Where does play-by-play come from?
Giving a play-by-play in sports is the act of relaying every detail of a game as it happens, each play (or "action in the game") by play. The adverbial phrase emerges in the context of baseball as early as 1889, with its adjective form (e.g., play-by-play commentary) and noun form (a play-by-play) following in the early 1900s. A play-by-play announcer, or sports commentator, became an important position in sports journalism since the first voice broadcast of a baseball game in 1921.
In the 20th century, play-by-play sports commentary spread from radio to television to the internet and from baseball to other sports and contests, helping to popularize the term play-by-play as a colloquial one used for an analysis of various events, from concerts and parties to job interviews and first dates.
To comment on something play by play or give a play-a-play is now widely familiar in the popular lexicon. The 2004 romantic comedy 13 Going on 30 has a character casually telling another not to give someone a play-by-play, as just one instance, and a New Zealand games festival is called Play by Play.
Who uses play-by-play?
Outside of its still frequent use in sports and sports journalism, a play-by-play can either be asked for (Give me the play-by-play! or Tell me what happened, play by play) or given (Here's the play-by-play). It typically relates to an exciting or dramatic social or personal event (e.g., how a marriage proposal unfolded).
On social media, live-tweeting or snapping (using Snapchat) an event, such as the Oscars or a political debate, is sometimes called or likened to play-by-play commentary.
As suggested in 13 Going on 30, a play-by-play isn't always desirable, providing more information than may be needed or called for, and so the phrase is often used in negative constructions (Spare me the play-by-play and get to the point).
I’ll just catch the Beyonce/Hov concert through the play by play snaps y’all always post during it.
@TrillestAC, March, 2018
why rant about your ex in social media if you're about to forgive em in an hour anyway? life doesn't always need a play-by-play
@SavannahLynneK, March, 2018
Curley, perfectly mirroring the play-by-play of a sports event, begins with the description that there’s “a gentleman who’s got himself a mop and the mop handle, which he’s pointing toward the pick-up truck.”
Nina Mandell, USA Today, February, 2018