The Chips Are in the Shoulder Pads: How a Live NFL Game Will Instantly Become Part of the Animated ‘Toy Story’ World

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The NFL goes to “Infinity and Beyond” when the October 1 football match-up between the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars instantly transforms into a real-time animated simulcast set in the “Toy Story” world. Thanks to a first-time collaboration between ESPN, Disney/Pixar, and the NFL — and AI and animated tech — “Toy Story Funday Football” (streaming on Disney+ and ESPN+ at 9:30 a.m. ET) transports the game live from London’s Wembley Stadium to Andy’s room.

That’s where Woody, Buzz, Bo Peep, Bullseye, Bunny, Ducky, Forky, Green Aliens, Jesse, Rex, and Slinky Dog (sans voice talent) watch the animated toy versions of the players compete on a miniature field and react on the sidelines. There’s even a half-time daredevil motorcycle jump by “Toy Story 4” character Duke Caboom.

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Filling in with commentary will be a fully animated, mo-capped announcing crew, courtesy of Silver Spoon Animation: Drew Carter (play-by-play), Booger McFarland (analyst), and 12-year-old Pepper Persley (reporter).

“Toy Story Funday” is overseen by ESPN’s Creative Studio animation team and supervised by senior director Michael (Spike) Szykowny, who worked with Pixar and Beyond Sports, the Sony-owned Dutch AI visualization company. With the assistance of the NFL’s Next Gen Stats (which captures “real time location data, speed and acceleration for every player” on the field), they will recreate the game with animated avatars using their software and the real-time Unity game engine, which pulls it all together as toys in Andy’s room.

ESPN Creative Studio and Beyond Sports previously collaborated in March on the first live animated NHL game telecast with “Big City Greens Classic.” Now they’re tackling something a lot more ambitious with “Toy Story Funday,” which involves more players, more complex moves, and a trickier environment with Pixar’s beloved characters.

It’s about turning kids under 14 into NFL football fans while leveraging “Toy Story” nostalgia for adults. “We want it to be really true to the NFL and how to present a football game authentically, and that the ‘Toy Story’ characters move and act in a certain way, and that the mini-stories we tell feel authentic to the ‘Toy Story’ brand,” Szykowny told IndieWire. “And those are all pre-determined stuff that we’ve built that happen within the game using Pixar’s toolkit of elements they’ve had from their movies. Then it’s up to us to take those certain movements and expand and put them in the right background or add characters or movements as necessary to what’s happening in the game.”

“Toy Story Funday Football” ESPN/Disney
“Toy Story Funday Football” ESPN/Disney

“ESPN came to us with this idea and they did their homework,” Jay Ward, Pixar franchise creative director, told IndieWire. “And they actually built a faux environment of Andy’s room [with the football field on the carpet] and rudimentary characters to the best of their ability as a proof-of-concept by watching the films. But ESPN did the heavy lifting. We provided assets to them, but they had to import those assets or recreate them, create the environment, put them in the environment, take our creative notes, our feedback of: ‘That shouldn’t be there, or this character looks wrong, or add this detail.’ And they turned it around quicker than we ever could have done if it was the other way around.”

Meanwhile, Beyond Sports brings about this next-gen engagement between sports and franchise animation with its sophisticated AI capability and an active tracking system. “For a long time, the data points that were extracted from the match was only single points,” Sander Schouten, Beyond Sports co-founder/CEO, told IndieWire. “So all the rest of the things that was combined with the movement, we had to actually come up with ourselves with our AI and then make the best guess to what we thought was going to happen.

“What’s really special on this occasion is an active tracking system,” Schouten continued. “And that means there are chips in the shoulder pads. So we know this vector that goes on constantly and that’s captured as a single point of data per [player]. And then we combine that with limb tracking data. And then we have the best of both worlds. The thing that we control is the moment we receive data up until the moment that we spin it out, we actually can give it back to the director. And that’s under a second,” though the animation stream will be on a 20-second delay.

But football games frequently have multi-player pile-ups, which render the tracking points impossible to follow. “But we found the perfect mix in doing that,” Schouten added. “The way our AI machine learning system works is that we know a lot of things from the contextual information we get from the data. And then when there are blanks in data every now and then, our system is so smart that it can fill in the blanks and complete the picture.”

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