"Everybody assumes I go to the Super Bowl every year," Mike Young says, but he didn't this year. Friends figure it's just a perk of his job. Young is the creative director for Madden NFL, and has worked on the franchise for six years now, and the past 10 at EA Sports. As the Super Bowl is essentially the NFL's big convention weekend, all of Young's friends think he would have business down there.
I did too, just for another purpose. Mike Young is also a sports photojournalist. In fact, rather than building up to the Super Bowl, this career almost begins with it, four years ago.
"For Madden 10, we wanted to create these cliffhanger themes that were all about the battle between two guys for every yard," Young recalls. "You couldn't buy stock photography for that." At the time Madden would name a cover athlete, shoot him for the box shot, and that was the end of his affiliation. In the 2008-2009 season, they wanted to try something more.
Young—as Madden's art director—wanted to integrate the cover star with the game—in menus, loading screens, the eye candy while you're booting up or waiting. Before, "it was a shame, the guy would be printed on the cover and maybe do an appearance on Letterman, but he would not really be a part of the game," Young recalled. EA Sports had its eye on some candidates for the packshot of Madden NFL 10. But if the game was really going to integrate the player, "I needed to shoot photos that those guys would never take."
Young, 37, had the background for this. He went to the University of Missouri for its renowned journalism school, but later majored in fine arts. "I tried to find a degree closer to anything in [video] game-making, and there really wasn't anything close to it at the time," he said. He ended up taking courses in fine arts, making ceramics, stop-motion drawing. And photography.
After college, he wound up at EA Sports working on NBA Street. The series' 2007 release Homecourt sought to anchor the game to real-world street courts like Venice Beach, so the art team went out to film the action there. "A buddy of mine on the [development] team was a really strong photographer," Young remembered. "He had really cool gear, and I would shoot with that, trying to create content for these documentary-style videos. We'd shoot that and then try to turn it into these art pieces [for the game.]"
For Madden, Young volunteered to do basically the same thing with still photography. That, and EA Sports' connections with the league, got him into enough games to start building a usable portfolio for the game. EA Tiburon is in Orlando, Fla., reasonably close enough to shoot action in three NFL cities, Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami.
Young's work got attention early on, partially because of the notoriety of his day job. Still, "I set a goal for myself, that within five years, I'd have a portfolio where somebody like the AP would publish me, where I would earn being on the sideline because of my talent, and not because of Madden," he said. Some Associated Press photographers started following Young on Twitter after he sent out samples of his work, later encouraging him to become a contributing photographer, which he now is. Publications like Athlon and Panini sports cards have since purchased his work.
Young later bought old equipment from them as he saved up for new lenses and camera bodies. He would, over the next five years, buy $25,000 worth of camera gear—having to justify the expenses as only a married father of three could. "It's a pretty big cost to entry," Young admits. He drove out to high school games and shot them to build his skills and awareness in suboptimal conditions.
"There are a million mistakes you can make, and by practice, you learn from them," he said. "Simple stuff, like running out of memory on your card, and not checking it. The skill of tracking players, you can easily lose players behind the line. Any kind of repetition helps you get better." He's shot the NFL every season since, averaging about 10 contests a year, though fewer as his responsibilities on the game have increased.
It also honed his attention to details that help make his game more lifelike. "I remember going to Minnesota and noticing some of the subtle stuff, like the lighting; at Heinz Field (in Pittsburgh), we put in things like certain banners you would notice unless you were there," Young said. "There's barbecue pit smoke coming out of one of the end zones, you wouldn't know that unless you were there."
In early 2009, Madden was undecided on its cover star—the last cover not determined by fan vote—up through the Super Bowl. "At one point, we had a different cover athlete targeted for [Madden] 10," Young said. I asked who it was. "No, I'm sure I'd get in trouble if I told you," he laughed. Only later did the team decide on Troy Polamalu and Larry Fitzgerald, who met in that game. Young went to Tampa to shoot the Super Bowl, and it wasn't a perk of the job. It was the job.
Young had a secondary-level photographer's credential. They put these photographers in the first few rows of seats near key areas of the action. The game's deciding play, a six-yard, tiptoe-dragging touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes, happened right in front of him. He snapped it. As the referee went to a video replay unit to review the play, Young brought up the image on the back of his Canon camera body.
Fans behind him craned their necks to look and started high fiving. Holmes' feet were in bounds. Young and anyone standing near him knew it before the call was announced.
"I had a long lens on, I was able to get pretty tight on it," Young said. "I don't think it's my best shot ever, but it's neat to have one, in focus, and a huge part of history."
(Images by Mike Young; used with permission.)
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.