That UFO you might see whizzing over Thursday night's Florida State-North Carolina State football game is not just a camera -- it's the link between televised football and the video games they seek to mimic.
When the Seminoles line up against the Wolfpack in Raleigh, N.C., ESPN's 15th consecutive night of prime-time football will use SkyCam as its eye in the sky.
SkyCam, a camera suspended on cables above the playing field, gives TV viewers a behind-the-quarterback view of the action several times during the game.
With the players arrayed in front of the viewer much like pieces on a chessboard, it's easier to see offensive linemen pushing their opponents out of the way, creating a gap for a running back to slice through.
It's a view familiar to video game players.
As any fan of "NCAA Football" and "Madden NFL Football" knows, video games are looking more like the real thing, and the TV networks are making the real thing look like video games.
But you ain't seen nothing yet.
The next generation of the Xbox and PlayStation promises more lifelike graphics, smoother animation and smarter football players.
But you don't have to wait for the new game systems to get slick TV-style presentations complete with celebrating players, fuming coaches and face-painted fans waving signs that you create. Those elements are already in today's games.
Yet the video games still continue to mimic college and NFL broadcasts.
"NFL 2K5," for instance, remembers big plays during the first half and assembles them into a package that a digitized Chris Berman introduces at halftime.
How can TV directors and producers compete with that?
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. From camera angles to the graphics on the screen, TV has borrowed from video games.
For instance, TV's first-down marker -- a graphic that appears to stretch across the field to indicate how far the offense has to go to get four new chances to score -- appeared in video games long before its arrival on TV.
"3-D graphics in `Sunday Night NFL' ultimately spawned from our grasp of the video-game presentation so prevalent among our viewers," says Mark Shapiro, ESPN's executive vice president of programming and production.
What spawned those ideas was the king of video games, the "John Madden" franchise, published by EA Sports for the Apple Computer back in 1989. Fifteen years and 35 million copies later, the word "Madden" is synonymous with video-game football.
"Our efforts in the last generation caused the TV networks to make broadcasts look more like our games," says Erik Whiteford, director of EA Sports brand.
"Our goal generations ago was to mimic TV as best we could. Now, we maybe want to offer a different insight, a different view, come up with our own video and audio expression of the sport."
Though EA Sports rules the roost, ESPN is challenging EA with its stable of sports video games, including "ESPN NFL 2K5."
Just as TV borrows from the game, the game borrows from ESPN telecasts by using the voices and likenesses of the on-screen talent.
"Fans expect to see Chris Berman and Susie Kolbur" in the video games, says Rick Alessandri, senior vice president and general manager of ESPN Enterprises.
And the game influences the telecasts by giving viewers new ways to watch the game.
ESPN and its Disney sibling ABC regularly use SkyCam on "Sunday Night Football" and "Monday Night Football." The roving camera reminds video gamers of the cameras used to watch replays in "Madden" and "NFL 2K5." The cameras swirl around players, referees, even the football in midplay. The viewer feels like he's on the field, and that's the feeling SkyCam tries to evoke.
"When you're watching a game, we don't want you to be a spectator," Shapiro says. "We want you to feel like you're inside, [that] you're at the game yourself."
Sega, which makes ESPN's NFL game, works with network producers to carry the feel of the broadcast into the video game.
"Graphics packages are challenging to coordinate because games are produced 12 months ahead of time," Alessandri says. "It takes great coordination and planning.
"If you change a package for the broadcast, you'd better make sure you change it for the game."
"Madden" wasn't the first game when it arrived in 1989, but its popularity was bolstered by the association with the amiable, hyperkinetic football coach-turned-TV analyst.
Three years later "Joe Montana II Sports Talk Football" raised the bar on the Sega Genesis game system. That game incorporated an announcer whose repetitious phrases gave a foggy illusion that players now were actually watching a televised game, not watching it from the upper deck of a stadium.
Five years later, in 1998, "Madden Football N64" for Nintendo's N64 game system introduced HelmetCam. The idea was to take you out of the stands and put you on the field with a first-person perspective that was enhanced by bars on the screen meant to simulate the facemask of a helmet. In practice, it was a disadvantage because peripheral vision was gone, so blitzing linebackers could blindside you all day. Fortunately, there were other views available, including the traditional 50-yard line and the behind-the-goalpost views.
In the late 1990s, when video games developed replay systems with user-controlled cameras, suddenly you could pause the action and smoothly change your perspective -- from the upper deck at the 50-yard line, to down on the sideline, to on the field in the middle of the action. The views were unlike anything ever experienced by armchair quarterbacks.
An Eye on the field
Meanwhile, TV broadcasters were trying different ways of bringing the game closer.
At the Super Bowl in January 2001, CBS unveiled EyeVision, a system that coordinated an array of cameras surrounding the field. A computer forced the cameras to focus on the same point of turf simultaneously, giving the feeling that one camera was swirling around the action. EyeVision helped conclusively show the Baltimore Ravens indeed scored a touchdown during their victory over the New York Giants.
Not to be outdone, NBC suspended a remote-controlled camera on wires above the field during XFL games a month later, giving video gamelike perspectives. The league disbanded after its only season, and ABC and ESPN acquired the SkyCam technology.
"Twenty years ago," Shapiro says, "telecasts didn't have the bells and whistles because the technology wasn't where it is today."
Once Fox acquired the rights to broadcast NFL games in 1994, it used screen real estate and sound effects to constantly update the viewer about the down and distance the offense faced. The sound effects called attention to when the down and distance changed, and the swooshes and bangs were needed because viewers were unaccustomed to having so much information on the screen.
Now, NFL telecasts flash current statistics, scores from other games, and a scroll shows performances from players in other contests for the benefit of the growing numbers of fantasy football players.
NFL broadcasts don't look like they used to because, as Shapiro says, "There's an arm-wrestling for viewers minute by minute."
"I don't think all the info [presented on-screen during a telecast] detracts from the game," says Eric Bratcher, senior editor of PlayStation 2 Magazine. "There are times when I wish a graphic would get out of the way so I can see what's on the field.
"But take the first-down marker, for instance. That was something everybody loved the minute they saw it. Video games did that first. That's the golden example of seeing it in the game and doing it in real life."
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Key moments in football on TV
1982: CBS unveils the "CBS Chalkboard," also known as the Telestrator, which football-coach-turned-broadcaster John Madden uses to diagram why a play succeeded or failed.
1994: Fox begins broadcasting NFL games, heightening the use of on-screen graphics, such as an always-visible scoreboard.
1999: ESPN introduces "First-and-Ten," a graphic that shows viewers where the offense must move the ball to earn a fresh set of downs.
2001: CBS unveils EyeVision, which gives the sensation that one camera is swirling around the action. ? NBC marks the debut of SkyCam during its XFL telecasts.
2003: ESPN and ABC license use of SkyCam for college and pro football broadcasts.
. . . . . . and in video games
1989: Electronic Arts introduces the "John Madden Football" video game for Apple computers.
1992: Sega's "Joe Montana II Sports Talk Football" is the first game with an announcer who uses multiple phrases.
1998: Nintendo's "Madden Football N64" pioneers HelmetCam.
2003: ESPN revives its video game fortunes with "ESPN NFL Football." "Madden NFL 2004" is the best-selling video game of 2003, but a year later, "ESPN NFL 2K5" will rival "Madden NFL 2005" for critical acclaim, if not sales.
2004: With innovations that include customizable fans who wave user-created placards, "NCAA Football 2005," "Madden NFL 2005" and "ESPN NFL 2K5" continue to battle for virtual-gridiron supremacy.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times