Last year, reviewers cuffed Madden NFL 25 good for again walking back any incremental gains it had made in its virtual broadcast. For a sport so given to television, no video game has been failed by its cameras and commentary like Madden, particularly over the past console generation.
Since 2006, the game has seen three different play-by-play announcers and two analysts, firing one team after only two years together. It's been let down by a not-ready-for-prime-time commentary engine, and it's introduced and scrapped halftime highlight shows (only to reintroduce them this year). Every good idea one year — like finally getting the announcing team to record their lines together, in Madden NFL 13 — has withered from neglect in the next.
After seeing the scores given to what was supposed to be a 25th anniversary celebration, EA Tiburon had enough of trying to solve this problem by itself.
"They called, they said, ‘Hey, you're a creative guy at NFL Films,'" said Brian Murray, an Emmy-winning cinematographer mentored by Steve Sabol, the late, revered NFL Films president, whose father founded the iconic studio. "They asked, ‘What kind of opportunities would get you to think about coming down here?'"
Murray had worked with Madden NFL before, as a consultant, so he knew a little about what he was getting into. This would be a staff position, however, a newly created one: Presentation Director. To hear Murray tell it, it sounds like Madden has had the tools in place to serve up a much more professional looking broadcast, it just didn't use them effectively.
"It was in Madden 12 when the capture lab at EA Canada came up with the technology to actually, physically, film within scriptables and film within the game," Murray said. He was brought in by creative director Mike Young for two days to set up some shots. "We just did pretty shots, no pre-production, no context, didn't know where they would go in the game."
Now Murray's working with that technology from start to finish. Things like better on-screen graphics, a more robust library of dialogue from Jim Nantz and Phil Simms and, yes, a halftime highlight show, obviously will help (and are planned). But giving textbook, meat-and-potatoes direction from someone who learned the modern sports documentary style from its masters should also make all those under-used qualities of Madden's broadcast shine that much brighter.
"Let's say Jim was talking about any random play, let's say, Peyton Manning," Murray explained. "When he says, ‘Peyton Manning,' we want to see him, and we want the UI to pop up. That's a big win right there. If all you're doing is hearing him say something, and all you're looking at is beauty shots of the stadium, or not the player he's talking about, then of course you'd go, ‘There's something wrong with the commentary.'
"But if you're hearing and seeing and you're watching the UI cover what he's talking about, I think that's a big win," Murray said. "So I don't think it's just one issue."
Repetitive post-play animations, however, also have contributed to the stale reputation of Madden's broadcast. Madden NFL 15 will try to solve this not by forcing pre-rendered cut scenes on the viewer, but by directing groups of players to do certain things after the whistle, live on the field, and then send a camera in to film that — using the technology Murray had tinkered with three years ago.
"We've put a lot of money into post-play, so when you see the celebrations, it's continuation after the play," Murray said. "We're not doing the pre-canned stuff."
It's hard to put into words but the support the broadcast direction gives to the rest of the game, particularly in post-play animations, is why many left EA Sports' booth saying the game does legitimately look better. It's not just next-gen graphics and a coat of polish on them. Murray, essentially, is a director with benefit of knowing when and how multiple sequences of action will take place and how long they'll go, so it's easy to be ready for them with his award-winning camera style.
"Before, we'd just pick, like, a camera bank," Murray explained. "Ball's snapped, so we pick five cameras based on where the ball begins [and follow the replay from there]. Now we're picking all of our cameras based on where the ball ends. I know it sounds like a simple thing, but it actually makes a heck of a lot of difference.
"The old way didn't really make sense," Murray said, "and it was nothing you saw on TV."
Murray says his team built "a global dynamic camera system" for Madden NFL 15 that, despite sounding like one of those back-of-the-box sales points longtime fans have tuned out, is actually nothing gamers will be aware of if it's properly doing the job. "That's everything from how we cut to that camera -or the decision not to cut to that camera as well," Murray said.
"Because we know when two men are getting up and high-fiving each other, and I know that I want to see their faces," he added. "I know they're going to move left, so we want to give them a little breathing room on the left. We know what they're going to do and when they're going to stop, so we can cut away."
Players will interact in groups of two, three and four after the play is blown dead, and the camera will go in and find which ones to display, considering what they're doing, whether Nantz or Simms are talking about any of them, and also if there are any stats or text information that is relevant to the shot. The direction is solid enough that it was disappointing when the playcalling window covered up what was being shown.
That's a much better problem to have, however, than showing something nobody cares to watch.