Geniuses are rarely recognized in their own time. Vincent Van Gogh pumped out 2,000 paintings and drawings while chugging absinthe but died broke. Muhammad al-Khwarizmi died more than two centuries before his book introduced Arabic numerals to the West (he’s the reason the previous sentence says “2,000” instead of “MM”). Robert C. Baker, the guy who seems to have invented chicken nuggets, never got a fat-ass check from Ronald McDonald.
The hidden genius among us today is David “Sparky” Sparrgrove, ESPN’s creative director and the lead animator for Monday Night Football’s custom animations. Sparrgrove’s work includes Thanos murdering the Seattle Seahawks, AJ McCarron and Tyrod Taylor diving off of Niagara Falls to their certain deaths, Joe Flacco sprouting wings and dancing, Tom Brady jumping onto a folding table with the Bills mafia, Andy Reid being a Bond villain cryogenic scientist, and Jon Gruden forcing the Raiders he’s cut or traded to walk the plank of a pirate ship.
“A big influence for my work, especially the work I’ve been doing on Monday Night Football, is actually Norman Rockwell,” Sparrgrove told The Ringer. “Every one of his paintings was a vignette. Every one of his paintings had a story.”
Sparrgrove also works in vignettes, and they are finally being recognized. In the past four years, ESPN’s Monday Night Football animations have won three Emmys, been featured on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, and been imitated (but never duplicated) by competitors like NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Sparrgrove and the Monday Night Football crew’s goal is to tell a story about a statistic that will be remembered even when the specific numbers are forgotten. Julio Jones averaging 123.5 yards per game in 11 games against Tampa Bay goes in one ear and out the other. Watch a 100-foot-tall Jones stomp on pirate ships, and his dominance in Tampa Bay gets seared into the hippocampus. “Sports graphics, historically, have been mostly about just conveying statistical information,” Sparrgrove says. “The whole idea is that we kind of cut through clutter.”
The clutter-cutting begins with Joe Accordino, an ESPN associate producer who oversees the animations. Accordino will lock into the topic by Thursday and then call Sparrgrove for an hour-long conversation to go over nearly every detail to turn around the animation by Monday. Accordino and Sparrgrove time the animations down to the second to match the cadence of play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore’s speech patterns.
“We don’t want Joe Tessitore to have to spend 15 seconds explaining what the heck you’re seeing,” Accordino says. “It should just fit with the concept.”
Tessitore gets plenty of practice before he rolls it out.
“By the time I do it in front of 15 million, 17 million people on Monday, I’ve watched that custom graphic grow from a sketch on a page to a conversation on a phone, to a rough cut, to a 75 percent cut, to a 99 percent cut, to a finished rehearsal,” Tessitore says. “I feel I’m one with it.”
Reinventing the wheel every Thursday is hard work, so Accordino solicits pitches from the staff for a statistic that can be reimagined for that week’s game. There are no bad ideas. “We try to do the craziest stuff that we get,” Accordino says.
Accordino and Sparrgrove are conscious about not jumping the shark. Literally. Last year, ESPN featured a game with the Tennessee Titans, and the animation had buckets of sharks dropping on Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota while he surfed. When Mike “Spike” Szykowny, ESPN’s senior director of motion graphics, sees that one now, he sighs. “It’s a fine line between stupid and clever,” Szykowny says.
More often than not, they end up on the right side of that line. Their animations have become integral to the Monday Night Football brand, Tessitore says. “On Monday Night Football, you do expect that once or twice or three times a game, there’s going to be a custom animated graphic that you can just sit there and say, ‘Wow, what is this? Look at that!’” Tessitore says.
These animations are just one part of Monday Night Football’s massive operation. The amount of people working on the broadcast each week, and the work that goes into it is deceiving. Only about 10 percent of the preparation the MNF team does makes it to air.
“I always describe Monday Night Football as an aircraft carrier,” Tessitore says. “You can’t even possibly count how many people are on it.”
Of all the people working on that ship, none are afforded as much creative freedom as Sparrgrove and Accordino. “All I care about is showcasing a really important statistical story-driven moment,” Sparrgrove says. “If it resonates, it resonates.”
