How do the creators of Madden NFL make Marshawn Lynch run like Marshawn Lynch? How do they get Colin Kaepernick’s actual tattoos in the game? How do they make it so when you’re playing against the Carolina Panthers, it’s as if you’re actually playing against their quarterback Cam Newton playing as Cam Newton? In short, how do they get it all to look so REAL?

The answer? A whole lot of STEM.

Madden has been one of the top-selling video games in North America ever since EA Sports released the first edition—John Madden Football—back in 1988. John Madden, the former NFL coach and sportscaster for whom the game is named, has always hoped the game would help young athletes learn football concepts like reading a Cover 2 defense or calling an audible.

Barrington had a hunch that Madden could be a teaching tool for STEM students too. So last June, the Flying Classroom went to Orlando to meet the minds behind Madden and to see how they apply psychology, geometry, physics, and engineering to football.

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Psyching Out a Defense
Our first stop on our tour was the desk of game designer Michael Scantlebury. How cool it must be to have his job. He had two large monitors on his desk plus a flat-screen TV hooked to multiple game consoles. When we walked up, Michael was studying film on NFL defenses.

He showed us a clip from a 2013 game between the Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers. The Raiders had the ball on their own 7-yard line. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor took the snap and faked a handoff to Darren McFadden. As the play unfolded, Michael talked us through what he saw in the defense: “They bit on the fake. The safety, Ryan Clark, is coming down to clean up the run. Polamalu gets blocked, and Pryor already has a head of steam. Once the secondary guys are out of it, it’s just on Ike Taylor at this point.” On screen, the Steelers cornerback was clearly calculating an angle to tackle Pryor, and then, at the 20-yard-line, he hesitated.

“One misstep,” said Michael, “and Pryor is out the gate” for an NFL-record 93-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. “In real life you don’t just run a beeline at a target. There’s all sorts of emotions that come into play.” In future editions of Madden, Michael hopes to work this sort of split-second decision-making (good and bad) into the game, so defenders act less like tackling robots and more like human beings.

Playbook Geometry
I was finishing up this drawing of Barrington and Michael (above) when in walked assistant producer Anthony White. He’s what you might call a “Playmaker.” Using a program called Play Designer, he and his team have coded 5,900 unique plays into Madden based upon real plays from the playbooks of all 32 NFL teams.

They can’t include every play from every NFL playbook because each NFL team runs around 1,000 plays per season. That’s 32,000 plays! Instead, Anthony tries to condense each playbook to about 300 plays for offense and 200 for defense. “I’m trying to get down to the core trends that define how a team will play. For instance, Philadelphia,” he said. “They’re the hot offense in the league.” And with a few clicks in a database called NFL Vision—in which he can search for footage of any play, game, or statistic dating back to 2000—he brought up a clip from last season’s game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Eagles had the ball on the Chiefs’ 22. On this particular play, three wide receivers were split left. The running back, LeSean McCoy, was slightly offset to the left of the quarterback and slightly behind him. After the snap, the middle receiver, Jason Avant, ran a corner route to the near end-zone pylon. Touchdown.

So how did Anthony get this play into Madden? First, he had to position all the players. “Everything’s based on an x-y axis,” he said, “so a lot of geometry comes into play here.” He pointed at the offensive line. “The center is the most important guy because he’s the guy who starts with the ball every play. That’s the center point of our axis. We’ll call him zero. Then our offensive-line splits are 2 yards apart, so—

Graphic: Oliver Uberti

Barrington stopped him. “Hold on.” He grabbed a sheet of paper and a marker, drew an x-y axis, and laid it over the football players on the screen. “So you start with the center in the middle? He’s zero. And then every player, when programmed, is either on the positive or negative side in the different x and y quadrants?”

“Exactly,” said Anthony. “So on the left side of the offensive line, where will the guard need to be?”

“He’ll be -2.”

“Yep, and the left tackle?”

“-4”

“Alright. On the right side?”

“Positive 2, positive 4, and positive 6.”

“Now, the quarterback obviously takes the ball from the center, so he would also be at zero on the x-axis. But since this is a shotgun formation, we have the quarterback at -5 on the y-axis, which equates to 5 yards in the game. The running back, McCoy, he’s offset just a little bit behind the quarterback, so we’ll put him at -6. And looking at the film, he’s slightly inside the tackle, so we won’t give him -4 on the x. We’ll split the difference and go with -3.5.”

