The Art of the Deal
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 10 (October 2005)

The Art of the Deal

Not long ago, the biggest names in video game publishing-from Electronic Arts to 2K Sports-would race frantically to ready the latest season of their officially licensed pro sports titles and compete for the largest share of the marketplace. This open competition among multiple game publishers was the driving force behind creative and technical innovation in the games, and enabled the NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB, NASCAR, and other sports franchises to grow their fan base by expanding their reach across multiple titles.

Then, last winter, the rules of the game suddenly changed. Two exclusive licensing agreements-between EA and the National Football League, and 2K Sports and Major League Baseball-shook up the virtual sports landscape and left some of its most popular titles, including 2K Sports’ NFL 2K, EA’s MVP Baseball, and Midway’s MLB SlugFest, extinct. In this one-two punch, the decades-long tradition of survival of the fittest succumbed to the billion-dollar economics of the gaming industry and gave way to survival of the richest (see “The Only Game in Town,” pg. 16).

For better or worse, the spotlight is shining harshly on EA’s Madden NFL 06 this fall, soon to be the only game for NFL fans, who undoubtedly will be expecting more out of the title than ever before and identifying every flaw as evidence of the lack of competition in the game space. Sharing the spotlight with Madden 06 this fall will be two other eagerly anticipated releases that have raised the bar for graphics and gameplay on the ice and on the court: EA’s NBA Live 06 and 2K Sports’ NHL 2K6, whose predecessor, NHL 2K5, is considered the breakaway leader in the virtual world of the Stanley Cup.

Guided by seasoned NFL television directors, the EA Tiburon team revised the camera work in its football game this year, unveiling new camera angles and lenses that bring the player closer to the action. “We implemented cameras that the user will trigger only under certain instances,” says Madden NFL 06 producer Phil Frazier. “For instance, on certain touchdown dives, the game camera will cut to the player diving into the end zone, using cinematic camera angles never before tried during gameplay. We were careful not to interfere with the gamer’s POV, so we only punched into these cameras when they wouldn’t disorient the user.” Activated during clutch moments, most of these cameras have movement built in, so the camera can follow a player through his dive trajectory, or pivot around him as he kicks the ball.

Madden 06 also introduces “trench” cameras that trigger during third downs. Gamers see a “worm’s-eye” view of the players running up to the line before the point of view returns to the game camera in time for the player to see the field coverage. EA also expanded the TV cam, which handles replays and the action between plays, to include more dolly-in shots, down shots, up shots, and long shots. “We switched the lenses to include wide angles and more extreme perspectives. Depth of field didn’t always work for us, so we used it sparingly,” says Frazier, noting that users will see some shots that are unique even in broadcasts. In addition, the crew added 20 shots of the coach’s booth, which offer angles directly on the coach or looking down at the field from behind the coach. Madden 06 also uses shots from various angles to capture players standing along the sidelines without their helmets.

In most cases, the cameras are embedded within the animation files, created in Alias’s Maya. However, sometimes they had to be imported separately and animated by the programmer, in which case the animator and the art director sat alongside a programmer to ensure that the camera and the animation synchronized correctly in the game. For instance, the programmers, rather than the animators, collaborated with the art director to set the camera angles for the TV cam.

In Madden 06, the skeletal setup for a player contains 25 body joints, 32 finger joints, and two joints for controlling a prop, such as the ball.

Another notable new feature is the quarterback-passing cone, which allows the gamer to swivel the quarterback’s head and field of view as the person drops back to throw a pass to a receiver. The player can then switch to the receiver, controlling his cone of view to make the catch. “The quarterback-vision cone is the most radical change made to Madden in the last few years,” Frazier points out. “We needed to ensure that the logistics of the controls were such that a novice or a veteran can pick up a controller and feel completely in control.”

Granted greater access to the NFL, EA was given access to head scans of 150 players from the league. However, the artists found the process of reducing these high-resolution polygonal scans to a game-ready model less efficient than sculpting individual facial features and applying textures onto a generic base head model. Therefore, the group sculpted each player’s head while referencing the scans and high-resolution player photos provided by the NFL. The artists then manipulated each player’s photographic source within Adobe’s Photoshop and Right Hemisphere’s Deep Paint 3D to create two texture maps for the face: a lower-resolution (mip-map) version and a high-resolution version bearing such fine details as scars and scratches. This allows the textures to decline in resolution as the players recede from the camera, similar to geometry level-of-detail (LOD) usage.

“We created unique facial geometry and textures for almost the entire NFL roster, and relied on generic geometry and face textures for last-minute additions or user-created players,” says Frazier. The player heads are distributed in three LODs during gameplay, ranging from 900 polygons to 125 (the average), to 25 at the low end.

