ESPN Invites Fans to Toy Story-Themed Alternative Broadcast

NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Beyond Sports, Silver Spoon support animated effort for Falcons–Jags

When it comes to animation, there’s no bigger name than The Walt Disney Co. When it comes to broadcast innovation, ESPN doesn’t shy away from something new. In a stroke of corporate synergy, the broadcaster is expanding its Monday Night Football offerings with the first-ever alternative broadcast based on Pixar classic Toy Story on ESPN+ and Disney+. During the Atlanta Falcons vs. Jacksonville Jaguars matchup from London’s Wembley Stadium at 9:30 a.m. ET on Sunday, Oct. 1, fans will be able to enter Andy’s Room for Funday Football with the help of ESPN’s Creative Studios, motion-capture technology by Silver Spoon, and real-time automated tracking by Beyond Sports.

“I can honestly say that this is probably the most fun project I’ll ever get to work on,” says Michael “Spike” Szykowny, senior director, motion graphics and production planning, ESPN Creative Studio. “We have some great IP to work with, and we’re looking forward to something that’s really special.”

High Expectations: NHL Big City Greens Classic Provides Blueprint

ESPN worked for 2½ months with Pixar to redevelop Andy’s room with an NFL twist.

Heading into Sunday’s matchup in London, ESPN has some useful experience in this type of production. Nearly seven months ago, at the tail end of the 2022-23 NHL regular season, the network aired a similar alternative alongside the traditional telecast for the New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals on March 14: the NHL Big City Greens Classic introduced the concept of a real-time, fully animated alternative broadcast leveraging the personalities and environment of the hit Disney show. Aimed at cultivating a kids-centric production suitable for the whole family, the endeavor opened up doors for expansion. Looking to bolster broadcast options on the NFL front, ESPN found the perfect opportunity to build off this highly successful activation in the spring.

“When we decided to do this, we wanted to start from what worked on the NHL Big City Greens and what we learned from that experience,” says Szykowny. “We wanted to be respectful to [the NFL and Pixar], so we had to balance the elements that both entities wanted to do.”

Iconography related to London, such as the Green Army Men protecting Big Ben, will surround the field.

On the technical front, Szykowny and his team are working with similar partners for the NHL Big City Greens Classic, including Beyond Sports and Silver Spoon. Beyond Sports will handle the automated tracking and rendering for the virtual playing field, combining single-point tracking via the NFL’s Next Gen Stats with the optical tracking provided by the league’s Hawkeye system. Silver Spoon will once again lead the motion-capture efforts of turning the live-commentary team into toys. Instead of the broadcast duo of Kevin Weekes and Drew Carter for the NHL Big City Greens Classic, the company will animate the broadcast trio of Carter, Booger McFarland, and Pepper Persley. Persley, the 12-year-old reporter who has become a staple of ESPN’s KidsCast on the MLB Little League Classic in Williamsport, PA, will provide a younger fan’s view of the action.

Like the NHL alternative broadcast, which was produced simultaneously with the traditional Rangers–Capitals telecast, Funday Football will be put together in Studio Z and a control room in Bristol, CT. With many moving parts, there is the possibility of potential hiccups on game day, but the crew plans for such possibilities and will take them in stride.

“We have to make sure that, if something doesn’t work exactly right,” says Szykowny, “we have to be ready to deal with it in a fashion that keeps the game flowing in a fun way and plays to the spirit of the broadcast.”

Planning and Prep: Broadcaster, Pixar Adjust to Each Other’s Work Tempo

ESPN Creative Studios made sure the players wear the NFL’s latest helmets, visors, and uniforms

On the creative side, ESPN Creative Studios has worked closely with Pixar for 2½ months. In this phase of the process, the hardest obstacle to overcome was both companies’ re-adjusting to how the other operates: for instance, Pixar specializes in long-form media that is fine-tuned and crafted over a long period of time; ESPN, on the other hand, is accustomed to accomplishing a task more quickly.

