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How do EA create players for FIFA 20?

24 September 2019

In May this year, Crystal Palace were paid a visit by Electronic Arts as they built the Crystal Palace squad for FIFA 20, which is released this week. Here’s how it went.

Jack stands in a grey t-shirt and jeans under an entrapment of cameras. He seems almost ensnared by the metal birdcage which pins itself to the floor around him, 20 lenses pointed in his face.

He's not fazed by it, mind, and neither are any of the footballers who sit within, one by one, faces steely and blank in a whir of flashes, then with teeth bore in the light and eyebrows - Jack instructs each one - 'pointed downwards as if you're angry.'

For the uninitiated, this futuristic scene doesn’t look right. To a degree, it's reminiscent of school picture days as the photographer's subjects are shepherded in front of a camera - in this case two dozen cameras - and encouraged to pull various examples of unnatural looks, perhaps unwillingly, but ultimately excited to see the final product. In true adolescent fashion, there are even concerns about complexion.

But it's not school picture day and instead this, of course, is the annual process which Electronic Arts have to go through in order to capture every angle for the graphics used in forging each player from Europe's top leagues for their yearly EA SPORTS FIFA games.

Gearing up to launch EA SPORTS FIFA 20 - the latest incarnation - into highly-pixelated life, Jack is winding down for the day having spent the last four months travelling across England and Europe setting up and then dismantling his daunting cage of cameras, lasers, lights and wires.

SEE ALSO: WATCH: The Crystal Palace Academy FIFA 19 Tournament

"It's nine cases," he explains, taking a brief break from packing away to speak with as his colleague continues the near-innate process.

"We can get it on an aeroplane between two people. It runs on a synchronised system so, from our main computer, we fire all the cameras and the lights at the same time to grab a 180 degree or more image which goes above and below the chin. 

"We spin them [the players] around, do the back of the head, the top of the head and then that gets stitched together to make a 3D model of the football player which then gets painted, turned into their likeness and put into the video game."

In the middle of all of that, Jack and his team also shoot 'micro-expressions', where the players frown, grit their teeth and manipulate their faces in such a way that EA's computers can track the most minute movements in their muscles in order to replicate real-life expressions during gameplay. The attention to detail is staggering.

"One thing that players of the game want is escapism, isn’t it?” Jack says. “It’s hard to be a professional footballer yourself. Gaming the closest you can get so they want it to look like the real deal and that’s why our job is so important. We have to make sure we have the best technology, the best graphics and update them so we stay on top of the game.

"Even though we’re at the top level for what we’re doing, we still work for those incremental gains that you can improve even just the slightest bit. You’ve always got to get better and better."

But to achieve this requires quite remarkable sacrifice from Jack and his team alongside a host of trials and challenges on top of the usual obstacles that working in football creates.

Based in Yorkshire, Jack spends eight months a year capturing players' images and tends to enjoy just two days a week in his own house as he travels across the continent. Facing the unenviable task of setting 20 cameras and lights to shoot within the same frame (typically about a 40th of a second), he's up against it and has to repeat the process 500 times for the Premier League alone. 500 times, and then any players under-21 

Once England has been ticked off the list, he then takes the birdcage across Europe - 20 cameras et al - and continues to snap every follicle on show for the world's top footballers.

SEE ALSO: Programme exclusive: McArthur on gritty Glasgow upbringing

The next time you're playing, Jack’s got a tip for you: keep an eye out for Vincent Kompany...

"Vincent Kompany is used as a model when the technology updates because he was the one when the guys first started doing this, so they got a really good scan of him," he says. "Obviously he’s got his head shaved so the software picks him up really easily. He’s a great model for us to use in the office when the software gets an update."

Regardless, though, of whether you're playing with or against Kompany, chances are whoever's on the pitch for you has been captured by Jack and the team at some point, trapped within the birdcage of cameras to bring you the highest quality of Premier League footballer.

As if they weren't sharp enough already.

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