Anything that resonates can be ranked. Here are the top 17 Monday Night Football animations from 2019 with some commentary from the people who help shape them each week.
What on God’s green turf is going on with Dak’s throwing motion here?
He’s doing a discus toss! Are we supposed to take away that Dak can’t throw a football?
“I will let you in on a little secret on that one,” Sparrgrove says. “[Dak] was supposed to be using a sling. Kind of like a David versus Goliath kind of vibe. But the logistics of getting the sling to work really well just wasn’t quite working. The motion remained the same, but instead he was using two hands to throw a football. Which yeah, it’s not necessarily like a reflection on Dak Prescott’s throwing ability.”
Fine. But the sling doesn’t explain why this Giant has a footlong beard but zero armpit hair.
There’s nothing wrong with no armpit hair. Groom how you please. But is this the result of laser hair removal? Incessant shaving? Is this breed of giant naturally hairless, and if so, does their whole culture accept chafing? Sparky acknowledged the armpit-to-hair ratio was abnormal.
“Yeah, that is true,” Sparky says, a little confused. “I figured you’d ask why is he wearing an old-school helmet.”
I did not ask about the helmet. I did ask about the Nikes, but I did not get a sufficient answer.
This looks like the worst parking situation for any stadium in North America. God knows what it must cost to get VIP spots. Speaking of scale, that caused an issue for Sparky on this one.
“There was a little mini-debate going on in Twitter,” Spark says. “Some people were like, ‘Hey, that’s not to scale!’ And other people going, ‘Yeah, it’s using exaggeration to get the point across.’ Which is what it is. One person even made a comment about an airliner doesn’t fly that low, and I’m like, ‘Well, yeah, I guess that’s true.’”
Michelangelo is lucky Twitter didn’t exist when he painted the Sistine Chapel.
Action Lamar Jackson moves with a jittery, stop-motion quality that Sparrgrove says was inspired by the Bionic Man action figure. Yet the viewers’ eyes inevitably drift away from Lamar and toward the corners where players are strewn like corpses. The player to Lamar’s left-hand side has his jersey obscured, but it looks like he’s no. 10. That is Patriots practice squad receiver Quincy Adeboyejo. Why would Quincy Adeboyejo be in this graphic? What has he done to Sparrgrove? When given the chance to issue Adeboyejo an apology, he declined.
“It’s not a 10,” Sparrgrove says. “It’s a zero.”
A likely story. The coverup is worse than the crime. On the other hand, perhaps it’s unwise to doubt his attention to detail. If you zoom in, the box says, “Manufactured in Boynton Beach, Florida.” That is Lamar Jackson’s hometown.
”It’s Radio City Music Hall, which has got a pretty distinctive interior,” Sparrgrove says. “It’s like they’re the Rockettes.”
Like kickers, the Rockettes’ signature move is kicking and they have to audition to keep their jobs every year. Like the Jets, the Rockettes are an iconic New York institution long past its prime that remains mesmerizing for how little the product changes year to year.
13. The Book of Eli
This is the first time Sparrgrove made a three-part animation. The design itself is relatively tame, but it’s fair to wonder what secrets the books on the shelves hold. If Sparrgrove slipped a dozen ketchup bottles in detective Patrick Mahomes’s office and splashed the Jets logo on a half-dozen trash cans, just think of the possibilities for the books on Eli Manning’s shelf when he gets three cracks at it. You don’t even have to make up anything. Here are some real books that would work.
- Family Huddle
- Management Secrets of the New England Patriots: Vol. 1
- Take a Hike: San Diego County: A Hiking Guide to 260 Trails in San Diego County
Unfortunately the titles are so small that zooming in can’t make them legible even if you try for 45 minutes (not that I spent 45 minutes trying to read the titles of these books).
“They’re actually just gibberish,” Sparrgrove says. “Kind of intentionally just in case some person, like you, freezes the frame and is trying to find some inner meaning.”
12. Legion of Zoom
It seems reckless that these guys are running their 40-yard dashes on cobblestone, but virtual players running on rocks can’t be more dangerous than real players running on the field at Estadio Azteca.
While we’re on the subject of safety, though, why do all of these guys keep turning around?