“Working with Pixar, who’s used to taking 2½ years to make a movie, we had to get our cadence and rhythm down to put this together in 2½ months,” says Szykowny. “They’ve been wonderful, and we have a great relationship.”

NFL and ESPN imagery, like Falcons and Jaguars posters, will decorate the walls of Andy’s room.

With the guidance of the Toy Story creators, Szykowny and his colleagues were armed with the support to give this alternative broadcast the utmost creativity. Unfortunately, given the recent Writers Guild of America strike, ESPN was unable to recruit actors to voice Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the rest of the Toy Story characters. Whereas the NHL Big City Greens Classic deployed the TV show’s characters, voices, and mannerisms, the NFL production has taken another course of action.

“We knew [voice actors] weren’t an option,” says Szykowny. “We had to create other ways, events, and moments during the show that would make up for it. Since the characters from Toy Story are surrounding the field and not participating in the actual game, there’s a lot less need for them to be talking.”

Some key events will be scattered throughout the broadcast. Deploying the creative toolkit supplied by the Pixar artists, ESPN Creative Studios was responsible for the graphics and the look that fans will see on the broadcast. One of the biggest lifts was to create the halftime spectacular of Duke Caboom, the popular motorcyclist and stuntman in Toy Story 4. In a three-minute-long original piece, Caboom will attempt to jump over numerous double-decker buses in the middle of Andy’s Room.

Popular characters Woody and Buzz Lightyear will be watching the game from the sidelines.

In addition, to teach football and its rules in an entertaining way, Toronto-based Big Studios developed animated prompts and vignettes explaining nuances of the game.

Creative Accuracy: Crew Aims To Honor Both Brands With Strict Attention to Detail

Partnering with two iconic U.S. brands, Szykowny believes, makes it particularly necessary to do right by the NFL and Pixar with Sunday’s presentation. This meant paying attention to the smallest of details.

“When it comes to creating animations, the NHL Big City Greens Classic was a two-dimensional package,” he notes. “When you’re creating a three-dimensional package for Toy Story, one of the most beloved franchises in the history of animated cartoons and movies, it’s a big responsibility to get all the details correct.”

Familiar elements from the films, including the cloud-filled wallpaper, is included in the game’s environment.

From Pixar’s perspective, that meant re-creating Andy’s room with the cloud-ladened wallpaper and adorning the cast of characters with the features seen in the films. With Pixar’s blessing, ESPN Creative Studios had the liberty of filling the walls with football-themed posters, iconography representing the city of London, and other NFL-related content. For the NFL, it was important to have players on the field wear the latest helmets, visors, and uniforms.

Besides being mindful of accuracy, ESPN implemented and improved workflows deployed for the NHL Big City Greens Classic. The results will be seen in both production and operations.

Limb tracking is the biggest one,” says Szykowny. “If it works correctly, it’s going to add a lot to the telecast, with the players looking more realistic in their movements. We also have the intention of using the motion-capture commentators a little bit more than we did during the NHL Big City Greens Classic.”

Combating Challenges With Fun: ESPN Creative Studios Leans on Group Effort

To tie into the idea that the toys can’t speak in front of Andy, the playing field turns into a rug with the players as toys.

Putting out the best product possible is the main objective, but having fun at the same time is also a priority. To accomplish both objectives, the production will rely on the expertise of numerous individuals from various companies:

