Athletes put signature moves into video games
Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia strides to the plate and begins his ritual.
Tap the bat twice on the ground. Circle it overhead. Adjust the gloves. Stand straight, bat upright, awaiting the pitch.
A voice interrupts: “And cut!”
Pedroia is in a Sony Corp. studio in San Diego, suited up in a spandex bodysuit studded with 55 white sensors. Cameras capture his every move and send the data to powerful computers so engineers can bring him to life in MLB 2009 the Show, for the company’s PlayStation video game consoles.
“Whatever you do during a game, our players are going to want to see that,” Chris Clements, the game’s lead animator, tells Pedroia.
Sports-related video games now generate around $3 billion in annual sales, and enthusiasts have come to expect near-perfect fidelity. That means replicating a professional athlete’s every tic and nuance.
The genre has benefited tremendously from computing advances that enable developers to render games that feel like the real deal: the angle of the sun shining into the stadium, the reaction of the crowds, the athletes’ movements and facial expressions.
“We tried to make our titles look as if you were watching live television,” said Demian Gordon, who helped set up a motion-capture studio for Electronic Arts Inc. to supply data for all the game publisher’s sports titles. He is now a supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks in Culver City, using the same skills for movies such as “Watchmen,” “Hancock” and “Beowulf.”
“Our motto was ‘If it’s in the game, it’s in the game,’ ” he said.
For titles based on football, baseball, basketball, golf and even skateboarding, that means suiting up pro athletes and putting them through the intricate movements they have spent their lives honing.
With baseball, however, there’s a twist. Major league players have unique signature moves. Many go through elaborate rituals, often fueled by superstition, just before taking a swing or throwing a pitch.
“People who play our game really notice when the angle of the bat is 5 degrees off,” Clements said.
On OperationSports.com, a fan-created website dedicated to athletic video games, readers dissect the minutiae. They point out when a player’s jersey isn’t quite the right color, or when an athlete’s hat is positioned incorrectly.
But they also notice when developers get it right. They praise the realism of Matt Holliday’s signature leg kick, Albert Pujols’ gait or Jim Edmonds’ toe lift.
“Baseball, without question, is the most challenging game to make because so many players have signature styles,” said Stephen Park, motion-capture coordinator for 2K Sports, a game publisher in Novato, Calif., that also makes basketball, hockey, boxing and tennis games.
For MLB 2009 the Show, which is due out March 3, developers were able to draw from a library of animations created for the 2008 version. But improvements give fans a reason to buy the game each year. New player statistics and rosters are key to that equation, as are fresh animations and attention to detail.
This year’s game has nearly 1,300 new animations, including 200 batting stances such as the one taken from Pedroia’s performance in the motion-capture studio in January.
“Our focus this year was in getting the batting stances right,” said Chris Gill, the game’s senior producer. “It needs to look right, and it needs to be game-speed.”
The motion-capture engineers also put Pedroia, the reigning American League Most Valuable Player, through his paces in the field. He scooped up imaginary ground balls, pretended to fire to first base and turned mock double-plays. In front of him, a giant screen displayed a color-coded stick figure that moved in tandem with his actual motions.
“It’s crazy,” Pedroia said. “You see that big screen back there showing what I’m doing. If I do my batting gloves, it shows me doing that. The way I walk, the way I field balls. It’s identical.”
A crew of 60 Sony developers has worked nearly around the clock over the last few months to finish MLB 2009 the Show.
The team first used state-of-the-art equipment to capture the movements of athletes performing on a custom-built, laser-leveled concrete floor. Animators used the data to create virtual skeletons for every major league player that determine how their limbs, head and torso move.
The avatars are layered with skin, hair, uniforms and other defining features, then given a virtual puff of life so their chests rise and fall.
There are more than 750 players in Major League Baseball, so it’s both impossible and impractical to hook up each one to motion-capture machines. Minor league players are often hired to impersonate stars. The stand-ins sometimes require dozens of takes to nail more complicated rituals, such as the elaborate glove adjustments and toe taps by former Dodger Nomar Garciaparra, Park of 2K Sports said.
“Nomar does about 15 or 16 things, and he’ll do it exactly the same way every time,” Park said. “The talent has to memorize all things exactly.”
When his developers need a certain animation quickly, Gill, whose stocky build betrays his stint as an infielder in the Cincinnati Reds organization, pinch-hits by donning the motion-capture suit.
Sony has also hired Gar Ryness, a sports fan in Silver Lake known on the Internet as Batting Stance Guy. He has memorized the stances of just about every major league player and developed a cult following after a friend posted videos on YouTube of Ryness in his backyard mimicking players.
“Kids are brought up watching baseball from a very young age,” Ryness said. “They see these players as their heroes, and they try to connect with them by mimicking them when they play Wiffle Ball or Little League. That’s how it all starts.”
Because game consoles have evolved into powerful computers, developers are now able to replicate those player quirks and rituals in ways they never could before.
“If they do it,” Clements said, “we do it.”