Are they being chased by someone? Aren’t they fast enough that running away isn’t an issue? And could it be more perfect that Sammy Watkins is the last one to look?
Is Bill Belichick wearing his headphones on the outside of his hoodie?
Obviously nobody would wear a headset outside of their hoo—
This looks like the place where Voldemort was reborn. Are these coaches Death Eaters? Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson worshipping the dark arts makes sense. They’re Cowboys. But Bill Walsh?
“That one was we wanted it to be kind of like it was like a battlefield,” Sparrgrove says. “Conceptually speaking, there wasn’t like a ton to draw on.”
Considering the Dolphins are 4-4 since this game, whatever magic they were channeling here clearly did the trick.
There is attention to detail, and then there is using a handheld camera to make the viewer feel they are riding a horse for a segment about the Cowboys.
“I use a handheld camera just to give a little more visual interest to the animation because sometimes we’re just on a stat for five, six seconds, and I kind of like the idea of almost bringing the viewer into the scene,” Sparrgrove says. “If you’re there on your phone shooting it yourself, it’s going to be a little shaky. It’s like an episode of The Office or something where it adds a little bit of warmth to the animation.”
Let’s change “the Ken Burns effect” to “the Sparky Sparrgrove effect.”
“First of all, I love our graphics people and the animation,” Booger McFarland says at the end of the clip. Booger was kind enough to not point out some serious flaws with this graphic. This is Lions head coach Matt Patricia.
This is Sparrgrove’s version of Matt Patricia.
“I will call myself out on this,” Sparrgrove says. “I put the pencil in the wrong ear. That’s a scoop right there.”
That scoop is just the tip of the iceberg. First off, Matt Patricia’s beard has never been that well-groomed in his life. In his life. Second, Matt Patricia is not proportioned correctly. Sparrgrove took similar creative freedoms last year when he depicted Sean McVay and Andy Reid as roughly the same size.
“They’re not meant to be exactly ...” Sparrgrove says as his voice trails off. “I love Andy Reid. He’s one of my favorite coaches of all time. I didn’t want him to become a caricature.”
Despite the creative license bordering on misinformation, there is a part of this graphic that is extremely realistic: the Patriots shoving all of the players they don’t want in a truck and dumping them haphazardly on the side of the road.
Boats! The city with three rivers! Cute. But there is more than meets the eye here. All of the pedal boats have a quarterback steering, but the giant ship belonging to Ben Roethlisberger does not have anyone at the wheel.
Does Roethlisberger not having anyone at the wheel carry a greater significance?
“I wanted to put Ben Roethlisberger on the boat, but it was one of those things [where] the amount of time it would have taken to get that little, tiny detail in there it didn’t warrant doing it,” Sparrgrove says.
Sparrgrove also said it was a similar animation to one two years earlier of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers riding bicycles trailed by other Packer quarterbacks on tricycles. To this day, former Packer quarterback Matt Flynn has a photoshopped version as his Twitter background.
I asked Sparrgrove whether, should he ever get a chance to update this one, he would have Mason Rudolph’s paddleboat sink to the bottom of the Allegheny River. For realism.
“Probably not,” Sparrgrove says. “That’s pretty mean.”
Sparrgrove pauses for a second.
“Maybe he turns a bit and goes the wrong way.”
“You think of Seattle, you think of Starbucks,” Tessitore says. “You think of the time of the year you think of Starbucks, you think of the holiday cups. … I love that one because it’s simple, but yet there’s connectivity. I don’t have to say Starbucks. I don’t have to say Seattle coffee shop. I don’t have to say holiday cup. I don’t have to say anything.”
True, but one thing is worth saying: Notice how Russell Wilson’s cup is slightly shorter than Tom Brady’s?
No, that is not your imagination.
“The cup is a little bit shorter simply because Tom Brady is 6-foot-4, and Russell Wilson is 5-foot-11, 5-foot-10,” Sparrgrove says. “I didn’t want it to be egregious where it looks overtly like an espresso cup. No. I’m not into that. I don’t ever want to be disparaging.”
