Sports Graphics Forum: High-Profile Broadcasts Get Videogame Flare With 3D Character-Animation

The graphics style helps educate and entertain on ESPN’s Monday Night Football

The new and emerging esports sector is placing videogames at the center of the action. From mind-blowing, augmented-reality openings at the 2018 League of Legends (LoL) World Championship Final to Blizzard Entertainment’s adding a new transmission system, graphics surrounding the competition have taken on a life of their own. For traditional stick-and-ball sports, networks have learned a trick from the esports playbook. At last week’s SVG Sports Graphics Forum, professionals in character animation discussed the prepping and planning that goes into the development of an idea, applying the concept to a broadcast, and how to make this procedure easier in the future.

Gamifying the Experience
To adapt to the latest trend in sports, linear broadcasts are experimenting with a style that resembles characters, movements, and attributes seen in videogames.

From left: Maxon’s Paul Babb, The Brigade’s Dave Dimeola and Boaz Livny, and ESPN’s David Sparrgrove discuss character animation and 3D modeling at the SVG Sports Graphics Forum

“The character work that we’ve done has been from the traditional VFX and animation side of the industry,” noted Dave Dimeola, creative managing director/partner, The Brigade. That includes “modeling, rigging, motion capture, and a lot of high-resolution techniques for texturing and shading that we use to get very photorealistic results.”

Dimeola and others emphasizing photorealism rely on gaming engines, such as Epic Games’ Unreal Engine or Unity Technologies’ software, that come with a high-octane processor. Although dealing with multiple layers of complex data can be strenuous work, the real obstacle comes with inserting a pseudo-human character into a semi-realistic environment.

“We’re just starting to see some very high-quality work coming out of that, involving the mixing of characters with environments that include water, glass, and hair,” he said. “The challenge coming from the VFX and animation world is hitting that level of photorealism with the Unreal and Unity lighting systems that exist right now.”

Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes is just one example of ESPN’s weekly graphics package on Monday Night Football.

Mixing Creativity With Humor
After the hard work is done in the edit suite, the final product can be placed on-screen for the world to see. As photorealistic 3D animation continues its climb into the regular graphics rotation, ESPN honed the technique on its weekly Monday Night Football broadcasts during the 2018 NFL season. From a production perspective, these graphics have a twofold goal: to educate with statistics, percentages, and examples of recent performance and to entertain by placing the player or players in a humorous scenario.

For ESPN, it’s all about the planning. “Our [weekly] workflow usually starts with the story. Every week, by around Wednesday, a story for that upcoming matchup is evolved. Our team is divvied up, and then we come up with an idea for how to best represent the story,” said David Sparrgrove, creative director/designer, ESPN. “After that, we put together frames and start to build the scene with motion-capture capability in-house. Sometimes, we’ll take from other resources [if we don’t have a certain action.]”

Despite a large quantity of animations with hyper-focused detail, Sparrgrove and his team are able to get away with an imperfect product on a Monday Night Football telecast.

The Brigade’s Dave Dimeola touched on the difficulty of developing scenes with immense detail, such as this sea environment with the Oakland Raiders.

“Because we’re using football players, we have a lot of liberties because they’re wearing helmets,” he said. “We’ll go in and do some texture mapping on the face to try to make it look a little more like somebody, but what we found was that they’re representing a character. If you have #12 and the gear is spec’d out to what [Patriots QB Tom] Brady would wear, there’s a suspension of belief that happens.”

Blazing Trails for the Future
In live event production, especially sports, hitting a deadline is paramount for a successful show, but, with this method of graphic design, there is a significant tradeoff. High-resolution imaging can add the extra layer that can bump a broadcast from good to great, but the challenge lies in not having enough time. With no current solution for slowing the clock, developers are making the attempt to keep up with these intricate and ornate models by devising new plans to quicken rendering speeds.

“[On Cinema 4D], we see a lot of character types of work coming through the motion-graphics tools as sort of stylized as well as basic deformations for simple and animated objects to get them done quickly and on time.” said Paul Babb, head of worldwide marketing, Maxon.  “We are seeing more use of retargeting, motion capture, and even full-on hand-animated pieces, although those are the ones that [take] extra time. [Deadlines are] one of those things that we’re aware of because we have to be better integrated and find ways of sharing assets on all of the different packages.”

For characters without helmets, ESPN’s David Sparrgrove used texture mapping on the face to resemble Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson as much as possible.

Overall, users are getting optimal results at a quicker pace with the help of real-time engines.

“From what we’re seeing, the world of lighting has become much more approachable. With real-time engines, it’s making it more practical to go back, generate faster, and get results faster,” said Boaz Livny, VFX/CG supervisor, The Brigade. “It depends what medium you’re looking to deliver out of because the higher the quality, the slower it’s going to go. It’s a hot topic because everyone wants to render faster.”

Check over the coming days for in-depth reports, video interviews, full-panel audio recordings, photos, and more from the Sports Graphics Forum.

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