To accurately represent 22 players in real time, the game engine modifies the base build of a generic body using database entries for the characters’ proportions and unique team apparel, equipment, and accessories. Superstar mode, one of the biggest additions to this year’s Madden, allows gamers to assume the role of an NFL rookie as he’s drafted into the league and proceeds through the entire arc of a multiyear professional career, enduring the trials and tribulations that come with the job. This includes signing and firing agents, dealing with off-the-field drama, fulfilling endorsement contracts, and balancing personal obligations with commitments to a team. Using a DNA-based system, gamers can customize the polygonal build and textural details of their character.

To craft the animations for Madden NFL 06, EA motion-captured players from the Canadian Football League using a Motion Analysis capture system and proprietary software. (Stuntmen provided the moves for the big offensive and defensive animations of the hard hits and truck sticks.) The crew then used Alias’s MotionBuilder to map the animations to their respective skeletons, which were refined in Maya.

In addition, the programmers revamped the characters’ adaptive AI so that, for instance, the defensive secondary can cut down on plays that always work. “We wanted the player to have fun but without running the same play over and over because it has a high success rate,” says Frazier. “Yet, we did not want the average player to feel like he or she cannot win because the AI has ‘learned’ the person’s playing habits.”

EA’s proprietary tool set enables the animators to easily position or rotate the 20-some characters in a scene, pose their hands, and so forth.

For streamlining the overall production process, the EA Tiburon group incorporated Avid’s Alienbrain Studio (formerly from NXN) for asset management and Perforce for software configuration management into its pipeline.

The player lockout may have kept hockey’s best from donning their skates for the 2004/2005 season, but the disagreement didn’t prevent them from taking to the virtual ice in 2K Sports’ NHL 2K5, developed by Kush Games and universally acclaimed by gamers and critics alike as one of the best hockey simulations. Now that the lockout is over, 2K Sports is set to release its follow-up, NHL 2K6, sporting newly revamped goalie controls and an emphasis on animations for enforcers such as Tie Domi and Rob Ray.

Kush Games, like EA and every other officially licensed sports game developer, had to contend with the challenges of creating hundreds of recognizable heads. “Getting good photographic reference for the players is crucial and often one of the bottlenecks in the development process,” says Al Spong, art director for Kush Games. “Most leagues only provide portrait shots, which are not ideal for use in video games because the players usually are smiling and inconsistently lit.” As a result, the artists must labor intensively to remove shadows, highlights, and smiles just for creating a texture map.

The NHL has yet to act on developers’ requests for multi-angle photographs or scanned data. Presently, of the four major US sports, only MLB games feature polygonal head meshes based on 3D scans, which are done yearly by InSpeck during spring training. While the NFL has begun preliminary testing with 3D scanning, the league’s games, along with those of the NHL and NBA, still feature photographic head data.

Through the use of normal mapping, the artists at 2K Sports were able to achieve a high level of detail in their NHL 2K6 player models, as seen here in the padding, gloves, stick, and helmet of this goalie.

“We would love to have scanned data at our disposal, but it can have a grotesque quality and is generally difficult to just push into a game [without a lot of additional work],” says Spong. “Right now, we rely on our artists to build and texture unique heads from scratch, which is time-consuming and demands a significant chunk of the development budget. But we believe this [reality] aspect is an important part of the product.”

While the players in NHL 2K6 feature significantly more polygons than they did in last year’s edition, the team used normal mapping to create an unprecedented LOD in the grooves of the goalie padding, gloves, and blockers, and the hard edges and ridges of the helmets and skates.

For facial animation, 2K Sports currently uses a bone-based deformation system. To create an aggressive snarl during a fight, for example, the artists use a range of Set Driven Key sliders to control the various expressions and viseme shapes of the players, all of which are built into a Mel-scripted interface.

NHL 2K6 also introduced “maximum goaltending” this year, which gives players precise control over their goalie. One glance at the animations of a goaltender stacking his pads or dropping into the butterfly stance for a dramatic save, and one should notice a striking resemblance to the technique of Marty Turco of the Dallas Stars. That’s because Turco, along with Darren McCarty of the Detroit Red Wings and Jason Marshall of the New York Rangers, were motion-captured for the game using a Motion Analysis system.

The crew captured a wide range of hockey moves, including skating, goalie saves, stances, reactions, slap shots, tripping, checking, and more, including ambient actions. Using Maya, the team cleaned up the cycles and mapped them to the character skeletons.