Great artists take on important causes. No cause needs a platform like bees dying at an alarming rate. One in every three bites of food Americans eat is related to the work of bees, and half a trillion dollars worth of global food production depends on them. But American beekeepers reported losing 41 percent of honeybee colonies in 2018. Winter colony loss reached an all-time high last year. Colony collapse disorder could end the global food supply as we know it. Surely Sparrgrove was using his platform to highlight one of the most important causes of our time.
“No,” Sparrgrove says. “It was a pretty simple thing, but if you want to read into it, you can.”
This one is particularly important to parse since Jason Witten used to work at Monday Night Football. Did Witten show up to the ESPN offices in full pads like those SportsCenter commercials, but in real life? You know he is a workaholic because nobody else is in the office.
“The idea was he hears somebody putting up the Employee of the Month sign, and he’s so excited he just gets up, and he’s excitedly looking like, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’” Spargrove says.
The real stunning detail here is that the spot on the wall is reserved with a post-it note that says “Jason Witten” with an arrow.
Tessitore says this was his favorite of all the animations this season.
“A year ago, he was the one having to live through all these production meetings with [animations],” Tessitore says. “Now we turned him into one.”
“It’s so good on so many levels,” Tessitore says. Indeed, this is the richest of many rich texts. The first round QBs from that class—Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, and Brandon Weeden—are sitting in the front row. Two of those players are retired. Two are going to play for AFC playoff contenders in Week 17 (Robert Griffin III is Lamar Jackson’s backup). Brock Osweiler, Russell Wilson, Nick Foles, and Kirk Cousins—the QBs taken in later rounds of that draft—sitting behind them just makes it more surreal. But it was poor, undrafted Case Keenum standing alone against the wall that drew the attention and adoration of Booger McFarland.
“That’s the best Easter egg to me,” Tessitore says. “I thought that was unbelievable. I loved all the detail because also they’re bringing history to life, they’re bringing stats to life.”
There is something else here that might be coming to life. There is something strange about Nick Foles …
That’s kind of an odd way to sit, is it not?
Sparrgrove says the graphic was originally made last season, when the Eagles were defending Super Bowl champions.
“The idea was his body language was supposed to kind of have almost this carefree kind of like, ‘Hey, I’m the man.’” Sparrgrove says. “You know?”
Oh, we know. Nick Foles is known by many nicknames, but one is more beloved by Philly fans more than the others: Big Dick Nick.
“I know nothing about any of that,” Sparrgrove says when asked about whether the depiction of Foles was intended to be anatomically correct. “No. Nothing. That one you’re reading into.”
Don’t put this picture in the Louvre. Put the Louvre in this picture.
ESPN graphic producer Brandon Barrad is the one who suggested to Accordino that illustrating the Ravens’ offensive balance as a mental state rather than a seesaw would be best. Barrad was right. Lamar is floating on a cloud of … is that the tears of Steelers fans?
“[The cloud is] made out of 3D pixels, really,” Sparrgrove says. “So it’s supposed to be just like a normal cloud, and he’s just floating on a cloud because when the guy is running it’s like he’s on a frickin’ cloud. It’s like he’s on another plane of existence. … Also, personally, I love Zen gardens. So the idea of creating something that really invokes that kind of Zen vibe, and the balancing of everything on the left and right side, just I really enjoyed doing that one.”
This one is near and dear to Joe Accordino’s heart.
“The kid from Up is named Russell and it was a really good fit on a few levels for us,” Accordino says. “We wanted to create like a big-picture element on his career accolades. So with your career accolades, you look for what would be a good environment for a text carrier. We’re always thinking about, ‘Where does the text go in this custom?’ We can create a scene, but where does the text go? The merit badges were a natural fit for text carriers. And then Russell’s named Russell. And Pete Carroll happens to be the oldest coach in the NFL, which is crazy, so he was a natural fit for Mr. Fredricksen.”
Wilson has all of his merit badges except for the MVP trophy, but the most on-the-nose part might be that Wilson has had a Boy Scout reputation. Yet that wasn’t part of what Sparrgrove was originally thinking. He says that is the point.
“There are times where you might interpret something that none of us intended, however, it makes sense,” Sparrgrove says. “Your interpretation is just as valid as anything else. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I always hope that somebody gets more out of it than I originally intended.”