NBA Finals 2023: ESPN Updates Championship Series With New Mixed-Reality Open

Unreal Engine powers the cinematic feature

When the 2023 NBA Finals tip off tonight between the highly favored Denver Nuggets and underdog Miami Heat, ESPN will highlight the sport’s ultimate prize with a new mixed-reality (MR) open for its broadcast.

“Every NBA Finals Champion has a story that is paired with their own historic journey,” says Lucas Nickerson, creative director, ESPN. “The trophy holds a collection of memories, and this is the curation of rare moments that generate greatness.”

Beyond the Traditional: Team Generates Multiple Creative Ideas

A championship series like the NBA Finals deserves an impressive open to attract casual basketball fans as well as supporters of both teams. The open is new every year, and, with each one, creating a brand-new version gets a little bit harder. This year, a handful of ideas and technological workflows were thrown around, and finding the singular internal message was key.

“We talked about a traditional animated open,” says Nickerson, “but, as we worked through the boards and creative brief, we knew that the story had to be executed in a different way. We wanted to direct an open that had flexibility in unique storytelling and involved the expertise across all of ESPN Creative Studio.”

The mixed-reality set for ESPN’s new NBA Finals open

The history of the league is vital to understanding the NBA’s complete story. Players like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James solidified their legacies by winning multiple championships. Although they played in different eras and won the NBA Finals at different phases of their respective careers, the common denominator between them is the Larry O’Brien trophy. Creatively, the final vision of this year’s open will explain not only the journey of this famous trophy but also each team’s road to this matchup.

ESPN on ABC is the home of the NBA Finals. It’s where champions become legends,” notes Nickerson. “This new open takes you on a journey for the title run through a combination of visual techniques driven by ESPN’s Creative Studio.”

Constrained Timeline: Short Turnaround Becomes the Biggest Challenge

As with many championship productions, ESPN Creative Studios had a quick deadline to figure out the creative direction, determine the technologies necessary, shoot the project, and finalize any last details before Game 1. Fortunately, the broadcaster has been deploying the same workflows during its live broadcasts as it’s using for the new open.

The new open follows the journey of the NBA’s biggest prize, the Larry O’Brien trophy.

“For our primetime ABC games,” says Nickerson, “we implemented extended reality and augmented reality with an editorially driven brand creative in the fall of 2022. The goal of virtually capturing the 3D-animation identity allowed us to springboard our creative aspirations for the NBA Finals this summer.”

Although the production and operations teams were familiar with the workflows, it was critical that they work collaboratively with the editorial team to tell the story with stunning visuals.

“These new workflows turned into many working sessions to solve creative questions,” notes Nickerson. “The biggest challenge we encountered was finding a balance of imagination and editorial content within the restraints of one day of filming.”

Ultimately, the crew was able to overcome the compressed timeline and strike that balance to achieve the desired product.

“We knew this was a strong team of artists that were up for the challenge of exploring a new approach to this project,” says Jeremy Anderson, creative producer, ESPN.

Players’ jerseys — including those of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Tim Duncan — tell the NBA’s story for ESPN’s new open.

From a technology perspective, the crew leaned heavily on the power of Unreal Engine as well as on partnerships with Panoply Studio, Two Fresh Creative, and Silverspoon Animation to establish the MR environment. The project was captured via five cameras: two XR cameras, two in-arena AR units, and one CG camera.

Full-Scale Effort: ESPN Creative Studios Pitches in To Enhance Televised Product

Nickerson and Anderson played a large role in making the project a success, but others under the ESPN Creative Studios umbrella provided vital expertise: Art Director, NBA Finals, Dale Harney; the finalized look through Unreal Engine by Lead Designer Colin Moore and Senior Designer John Siciliano; and editorial direction by Editors Rabia AlGhani and Adam Schaub. Support for the project also came from Senior Director, Animation and Graphics Innovation, Mike “Spike” Szykowny; Creative Director David Sparrgrove; Associate Art Director Jeremy Simches; Manager, Motion Graphics Design, Charles Collin; Senior Concept Artist Renata Sedzimir; Animation Supervisor Matt Tucker; Supervising Real-Time Graphics Developer Brad Griswold; Colorist Pat Strenk; and Sound Designer Ben Ayotte. Overall, the entire team came together to pull off a new open for one of the network’s most high-profile shows of the year.

“ESPN Creative Studio has thrived because of innovative ideas developed by our teams,” says Szykowny. “The team that worked on this project showed extraordinary ambition and passionate pursuit of creativity, which remains the heart of everything we do. I could not be more proud of what this team has accomplished.

Stay tuned for plenty more coverage of the NBA Finals on SVG in the coming days. 

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