Sports Graphics Roundup Part I: ESPN

I’ve been anticipating a potential update of ESPN’s game graphics to coincide with the debut of a new graphics package for SportsCenter – if not for that, at least in anticipation of picking up the BCS and in case they want to pick up March Madness. ESPN’s graphics have started to feel almost painfully generic, and an update – perhaps one that would adopt the recently-popular convention of putting each team’s name or abbreviation on a background with the team’s respective color – was much needed.

The current package, which started getting phased in with MNF and the NBA in 2006, was desperately needed to keep ABC sports broadcasts from looking like cable games. It was very spiffy in its day, and until ESPN updated SportsCenter’s graphics it was far spiffier than the studio show graphics that (except for GMC NBA Countdown on ABC) remained unchanged. Look at any ABC college football broadcast from 2006 to see how necessary it was. But it now looks behind the times.

Here’s a mockup I did of what a new package might have looked like for March Madness. These aren’t the exact fonts I envisioned – Arial Narrow and Calibri are the closest I have on my laptop – and I don’t have anything more advanced than PowerPoint for spiffier effects, but you get the idea. It looks pretty close to what I had in mind, with perhaps some scaffolding on the sides and clearer borders between elements, popping in with a flash of light and color, and all looking very elegant.

What ESPN actually came up with, as debuting on NBA broadcasts this week,was somewhat similar to what I had in mind… but I sure as hell wasn’t anticipating basically a straight rip of the MNF graphics, complete with “all information in the bottom space” gimmick. Especially given the new graphics ESPN had introduced for tennis, which was my main inspiration for the above.

There are two major differences with the MNF graphics that work to its detriment; while they may serve to mark MNF’s version as the strip ESPN wants to make feel special (see the “orb” of 2006-07), they also serve to make it look like crap. First, rather than reserve the entire bottom of the screen for graphics, ESPN is throwing all graphics, including its score banner, into a simple rectangle, which merely changes its size as various elements pop in and out. It looks less elegant when it has to stand alone. But perhaps more importantly – and comprehensible for other sports but less so for the NBA, which lacks a BottomLine unless it’s bumped to the Deuce – the bottom line, the part either reading “NBA Wednesday” or showing stats, does not utilize the space that would be used by the BottomLine. Those two elements combine to make it look like a two-line strip, which makes it look bulkier. The use of what appears to be Arial or Helvetica for the bottom line reading “NBA Wednesday” (a possible holdover from the old strip) doesn’t help.

That mockup I did above? Comes from before the new SportsCenter package debuted. I’d have come up with something very different after I got a good look at the new SportsCenter graphics. Since 2006 ESPN’s game graphics have looked spiffier than its studio show graphics. That relationship may now be reversing. Incidentially, across all its platforms, I wonder what ESPN’s most watched shows are, games or studio shows?

It’ll look relatively nice on ABC, and in some ways it’s a throwback to the strip used in the last year of ABC Sports (remember those atrocious numbers? I think I blocked them out)…

…but I can’t help but think they could have done a lot better. The single method for showing the score going to and coming back from break was needed, but it kinda makes ESPN look cheap. At any rate it’s odd that they would choose the instant of the introduction of the new SportsCenter graphics for the new strip, especially with no other ESPN studio shows, including NBA ones, adopting the new graphics yet; the new NBA graphics not looking anything like the SportsCenter graphics; and the BottomLine’s graphical update lasting all of a morning. Couldn’t they have waited, say, two weeks for the playoffs like they did when they introduced the gold border to the NBA strip? (And counting that border, ABC’s streak of never having the same graphics for the Finals in two consecutive years continues!)

(I may try to watch GMC NBA Countdown on Sunday to see the new graphics in a studio show context…)

While we’re in ESPN-land, it appears Sports Media Watch has been horning in on my turf! SMW has been giving full coverage to the rollout of the new SportsCenter graphics, going so far as to get quotes from ESPN spokesmen. (Bloggers doing actual exclusive reporting, and not just one of the big blogs like Deadspin or Fanhouse either? Shock! Horror!) And SMW has just reported the official explanation for the new BottomLine disappearing: “technical complications”. I guess I can buy that explanation. A few seconds into its existence, on ESPN, the new BottomLine started fritzing out and going into a short loop, then disappeared for a while. It made another disappearing act later as well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if ESPN were fitting it out with new functionality, such as showing the time during ESPN2’s morning shows, “SportsCenter on this other channel” in the same space (I saw “Baseball Tonight on ESPN2” on Monday in fact), various alerts moving into the space such as “BREAKING NEWS”, “PROGRAM ALERT”, or Baseball Tonight’s “TODAY’S SCORES AND HOME RUNS”, or appropriating it for ESPN’s 18/58 updates.

But if all of those were already ready (or in the case of the first, discarded), the BottomLine seemed to be working pretty well aside from occasional glitches, and if they weren’t ready that’s pretty short-sighted. At any rate, why is it taking so long? And how much testing of the BottomLine did they do, anyway?

I’m going to be finding the timetable of rollout of the new graphics very interesting, at any rate. According to the more recent SMW post there’s “no timetable” for rollout of the new game graphics, but based on past experiences I would be surprised if it didn’t hew to the following timetable: baseball no later than the start of next season (both ESPN and FSN have been known to make midseason updates to graphics, ESPN for the c. 2004 update, but on the other hand in 2007 Fox didn’t update its graphics to conform to the new NFL style by then adopted by NASCAR even for the postseason), golf possibly as soon as the US Open but maybe not until the British or even next year, NASCAR and the Indy 500… see Part II, horse racing either this year or next (mayyyybe for the Breeder’s Cup), college sports are more likely to see a rollout sooner than last time given the time frame but the main determining factor may be whether ESPN is pressured to move the BCS to/keep it on ABC after next year (a boy can dream), most other sports next year, soccer maybe never.

It’s getting late, so although I had something more comprehensive in mind, that’ll wait for later.

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