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The backstory on FSU’s ‘Backyard Football’ signing day graphics

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The brainstorming began two months ago with a dilemma: How do you promote Florida State football’s signees when you don’t have photos of them? 

FSU’s social media team saw the reality. And FSU recruiting coordinator David Johnson said as much on Wednesday, the first day of the early signing period, when he stated that only five or six of the Seminoles’ 16 signees had been on campus for an official visit. Without photos, it’s tough to make catchy graphics for social media. Unless you get very creative.

“We bantered back and forth on a few ideas about mid-October,” said Kyle Pulek, FSU’s director of creative media. “We went through a few variations of ideas. We settled on Backyard Football as the best decision. It pulls together some of the nostalgia of the game but it also brings out the character animation that seemed very fun and light-hearted for signing day.”

The Backyard Football video games flash back to 1999, originally for Atari game systems with various editions released over the next decade for Nintendo, PlayStation as well as desktop computers. Pulek, Klayton Campbell, Zach Hamman and Matt Byars focused intensely on the project, a campaign that caught the attention of national media, recruiting analysts, prospects and fans on Wednesday morning.

A graphic was created for each FSU signee, the 15 from the high school level as well as grad transfer McKenzie Milton (there was another on Friday for receiver signee Malik McClain). As the interactive graphic begins, a player is selected and the details are evident: facial features, jersey number, height, weight, high school and hometown are displayed. There’s even a quick description, for example this on offensive lineman Bryson Estes: “If you’re looking for a big, mean, pancaking machine, look no further than Bryson. Bryson will bulldoze the opponent out of the way, no matter how big.”

What made the graphics catchy, though, was the usage of FSU’s legendary football players as well as a few celebrities who were lined up as part of a group. Standing across three rows are the likenesses of quarterbacks Chris Weinke, Charlie Ward and Jameis Winston, running backs Dalvin Cook and Warrick Dunn, wide receiver Anquan Boldin, offensive linemen Walter Jones and Rodney Hudson and defensive stars Marvin Jones, Deion Sanders, Ron Simmons, Jalen Ramsey and Brian Burns. 

Yes. Even Simmons made the graphic, along with the shirt with his trademark “Damn” and world wrestling champion belt. So did country singer Jake Owen, a one-time FSU golfer, Burt Reynolds, Sam Cassell and Buster Posey.

Mike Norvell didn’t grow up playing the game but when he saw a screenshot, FSU’s coach gave the concept the green light. Norvell and longtime radio voice Gene Deckerhoff did voice overs, too.

“Our recruiting department, it’s a wonderful group,” Norvell said. “I thought it was a tremendous idea. The amount of work that went into that. I have to thank Gene for taking part of it, some of the voice overs. It was special.” 

Prior to Pulek’s arrival, FSU’s graphics were hit-and-miss. It’s tough to produce a graphic that appeals to hundreds of thousands of fans on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but some memorably fell flat. In recent years, though, FSU’s social media team has been widely praised for its creativity. 

At a time when brand recognition is important not just to a university or its athletic programs, an athlete views his or her brand as a vital part of who they are. This will only intensify in 2021 as Florida’s name, image and likeness bill takes affect in July, although pending federal legislation is also in the works. Knowing how and showing how to display an athlete on social media is critical for FSU and is now a strength because of its social media team.

But the backstory on the Backyard Football project? Pulek and the social media team are not versed in creating character animation. They began by finding a copy of the game, thinking about how to integrate it with the 2021 signees and then learn the skills necessary to pull it off. That was the rest of October and November. Then the staff went to work.

“We were able to use some references in the game to build out and once we found our footing, Klayton Campbell was the illustrator of most of the characters and one of our students, Matt Byars, helped build all of the bodies and the uniforms,” Pulek said. “We tried to keep it as true to each person as we could while keeping the feeling of the game correct.”

Pulek estimates it took around 12 days once they felt confident with the software to pull the pieces of the project together. There were some limitations — the number of characters and time being prime examples. Don’t begin to think about how many hours, days and weeks it took.

“It definitely was a passion project,” said Hamman. “I played a lot of backyard baseball in middle school.”

While the team is working on the early signing day splash, there was the day-to-day need to produce graphics for FSU commitments. Pulek said he appreciates the work of interns Zach Osborne, Dimitar Kehayov, Madison Jozsa and Mitchell Miller, who helped make sure graphics were produced on time.

To build steam for the signing day project, the social media team had a build-up with a box. In a series of tweets that involved Norvell and recruiting coordinator David Johnson, there was a box and a delivery to the coaches’ offices at the Moore Athletic Center. In the final one, Johnson opened up the box and found what looked like a video game. After opening the video game packaging, there was, yes, an old-school CD-rom disc.

But the real fun began on Wednesday when the graphics debut, signee by signee. From national broadcasters to recruiting analysts to FSU fans, the buzz was building and the consensus was that the team had nailed it.

“We had a good amount of confidence that it was going to do well and resonate with people,” Pulek said. “We were all taken a little bit aback by how much positive attention it got over the course of the day with several people retweeting it and ESPN picking it up and things like that. We really were excited about how far positive it went. We felt good going into the day that it was going to hit home.”

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