Gamers noticed the shift instantly.
Late last year, during the Fox broadcast of a matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and the Washington Football Team, fans were treated to shots of end zone celebrations that felt ethereal, almost dreamlike. The players were captured in stunning clarity, celebrating against soft-focus backgrounds. Some likened the images to those shot using the iPhone’s Portrait mode. Gamers, though, saw Madden.
“My 17-year-old son called me and said, ‘This is the coolest look ever. You gotta have it,’” says Jason Cohen, head of remote technical operations at CBS. “It has an animated, almost 3D look, like a video game. It made such a splash among fans, and you have to listen to your viewers.”
The Madden franchise has been around for nearly three decades, and with each iteration the video game looks more and more like actual NFL football. That’s why, when those Washington-Seattle end zone shots hit people’s homes, the matchup seemed to achieve a kind of reverse uncanny valley, real life resembling the virtual one.
Fans loved it. The reaction was so overwhelmingly positive that Cohen’s team at CBS quickly incorporated the Sony cameras that produce the Madden-esque shots into its own broadcasts. Now, Madden Vision is headed to the Super Bowl.
Actually, it’ll be Madden Vision 2.0. Whereas previous NFL broadcasts used the Sony α7R IV, Sunday’s game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will feature shots made using the Sony Venice, a camera popular with film and TV cinematographers. (It’s all over Netflix’s King Arthur drama Cursed.) The α7R IV is a 35-mm, full-frame, mirrorless digital camera with a backpack transmitter and gimbal attachment (hence the silky tracking shots). When Fox production crews started using it to film games earlier this season, they referred to the rig as “Megalodon,” after the enormous prehistoric shark, a misleading name considering the camera can be wielded with one hand. The Venice is a slightly larger device, but during Sunday’s broadcast it’ll get more action than its predecessor, which was largely just used for touchdown celebrations and tracking shots of quarterbacks running onto the field from the sidelines. “They’re wireless, so they can pop up anywhere in the stadium,” says Cohen.
Contrary to popular belief, the cameras don’t shoot in 4K or 8K. They shoot in 1080p, the standard definition for a live NFL game, they just shoot with a shallow depth of field, putting the foreground in focus and rendering the background fuzzy. “It’s not a new trick. It just hasn’t been used in live sports until this year,” Cohen says. “You’re solely accentuating the athlete in front of you.”