“The player skeletons in NHL 2K6 are designed to produce a range of motions as efficiently as possible, since the screen is filled with numerous players. Keeping the frame rate at 60Hz is a constant battle,” says Spong. “In our next-generation hockey titles, we will introduce more subtleties into the motion using customized rigs for each player, so that the goalie model, for example, will deform differently from, say, a forward, based on the equipment that’s worn.”

To achieve the realistic actions in the title, a number of NHL players were motion-captured performing a variety of basic and specialized hockey moves, from skating and ambient motion to slapshots and checking.

As Spong points out, realistic deformation is difficult to achieve in a hockey game. Mainly, this is because the layers of clothing and padding exhibit different degrees of deformation. Also a problem is the complex interaction between the cloth, the player, and the environment.

Basketball, unlike football and hockey, is a sport in which a winning team can be almost single-handedly shouldered by one superstar. Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Yao Ming, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Steve Nash are the pillars of their respective teams, and are the inspirations for the new freestyle superstar controls unveiled in NBA Live 06. The controls will ensure that the NBA’s powerhouses will pass, dribble, block, and dunk on the virtual court like their real-life counterparts.

According to NBA Live 06 producer Dean Richards, all authentic sports games strive to separate the superstars from the generic players, and hone in on what makes a player a superstar. Yet, when it comes to basketball, there are fewer standouts than there are in other sports-only 12 to 15 percent of the NBA’s 450 players are legitimate superstars, he contends, and many of them exhibit a unique style of play. For example, Nash is a playmaker with great court vision who can pass from anywhere, while Wade is a high-flyer who can take the ball to the hoop using an aerial attack. “And this is what freestyle superstars is all about,” notes Richards, “focusing on what makes these players superstars and giving users the control to express themselves on the court when playing as or against a superstar.”

To create the freestyle superstar moves controlled by the user, EA invited Wade and other NBA stars to Vancouver, Canada, for a motion-capture shoot. “The invited NBA stars represented a wide variety of body sizes, so that the captured movements could be tailored to every NBA player’s unique proportions, producing the most believable motion for each,” says Richards. Using EA’s custom Vicon mocap setup and a truss system holding more than 50 cameras, the crew captured the NBA superstars performing a range of passes, dunks, steals, blocks, layups, and shots (at 45 degrees and other difficult angles).

EA used image-based techniques to model its NBA roster, which includes LeBron James, shown here.

With MotionBuilder, the artists edited the data and then animated the player skeletons using a control rig outfitted with a combination of IK and FK solutions on both the lower and upper body, which, according to Richards, produced realistic, fluid results. The group also motion-captured all the locomotion cycles for the non-superstar players, giving this year’s NBA Live a new look and feel. In addition, EA captured new passes and receptions, which significantly change the flow of the game, especially the “transition” gameplay, making it more explosive and fluid, akin to a typical NBA match.

Even though EA reused the character skeletons from last year’s NBA Live, the artists had to redo some of the skin weighting to accommodate the new superstar moves, especially those requiring an extreme range of movement, such as windmill dunks. “Many animations had to be reworked because the new textures have a better-defined musculature, which, at times, made improper bone twisting more noticeable than it was in previous titles,” says Richards.

In contrast to the authentic-style moves, the artists eschewed cumbersome 3D scans for this title as well, and instead modeled the entire NBA roster using image-based techniques, maintaining a low-polygonal count that relied on mip-mapping for realism. Each player’s head is a modified version of standard head setup, while the bodies are generated in real time from a database of proportioned anatomy. Nevertheless, some well-known players, such as Shaq and Yao Ming, were custom modeled because of their unique appearance.

Issuing exclusive licenses to companies indeed has been a common practice for sports franchises. Nevertheless, unlike conventional sports merchandising, such as replica jerseys or cross-promotions involving soft drinks or breakfast cereals, a video game has the ability to cultivate an understanding of a sport, player characteristics, and game strategy. A well-designed NFL title, for example, can build an emotional investment in athletes or a team like no other marketing vehicle, and do so in countries where the NFL is underexposed.

In so far as a game title can broaden a sport’s audience and appeal, exclusivity agreements can have an adverse effect through the loss of both fans and hours of free advertising. In the worst scenario for consumers, if a game publisher is unable to renew its license after it expires, the lack of competition could leave rival developers ill-prepared to produce a quality next-generation game. On the other hand, if desperation breeds inspiration, we may be on the cusp of one of the most creative eras in sports gaming.

In December 2004, Electronic Arts paid an estimated $300 million for exclusive rights to publish National Football League (NFL) titles for the next five years, sounding the death knell for Sega Sports/Visual Concepts’ well-received ESPN NFL Football series (formerly the 2K series) and every other competing or upstart NFL title.