FROM ESPN:
Senior Director, Media Strategy, Kimberly Aguilo; Manager, Digital Media Programming, Lana Altman; VPs, Programming and Acquisitions, Heather Anderson and Tim Reed; Graphics Operator Eric Arcisz; Sound Designers Ben Ayotte and DJ Jaunai; Production Assistants Heather Bacon, Joe Franklin, and Kennedy Howery; Media Operator Carl Baker; Coordinators, Business Development and Innovation, Alexandra Baiocco and Ellen Carnero; Post-Production Editors Zach Barrette and Nate Klein; Senior Technical Director, Aaron Bedenbaugh; Supervising Producer/Editor Mike Berggren; Social Media Producer Dalton Berhow-Goll; Editor Bryan Bishop; Content Associates Chris Blades, Jasmine Bowman, Michael Morgese, and Lauren DeMayo; Producer Brian Boyle, Harrison Fant, and Josh Hoffman; Manager, Animation, Graphics Innovation and Production Design Isa Bristol; Supervising Graphics Operator Paul Carafiello; Audio Operators Zach Casey and Ashley Gillis; Animators Alison Cellana, Preyas Naik, Maddie Goldberg, Rich Harrington, Tara Howard, and Jorge Gonzalez; Manager, Synergy Strategy and Solutions, Heather Lee Claggett; Senior Manager, Animation, Michael Chiplock; Social Media Creative Manager Mitchell Clements; Senior Manager, Graphics Innovation, Charlie Collin; Manager, Brand Strategy and Content Insights, Kaitlyn Connolly; Senior Audio Comms Specialists DJ Cormier and Brian Levesque; Senior Media Operator Assunta D’Amico; Lead Graphics Designer Scott Dickens; Associate Director, Audience Strategy and Planning, Emily Dinkel Editor Babacar Diop; VP, Content Integration and Synergy Solutions, Joelle Downes; Associate Director, Product Engineering, Joe Durante; Project Manager, Creative Services, Liz Fierro; Audio Comms Specialist Jason Finberg; Production Designer Stephanie Finnemore; Director, ESPN Research, Kaylin Fitzsimons; Lead Post Video Editor Jessica Foster; Senior Coordinating Editor Eric Freiler; Coordinating Producer Drew Gallagher; Music Assistant Rachel Gaylor; Manager, Business Development, Jeffrey Ghiringhelli; Manager, Programming and Acquisitions, Johanna Goldblatt; Senior Director, Corporate Strategy, Casey Grabbe; Technical Director Nathan Hanisch; Director, Media, Elissa Henderson; Director, ESPN+ Programming, Kate Hoolahan; VP, ESPN+ Programming and Acquisitions, Emily Horowitz; Lead Animator Steven Jase; Supervising Video Editor Mike Kataja; Senior Director, Strategic Insights, Lauren Keiling; Coordinator, Digital Media, Direct-to-Consumer Programming and Content Scheduling/Strategy, Bradley Klier; Senior Manager/Specialist, Operations, Tony Lacaprucia; Coordinating Director Lorenzo Lamadrid; VP, Digital Media Programming, John Lasker; Director, Creative Operations, Scott Lodge; VP, The Walt Disney Co., Deidra Maddock; Directors, Business Development and Innovation, Zachary Malet and Allison Loucks; Programming Coordinator Darius Martin; Lead Effects Artist Rob McNicholas; Senior Technical Operations Manager Haili Menard; Senior Post Editor/Motion Graphics Editor Tom Miele; Coordinating Director, Music, Claude Mitchell; Senior Project Manager Janene Monty; Lead Designers Colin Moore and Gabe Meza; Director, Programming and Acquisitions, Gregg Morriss; Supervising, Real-Time Graphics Developer, Jon Nagle; Manager, Graphics Innovation, Amy Nelson; Director Jeffrey Nelson; Coordinating Studio Operator Shane Norton; Broadcast and Digital Graphics Operator Mildred Ochoa-Reyes; Senior Analyst, Business Development and Innovation Brett O’Neil; VP, Production, Phil Orlins; Supervising Sound Designer Ray Palagy; Music Assistant Jake Palin; Lighting Specialist Stephen Potvin; Coordinating Content Editor Steve Quadrato; Art Director Kynna Randall; Video Editor Myka Rodriguez; Associate Creative Director Ted Saland; Associate Producers John Serio and Bianca Hock; Media Replay Operators Meredith Sills, Robert McWhorter, and Adam Herbert; Associate Manager, Content and Consumer Insights, Jack Simonds; Supervising Animators Sung Sohn, Justin Norton, and Adam Konyndyk; Senior Director, Creative Animation, David “Sparky” Sparrgrove; Music Operations Supervisor Joanne Strange; Production Designers Bridget Sweeney, Jorge Mejia, and Heather Gagnon; Senior Director, Synergy Strategy and Solutions, Erin Thornton; EVP, Creative Studio and Marketing, Tina Thornton; Animation Supervisor Matthew Tucker; Senior Software Engineer Jed Turnbull; VP, ESPN Creative Studios, Chin Wang; Associate Director Jonathan Weaver; Music Director Kevin Wilson; Senior Effects Artist Jessica Yong; Real-Time Graphics Developer Chaofan Yu; Lily Blum; Tyler Church; Olivia Coryell; Tom Davino; Alexa Dettelbach; Brian Fischer; Ashley Gillis; Anthony Gonzalez; Lauren Gorajek; Casey Grabbe; Kennedy Howery; Leah Jones; Trevor MacArthur; Fatima Martinez; Mike Morgese; Olivia Nowokunski; Kevin Ota; Grant Robertson; Kendra Stanhope; and Derek Volner

