Brian Murray calls it “The Super Bowl loophole.”
As a cinematographer with NFL Films and a veteran of eight Super Bowl Sundays, Murray knows the big day’s pre-game schedule down to the minute. In about three hours in Glendale, Ariz., there will be seven minutes before the game where no one is on the field. The players will leave their stretches and drills and head back into the tunnels, to wait for the introductions getting Super Bowl 49 underway.
In his time with NFL Films, Murray, now the creative director for presentation for EA Sports’ Madden NFL franchise, would be on the field, permitted to set up his gear and take his position. He’d already have that taken care of, though. When the seven minutes began, he’d walk out to midfield — not a soul on the playing surface, and slowly turn a complete circle.
“You can do a 360, and feel everyone looking at you,” Murray said. “It’s like that calm before the storm. It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences and I’ve been able to do it eight times.”
EA Sports routinely sends staff, including developers, to the Super Bowl (it’s very much a coveted assignment). Murray isn’t among them, though. He just started with EA Sports last year, brought aboard to shore up a broadcast package that has seen some impressive overhauls in the past, but then rarely followed them with any consistent improvement.
Murray’s job, more or less, is to professionalize the entire fictitious broadcast served by Madden NFL. Madden 15 did add some new features — a halftime highlight package, for example. Its main progress came from eliminating dead air in the broadcast and doing a better job of matching visual information (replays and graphics) to what announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are saying.
Still, even if a video game has the advantage of always being in perfect position for a replay or a reaction shot, the fact this is still an interactive medium — the viewer is the one playing the game after all — interferes with the ability to really blow things out in a Super Bowl showcase like what you’ll see on NBC at 6:30 p.m.
A great example is the pre-game coin toss. It was one of the worst offenders in interrupting Madden’s “broadcast” and depicting players unnaturally, doing nothing, filling time with silence while players elected to kick off or receive the ball, and then which end of the field. Realizing that most players will either always defer or always receive if they win the toss, and then always pick the side of the field that has the wind in the fourth quarter, Madden NFL 15 began letting players set those preferences in the game setup menu.
The result is a 26-second pre-game sequence that — particularly for Madden’s Super Bowl package — makes a lot more sense visually and doesn’t waste a user’s time.
“That is exactly why we changed the coin toss,” Murray said. “We thought, if it’s a big game for the player, and the player does want the pageantry and the presentation going into it, then we should grab hold of the coin toss. It does take a lot of time, and we wanted to give it a great presentation, but also make it something where you’re not just sitting and waiting.”
As a senior cinematographer with NFL Films, Murray learned from the late Steve Sabol, the award-winning and widely admired documentarian who co-founded the company with his father, Ed. Murray was also director of photography for its Hard Knocks series from 2008 until joining EA Sports. He continues to work for NFL Films on a freelance basis.
“The main point [Sabol] made is we’re feature film camera operators but we only get one take to do it right,” Murray said. “We can’t go, hey Peyton Manning, can you throw that touchdown again, because we didn’t get it right the first time.”
That can make filming a Super Bowl an incredibly stressful experience, even with anywhere from 25 to 35 colleagues backing you up, all getting their own footage. “It’s a little like, you have to shoot everything that moves, because you never knew when something would become a story,” Murray said. “For example, in New Orleans (for Super Bowl 47) when the power went out, that was shoot-everything-that-moves. At first the power was out and you were thinking, this might not be so big of a deal. Then, as it’s still out, 30, 40 minutes, you’re thinking this might affect the game. The players are getting cold, they’re not warming up.”
The power went out midway through the third quarter with Baltimore leading San Francisco 28 to 6. The 49ers scored 17 points in the quarter, but the rally fell short and they lost 34-31.
Madden, of course, has literally zero potential for that kind of chaos because, well, its makers are in charge of everything that goes on in it. Still, it could put on a broadcast like it wasn’t even watching its own game. One of the most important decisions Madden NFL 15 makes also seems like one of the simplest. Its replays now begin from the point of view of where the play is ending, rather than simply starting with a camera on the ball where it is snapped.
Yes, NFL Films shoots an entire play and logs it into its editing suite — the slow-motion spiral as the ball travels from quarterback to receiver is an NFL Films staple. But the point is to edit things down to what really is compelling, visually, and the old Madden was just shoveling out the action wholesale, with no assistance to the viewer pointing out what is important.
“What’s different about a video game is you truly want to focus on what’s user-facing,” Murray said. “What the user is playing over, and over. You don’t want repetitive moments and you want to dive as deep as you can. In the normal linear track of being a football fan, you’ll see one Super Bowl a year, and it’s the biggest moment ever. But in Madden you have fans who play a game or more a day, or multiple seasons, so you have calculate your investments.”
Murray knows that Madden’s Super Bowl broadcast, while not tone-deaf to the fact it’s someone’s championship appearance, still lacks a good deal of appointment-TV oomph. “Something like custom presentation is not out of reach,” he offered. “It’s not new technology. But the glue that keeps all of this together is the cameras, the compositions, what those cameras are doing, how they are behaving.” That’s why Madden NFL 15 had to get its footwork down, even if the improvements are more subtle, before tackling bigger jobs.
‘we’re feature film camera operators but we only get one take to do it right.’
“That immediately makes me feel better about how it handles the Super Bowl,” Murray said. “We specifically fixed the timing of the Super Bowl. If you play it in Madden 25, it didn’t make a lot of sense and it had a lot of big pauses. But I agree, the work’s not done. I’ve got a laundry list that I’m excited to go after.”
Murray is happy for now to kick back with barbecue ribs and consume the Super Bowl as a total civilian, rather than a harried camera operator, but he confessed to missing the thrill that covering that kind of an event uniquely delivers. He did reprise his role as a cameraman, in a way, for the opening kickoff sequence Madden NFL 15 serves up. It’s a sideline tracking shot with a Steadicam, and Murray had to track the motion-capture kicker and other actors running up to the ball.
“It’s probably 45 pounds on the arms, and then you’re wearing another 15 pounds,” he joked. These kinds of running shots were a staple when he was working for NFL Films. After that seven minutes of peace and quiet at midfield, he followed the New York Giants’ Justin Tuck out of the tunnel to begin Super Bowl 46.
“I put the camera 3 to 4 feet off the ground on his shoes and ran out of the tunnel as they announced the New York Giants,” he said. “That’s one of my favorite shots, with all of the flashes going off, and the whole team in the pageantry of the Super Bowl. There really is nothing like it.”
Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears weekends.