Behind the Work: ESPN and W+K, N.Y.'s Virtual Football

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ESPN and W+K/N.Y. recently found a way to help people beat the Monday blues—and get couch potatoes off their butts—with this latest effort to promote the "Is it Monday yet?" campaign for Monday night football. The agency worked with Monster Media to create gesture-recognizing touchscreen billboard games installed on New York, Boston and Chicago storefronts that summoned passersby to play virtual games of catch with digital quarterbacks.

Creativity checked in with Wieden + Kennedy/N.Y. CW Eric Steele, CD/AD Stuart Jennings and Head of Interactive Production Liz Whittaker about making the virtual game a reality.

So how did this project come about?
Eric Steele: The Monday Night Football campaign is about finding entertaining and unexpected ways to remind football fans that for 16 weeks a year, they're lucky enough to have a light at the end of the tunnel that helps make Mondays a little less crappy.

And how did you come up with this particular idea?
Stuart Jennings: We knew that we wanted to somehow bring a taste of Monday Night to the Monday grind. We liked the idea of creating a football spectacle and being right there with pedestrians on the sidewalk—offering them a bit of respite from all the office building hustle and bustle that you're never quite ready for when you wake up Monday morning. Plus, marrying the interactive storefront vehicle that can track passersby with a football video game that was actually performance-based felt like something unique and fun. So the more we talked about it, inviting people to let off some Monday steam with a virtual game of catch seemed really compelling and right on strategy. And by varying the quarterback who's throwing to you, we could even tie it in to weekly tune-in.

What were the biggest challenges on this job? Production-wise, it seems like there may have been some interesting technical hurdles. Can you tell me a little bit about those and how you addressed them?
Liz Whittaker: We realized early on that the key to creating an engaging user experience hinged upon how accurately we could replicate the experience of anticipating a real life catch, where you don't know exactly where or when the ball is coming. For the user, each throw needed to feel unique and random. But from a production perspective, breaking down the act of throwing and catching into specific components that could be looped and replicated was the key to processing speed and playability. It's always a delicate balancing act. From the beginning, we established that we would create a finite number of throwing sequences and then alter the specific flight path of the ball through the front end flash layer. Rest assured there were plenty of days spent tweaking throw trajectories and talking about the spin versus the tilt of a football in flight. But the end result is a series of throws that changes for every game played.

What sorts of technology went into developing the virtual football game?
LW: The graphics are mostly comprised of motion-capture CG renders edited in After Effects, while the game itself was developed in Flash. Each game location is served by two dedicated computers that drive the feed to nine linked LCDs and handle the touch screen technology. These dedicated CPUs also utilize a single shared XML feed to access the integrated cross-location leaderboard. As for the proprietary gesture based motion tracking and recognition controls, we can't give that away—it would make the game too easy.

Who did you work with and what was involved in developing the actual technical side? Were any new technologies invented for this particular project?
LW: W+K, N.Y. worked with Brand New School to generate all the motion-capture CG animations that populate the game. And it was a close partnership between W+K, N.Y. and the folks at Monster Media to bring the game mechanics to life in Flash. In terms of the implementation of the gesture based technologies, Monster Media has been considered best in class for their proprietary software and hardware integration. So the technology is not new, but because this was one of the first times this technology has been integrated into a skill based game, the implementation needed to be adjusted and customized to the specifics of each location. Attributes such as the dimensions of the sidewalk, the amount of foot traffic behind the user, and the amount of vehicle traffic on the street all factored into each location's calibration.

Anything interesting you've observed about how the public has responded?
ES: Bystanders definitely like to congregate and observe people as they play the game, which probably has to do with the fact that the user is standing in the middle of a sidewalk flailing their arms in thin air as they try to catch imaginary footballs. And certain bystanders at the New York location have been known to watch people catching from Tom Brady and say to them, "I hope he breaks his ankle on this throw," among other things unprintable here.

What are the stats so far in terms of games played?
LW: It's still too early to give any concrete reports in terms of metrics as the games officially launched on 9/14 following several days of soft-launch testing. But we can say that we are seeing lunch hour spikes as high as 40 games an hour, and our own high scores entered during testing were wiped off the leader board within the first hour after going live.

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