FROM PIXAR:
SVP, Marketing and Franchise, Jonathan Garson; Marketing and Franchise, Catalina Hosokawa; Creative Content and Marketing, Brian Tanaka; Creative Director, Franchise, Jay Ward; and Director, Marketing and Franchise, Jennifer Zaccaro

FROM BEYOND SPORTS:
CEO/Co-Founder Sander Schouten; Co-Founder and CTO Nicolaas Westerhof; Project Lead Tess Glastra van Loon; Project Manager Gert Elsinga; Unity Teamlead Edsart Boelens; Art Teamlead Farid Salah; Technical Artist Narendra Yenugula; Senior Developers Joris Eertink and Marco Zuiderwijk; Data Scientists Daan Eertink and Roman Karpenko; Data Scientist/Software Developer Stan Zutt; Unity Developers Giuseppe Anfuso, Huub van de Hoef, Bence Szabó, and Stella Rübsaam; Developers Jesse Stam and Rick de Jong; Senior Unity Developer Anton Semchenko; Creative Media Developer Brendan Brink; 3D Artists Ksenia Glinskaya and Sahar Naroozizivari; 3D Generalists Luis Fernandez and Luc de Wolf; Software Developer Thomas Meijles; Software Engineer Joey Bleeker; Backend Developer Fatih Adiyaman; Data Operator/Producer Daniel Walsh; Jacky Moon; and Suman Vinas

FROM SILVER SPOON
AV Engineer Jeremy Allen; Unreal Technical Artist Melissa Canavan; Director, Motion Capture, Peter Collazo; Real-Time VFX Artist Luiz Freire; Executive Director Laura Herzing; Director, Technology/Lead Systems Designer Matthew Houstle; Lead Unreal Technical Artist Mark McCallum; Managing Director Dan Pack; and Senior Producer Callie Savoca

FROM BIG STUDIOS
Technical Director/Visual Effects Artist Javier Castellanos; Creative Director, Animation and Motion Graphics, Jordan Greenstein; Creative Director, 3D Generalist/Compositor, Randy Knott; Owner/Director Jocelyne Meinert; Motion Designer Umair Mohsin; Lead Producer Tysen Potter; Producer/Production Coordinator Chelsea Vern; Marco Castellanos; and Liem Ngyen

Regardless of the hurdles that may come up on Sunday morning, this team is up to the task.

“[The combination of single-point and optical tracking] hasn’t been done before in a live event,” says Szykowny. “I like these types of challenges because we have a lot of creative people working on this and we’re figuring out how to make this broadcast super special.”


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