EA Sports Puts ESPN In The Game For NFL Analysis

By Ken Kerschbaumer

In recent years the increasing realism of videogames has allowed everyone from NASCAR drivers to football players to use the games for game preparation. This past Sunday ESPN put videogame technology to a new use, using EA Sports game engine and Madden NFL 2009 to give new realism and grit to in-studio play demonstrations. And ESPN is already eying using EA Sports Virtual Playbook for college football and basketball. “We’re thrilled to have it,” says Stephanie Druley, ESPN NFL studio show senior coordinating producer. “One word you can’t help but use is cool.”

The system allows ESPN analysts to walk among life-sized videogame incarnations of players even as the players are in motion. ESPN is taking a walk-then-run approach and limiting the number of players to one or two as the size of the studio doesn’t allow for all 22 players to take the field in life-size form.

“It was bound to happen,” adds Druley. “Videogames and TV were bound to come together.”

Anthony Bailey, ESPN vice president of emerging technologies, says the idea to use EA Sports videogames arose out of a desire to making play demonstrations more realistic. “We had announcers in suits demonstrating plays but why not use real football players?,” says Bailey. “We built a prototype system ourselves but then to really sell it we needed the assets of EA Sports. And we’ve had a long working agreement with EA so we approached them to figure how they could technically supply the assets.”

The technology and workflow behind the system is fairly straightforward. In fact, it relies heavily on Xbox 360 videogame systems. First, ESPN staffers sit down in a production meeting and discuss what players and plays the talent would like to highlight. Production personnel then fire up an Xbox 360, select the requested plays, and run the play. And they keep running it.

“We can set a play of LT doing a pitch to the right side, run it 10 times, and every time it will be different,” says Bailey. “So we’ll run the play until we get the desired outcome.”

Once the proper play is run it is recorded and then transferred to another Xbox system located in the studio. ESPN staff then takes advantage of a new proprietary technology provided by EA Sports that allows the production team to delete unnecessary players from the play. That, in turn, gives ESPN the freedom to blow the players up and make them appear to be life-size.

The actual TV production ties two cameras on jibs to the EA Sports “virtual camera” within the videogame. Camera operators operate the jibs and then the camera movements in the game reflect those real-life movements.

“The biggest technical challenge is taking the imperfect world of real world cameras and matching them to the perfect world of the EA camera that is free from distortion,” says Bailey.

Another challenge is getting talent comfortable with a new approach to play demonstrations. In order to increase the cool factor ESPN talent walks around and in between the videogame players, as if the players are actually in the studio. That requires extra blocking during the production, no pun intended.

While ESPN is keeping things simple today that doesn’t mean they don’t have ambitious plans. “We want to raise the cool factor,” says Druley. “Eventually the talent will be able to interact with the videogame players.”

The technology could also head out of the studio. “I can envision us taking this out to Monday Night Football and using it on the field and allow the viewer to see what an offensive or defensive player sees on the field,” says Bailey. “We could deliver XYZ coordinates and fly into a play from all angles and break it down.”

Up next is college football with the hopes of getting the system in place for the Bowl games. “We’ve also begun talking about the basketball titles,” says Bailey. “We would show the lane and how players defend against each other.”

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