After being courted by numerous media companies across the globe, the NFL initiated the exclusivity negotiations with EA. At that point, the outcome was inevitable: relinquishing the NFL license and losing its Madden series (the most commercially successful sports title of all time) was simply not in EA’s playbook. “Because of the deal, we have more access to players, coaches, teams, and other NFL assets than ever before, which allows us to create a more entertaining experience,” says Jeff Karp, vice president of marketing for EA Sports.

This past January, 2K Sports, Take-Two Interactive Software’s sports label, reacted to the deal by spending an estimated $90 million to lock up the exclusive publishing rights to Major League Baseball (MLB) for the next seven years, killing EA’s genre-leading MVP Baseball. EA’s Karp points out that the fans now will be without the game they chose to play the most, and notes that “[we] will assess potential new directions concerning our baseball title.”

In the wake of these deals, EA is rumored to be exploring the possibility of continuing its MVP Baseball series using the collegiate ranks, while 2K Sports is expected to revive its NFL 2K series using Hall of Fame legends. Midway’s gridiron game will be reborn as Blitz: The League, starring Hall-of-Famer Lawrence Taylor in an evolving narrative scripted by Peter Egan, writer of the former TV dramatic series ESPN Playmakers, set in a fictitious, hard-hitting football league.

The creative challenges of reinventing and rebranding a sports title are not new to EA. Indeed, when World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) purchased Ted Turner’s rival World Championship Wrestling (WCW) organization, EA lost its WCW license, and with it, the right to use any of the well-known wrestling superstars. Setting the precedent for the kind of creativity developers will need to survive in this new era of sports games, EA resurrected its wrestling title using recording personalities from Rick Rubin’s Def Jam recording label, including Busta Rhymes and Ludacris. The game, called Def Jam Vendetta, was an overwhelming success, spawning a sequel that’s scheduled for release this fall.

EA also holds exclusive rights to develop NASCAR games until 2009, and the developer recently announced a long-term licensing agreement with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for football. This relationship ensures EA’s ability to maintain the linkage between its Madden and NCAA titles, enabling gamers to import top college seniors into the professional Madden game via draft export files, play through a four-year NCAA career and then graduate to Madden as an NFL player, or enter into Dynasty Mode as the coach of a college team.

Meanwhile, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe maintains the rights to Formula One racing, and THQ has a stranglehold on WWE games. With the hockey lockout ending and many teams left in financial straits, the National Hockey League (NHL) may be unable to resist signing a lucrative exclusivity contract next year. However, this domino effect ends at the National Basketball Association (NBA), which announced this past March a non-exclusive agreement with EA, Take-Two, Sony Computer Entertainment America, Midway, and Atari.

“This is a great day for NBA gamers,” proclaimed Adam Silver, NBA entertainment president. “By partnering with the top developers of sports video games, we have ensured our fans a broad, competitive selection of games that will be available in over 100 countries and on more platforms than ever before, maximizing the reach of the NBA around the world.” - MM

Madden NFL 06 also introduces the “truck stick,” which allows offensive bruisers such as Jeremy Shockey to drop a shoulder or throw a forearm shiver as they plough through the defensive line. The truck stick is the offensive counterpart to the “hit stick,” which allows defensive linebackers such as Donnie Edwards to execute some brutal tackles or knock an opponent off both feet. To capture the intensity of the in-game action, sideline pep talks, or a creative touchdown celebration, EA’s character animators utilized a blend of motion-captured and keyframed animation for the players’ body and facial expressions. Then, the artists sculpted blendshapes in Maya for the facial expressions, including grimaces, furrowed eyebrows, sneers, and smiles.

(Above) EA’s DNA system lets gamers customize their own players. (Below) Artists visited each stadium in the league, gathering reference material for re-creating the exact layout of the seats, lights, banners, scoreboards, and more.

To forge the illusion of real-time cloth simulation, the artists added additional bones to the player’s uniform shorts, which are controlled programmatically during gameplay to provide secondary animation. In addition, the MotionBuilder control rig contains built-in constraints for interactions between the ball, the players, and the hoop that enable the players to interact simultaneously with one another and with the hoop during “dunk-blocking” scenarios, new to NBA Live. Despite these efforts, many of the animation improvements resulted from artists with keen eyes, who watched hours of reference video and applied those actions to the animations.

New to NBA Live 06 is freestyle superstar control, which ensures that the virtual MVP players perform the same signature actions as their real-life counterparts do on the actual court.

Martin McEachern
is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. He can be reached at