic things need to be called, so if your comms are quieter than theirs, odds are you're doing it wrong. Also I felt personally that Carnage says some unnecessary stuff (though keep in mind he leads the team somewhat from scout) and their medic is too quiet. All in all though it is an excellent recourse just for hearing the sorts of things that a clued team is thinking about and relaying, and how they say it.
I am open to further suggestions for issues to discuss in this guide, including criticisms, further typcial phrases and unresolved player problems/question, as well as other unrelated requests for future potential guides.