Anthony then programmed in the wide receiver positions and created Avant’s touchdown route, all through basic geometry. “He ran straight for 10 yards before cutting 45° for 15 yards to the end zone. I’ll code that in as RR_WR_Run90for10_CutLeft45_Run45for15.”

“This is crazy,” said Barrington. “I wish you were my geometry teacher.”

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The Physics of Collisions
To learn how EA Sports animates all those punishing tackles, we met up with animation directors David Campise and Jason Danahy. “Everything animation-wise starts with a skeleton,” David explained. At their motion-capture—or “mocap”—studio in Vancouver, Canada, motion-capture suits translate the movements of stunt actors into bone and joint movement on a digital skeleton. The suits contain reflective silver balls at key joints on the actors’ bodies. 170 cameras in the ceiling then capture the movements of each one of those balls individually in 3D space.

Once those motions have been recorded, the Vancouver team sends them to animators like Jason in Orlando. “Stunt-actors are being safe and controlled. We enhance the motions to make it more like real game-speed impacts.” Then it’s time to add a bit of physics, namely Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, when Marshawn Lynch comes truckin’ downfield and stiff-arms Terry Porter, guess who goes flying backward. “There’s no ending to what could happen on the field,” said Jason. “So that’s where physics helps us out. Because we can’t animate everything that’s ever happened or will happen.”

Barrington picked up a wooden mannequin on Jason’s desk. “So let’s say this is our football player here. To even juke, or stutter-step, you have to calculate all that?”

“Yeah, the amount of calculations we do in a frame of the game, which is a thirtieth of a second, is staggering," Jason said. "I can’t even wrap my head around it, and I’ve been working here for eleven years. Each one of our characters has 170 joints, and every single one of those has multiple values. Multiply that by twenty-two players on the field, the referees, the crowd, and all the coaches, players, photographers, and cheerleaders on the sidelines.” He sighed. “Just posing everybody in one frame of Madden requires an insane amount of math.”

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Engineering a Face
Finally, a visit to Madden headquarters wouldn’t have been complete without putting Barrington inside a video game. Associate producer Andrew Brown and senior tech artist AJ sat him down in front of their custom-built “capture rig”—twelve 18-megapixel cameras arranged in a semi-circle around our favorite pilot. “3, 2, 1,”…click! If you ever wondered how EA Sports translates an athlete’s likeness into a game, this is where the magic happens.

“It used to be with video games, we had these 8-bit characters walking around,” Andrew said. “Then as systems improved, the games have become more detailed. Users expect the games to mimic reality. They want Peyton Manning to look like Peyton Manning.”

All twelve cameras were connected to each other to take a single picture at the exact same time. Andrew and AJ then ran it through custom software that turns those flat images into a 3D model made of six million polygons. “It captures detail that you can’t even see with your own eye.”

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No kidding. On a laptop tethered to the rig, Barrington’s face appeared as a rough point cloud. AJ clicked a button and now his face was a solid blue mesh. Another click and there was Barrington, orange shirt and all. “It’s not just a picture,” Andrew noted, “but a sculpture of a head. It used to take an artist six to nine days to build one from scratch. Now it just takes two minutes of the athlete’s time and one hour of processing.” Does this mean the artists are out of a job? “Not at all,” Andrew said. “For the artists, now it’s not, ‘did we get the nose right?’ It’s ‘can we get their speech and emotions right too?’”

AJ, the rig’s inventor, cobbled together his first prototype by breaking open $30 point-and-shoot cameras and wiring them together. Another version used webcams. The real genius of AJ’s design is its portability. Rather than bring all the athletes to EA Sports, Andrew can now pack the rig in a box and fly EA Sports to them.

It wasn’t until 2013 that EA Sports realized this was the future of Madden. They invested in better cameras, rushed together a new version, and took it for its maiden voyage to last year’s Super Bowl. “The players love it,” Andrew said. Their single most common concern though? Forgetting to get a haircut first. “The truth is, we put the hair in later.”

Staring at his Madden-ized face looking back at him, Barrington was simply amazed. “When you ask kids what do you want to be when you grow up, at least 60-70% of them want to become athletes. I’m sure very few think about career opportunities in this industry even though many of them play video games. It’s like being a pilot. There are so many other careers in aviation besides flying an airplane. To have one successful flight, you work with 40-60 people to make it happen. That’s what we want kids to realize. website analysis software . These are amazing jobs you all have. And you’re not waking up bruised every morning.”

NEXT STOP: Anchorage, Alaska