When the NHL draftees of 2015 picked up their first video game controllers around the turn of the millennium, the architects of EA Sports NHL were adding a revolutionary detail to the series: recognizable player faces. By today’s standards, the game-faces of the early 2000s looked ridiculous, but still, Lemieux looked like Lemieux, Sakic like Sakic, Pronger like Pronger. It was a start. Today’s budding stars were once wide-eyed, hockey-mad gamer kids, most of whom grew up as avid fans of the NHL series, and many of whom still are. So in addition to the checklist of cliché milestones every future pro daydreams about, the EA NHL generation also dreamed of playing as their authentic virtual selves. Nigel Nunn helps this dream come true. He’s the digital imaging lead at The Capture Lab, a company that does the head scans for EA’s various sports titles, including FIFA and UFC. Nunn is a road warrior, darting from city to city with a portable camera setup capable of swiftly capturing the raw materials for what will become a nearly photo-realistic game face. As the quality and the volume of recognizable in-game faces has rapidly increased, fan expectations have risen as well. “I have people who find me on Facebook, give me a list of players that aren’t scanned, the clubs that I need to go to still, and give me contact names and addresses for the clubs,” Nunn said. “They know I’m on the road and what I’m up to. It’s really strange.”
The capture process once required the player to sit still for 20 minutes as a scanner slowly made its way around them. Nowadays, a setup of 20 photo cameras snaps images of the head, and using a technique called photogrammetry, pixels from the various photos are matched up and then, with a little magic (a.k.a. meticulous labor by skilled artists), a 3D rendering is produced, down to the player’s pores. If you’re imagining
Connor McDavid running through a checklist of 100 facial expressions as he’s having his head captured, you’re way off. Only a few basic expressions are required during the capture phase, and the rest is animated afterward. “Those expressions are more about coverage, so when we do animate them and they open their mouth, we have all that detail,” Nunn said. EA does employ another capture technique, in which the player watches a video of a model moving through a few minutes’ worth of dramatic facial expressions and mimics what they see on screen. “If you wanna see somebody get kind of embarrassed, that does it,” said Nunn.
The NHL series made the jump to “next gen” gaming consoles PS4 and Xbox One with NHL 15, systems that allow dramatically better game visuals. The difference is like DVD versus VHS. Every aesthetic element is richer, down to the stitching on jerseys. Player likenesses are increasingly true to life, and it doesn’t seem impossible for EA’s goal of photo-realism to be attained before long. “It’s more horsepower on the processing side and the graphics capabilities side — now basically you’re talking about a supercomputer inside a console,” said David Le, senior director of global product marketing for EA Sports. “What that can churn out in terms of graphics quality is just tremendous.” Given the logistical challenges of Nunn’s travelling scanning operation and the limited availability of players, he appreciates events where big names converge, such as the All-Star Game or the NHLPA Rookie Showcase. The 2015 Showcase featured 39 prospects, including McDavid and
Jack Eichel, along with top-flight prospects from around the league. Nunn estimates that around 60 new faces are added to the game every year. By grabbing hockey’s premier up-and-comers, EA is betting on youngsters having long careers on the ice, and thus, inside the console. There is no shortage of enthusiasm by EA’s head scanning setup. As a handful of players wait their turn, there is a subtle buzz of anticipation. Sometimes onlookers will razz the guy in the chair, which Nunn says can be helpful if it gets a player loose, but other times troublesome because it can produce unwanted wrinkles. It’s clear that every player who makes his way to EA’s setup is a fan of the series. “It’s pretty rare when someone says they’ve never played it before,” said Nunn. When asked about his experience in front of the 20 cameras, Winnipeg Jets goaltending prospect
Connor Hellebuyck is quick to say, “Well I’m not having a great hair day…” before mentioning how excited he is to see his face in the game. Hair matters to these guys. “I’ve had guys come, see the setup, say ‘Oh no,’ leave, get their hair cut or whatever, shave, and come back the next day,” Nunn said. Understandably, when your face is going into the game you grew up playing, you want to look your best.