Block & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football.

NBC Wild Card Weekend: A graphical assessment

Yesterday, I reviewed the mostly beautiful and only occasionally atheism-inducing flourishes that ESPN added to its NFL visuals for Wild Card Weekend. In a broadcast that served as a tune-up for the Super Bowl, NBC also spruced up its look with a near-overhaul of its graphics—one that extends Sunday Night Football’s tradition of considered restraint and effective use of motion.

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But first, the evening kicked off with another Sunday Night Football tradition as play-by-play commentator Al Michaels came on screen to gaze into our souls. He likes to poke around in there before a big game, make sure everything is in order.

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Michaels was joined by his booth partner, Cris Collinsworth.

Once the game began, it didn’t take long to notice that NBC had whipped up a new score bar. Even injured Pittsburgh Steelers running back LeVeon Bell was impressed!

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Top: NBC’s score bar during the Week 13 Denver-Kansas City game. Bottom: NBC’s score bar during last weekend’s Baltimore-Pittsburgh Wild Card game. (Comparison to scale.)

The 2015 model replaces the gleaming chrome of its predecessor with a high-polish plastic that shines with a subtler, more consistent gloss. The old bar was a machine; this bar is an information appliance.

In a review of NBC’s graphics last year, I praised the network’s then-current visual language, but this revision is even better. The most striking and welcome change is the elimination of the dark frosted glass table that used to span the bottom of the image, which existed only so that the NBC peacock could hover above it. As you can tell, the new score display is wider than the old one, but the screen still feels airier overall because that gray table of gloom is gone. Also, the ostentation of the network logo has been scaled back a couple of notches, although I never minded the boldness of the old one. It’s a rainbow; it’s a bird. What the hell more do you want out of a logo?

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Small refinements abound. The team timeout indicators have been compressed into tight lozenges. Here again you can see the metaphor shifting from “machine” to “device.” The old timeout bars had the incandescent glow of old dashboard lights, while the new ones are uniform, like pixels on an LED screen.

I always thought the play clock made a logical companion to the down-and-distance readout, but NBC has bowed to convention by marrying it to the game clock. It’s now the most awkward part of the composition, just floating there in a sad, barely discernible puddle of gray.

The thinner team abbreviations and embiggened score digits don’t look as tidy as the 2014 edition, but they are more open and easier to read. It’s a wash.

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A static screenshot can only capture part of the redesign, as modern sports visuals are built to move. The old bar emphasized rotational motion, like the crown on a luxury wristwatch or tumblers in a lock. In the example above, the bar turns around the horizontal axis while the peacock twirls around the vertical. You can almost picture Charlie Chaplin caught in the machinations of Green Bay’s drive stats. But please don’t, because he’s dead. Leave the man in peace.

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This year’s model doesn’t rotate; it slides. Above, the score bar shimmies off the screen to make way for a Josh Harris stat box. The only rotational movement that remains is provided by Harris’ own head, or perhaps the head of a Josh Harris bio-bot who is being activated the first time, for purposes of murder. The murder of Charlie Chaplin.

Sliding is a common move for sports graphics, but NBC’s execution is especially artful. Last summer, designer Cento Lodigiani posted a video on Vimeo called The Illusion Of Life. The video demonstrated 12 “principles of animation” that were detailed in a 1981 book Disney Animation: The Illusion Of Life, by Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. It’s worth watching the entire video, but in respect to NBC I’ll draw your attention to principle number six, slow in/out. The idea is that by creating more frames for the beginning and end of a motion, you give an animated character the illusion of real weight.

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Here’s a slowed-down closeup of the score bar compressing itself as it glides off the screen. The motion compares closely to demonstration #6 in Lodigiani’s video: small moves at first, bigger moves in the middle, and small moves again at the end. If the bar instead closed up at a steady speed, it would look like a substanceless overlay. With a fine-tuned rendering, it acquires a bit of heft.

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“You’ve got to see these great new animations on the NBC broadcast!” insisted the person on the other end of the phone. But Steelers safety Troy Polamalu could not be coaxed from his underwater lair.

NBC also observes Disney animation principle number two, anticipation—i.e., a small motion that immediately precedes a larger one, like someone shifting their body before taking a step. In the clip above, ignore Cris Collinsworth’s deification of Terrell Suggs and focus on the movement at the bottom of the screen. When Pittsburgh’s drive stats slide into view, the larger motion is anticipated by the fadeout of the timeout indicators on the left; then the animation draws your eye to the right. Just before the score returns, the peacock twinkles, anticipating a surge back to the left. (The delicacy of the movement is not well served by the overbearing “SWOOSH!” sound effects.) It’s no accident that the network’s logo is the focal point of this back and forth. Data flows into the peacock, and data flows back out, and thus NBC casts itself as an information hub.

The umpire on referee Clete Blakeman’s crew was so eager to see what the new “FLAG” graphic looked like that he called a too-many-men penalty on Baltimore—when in fact the Ravens had fielded just the right amount of men. This forced Blakeman to make an embarrassing announcement of an erroneous flag. It was surely the worst officiating screw-up of Wild Card Weekend; no others spring to mind. In any case, we got to see the way color spills into the peacock, making it act like a window. Gratuitous but pretty.

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Two plays later, the Ravens actually did have too many men on the field, and Blakeman was vindicated. You have never seen a man happier to put his hands on his head.