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Drawing the NBA in 16-bit

Talking about the finer points of drawing each NBA player in 16-bit style with graphic artist (and my friend!) Joe Gottli

by on November 26, 2014

The NBA in 2014 is an HD paradise. It is like no other league in the access we have to the actual faces of the athletes we see, unobscured by hats or helmets or speed. And in this NBA, there is a diverse crew of individuals, haircuts, snarls, skin tones and facial hair perculiarities. Somehow, it is a 500 player league with thousands of possible ways to wear a headband.

In 2013, graphic designer and illustrator Joe Gottli drew 16-bit portraits of every NBA player. This year, he updated the collection. I wanted to know how, with such a limited canvas, he managed to get right so many details about my favourite players. How’d he do it? Was it tedious? And, knowing Joe, when did he learn so much about the NBA?

. . . .


Travis Nicholson: Are you aware that you did pixel portraits of every single player in the National Basketball Association?

Joe Gottli: It sounds crazy that I did it considering how little I know about basketball, and the scope of the project. Austin [Kent, from Sports.ws, and a mutual friend] reached out to me and said, “Hey do you think you could do portraits of NBA players?” and I thought maybe there would be a handful, and said sure. And then he said, “What about 500?” and I said, “I guess?”

Doing them as pixel art sort of come out of the sheer scale of it. Originally I thought I would be doing illustrations or caricatures or something, and doing 500 of those I’d still be doing them. So I worked out a templating system where I could get basic body shapes and skin layers and lay everything out to start, and then build the face on top of that to make it recognizable as the player.

I gave the idea to Austin, “Can we do it this way?” and he wasn’t really all for it at the beginning. He said, “Give me these three players and see what they look like.”

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From top left to bottom right: LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo (and his smirk), Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Joakim Noah, Kenneth Faried, Chandler Parsons, Ricky Rubio, Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry, DeMar DeRozan.
All © Joe Gottli/Sports.ws.

TN: Do you remember which three?

JG: Yeah, I had to do … LeBron, Kevin Garnett … and I can not remember the third. But once I showed it to him and once he saw that they could be recognizable and a neat thing for the site, he was all for it. It set the site apart from other fantasy websites.

TN: So you didn’t do them pixel by pixel, I imagine?

JG: For some of them, it was a lot of working against the template. I’d have the template, and I’d have more or less what this person looks like, and then erasing out parts and colouring others. For recognizable players it took 10 to 20 minutes per player to get something that I could work with. As the players became less popular, it was more like site unseen, ‘I am looking at this guy’s picture for the first time because really I don’t know many of these players at all. Ok, what strikes me about this guy?’

I think for the most part I was able to capture the essence of the players. I they aren’t perfect, but you can’t really expect that from a 30 by 45 pixel canvas, and I am not doing any anti-aliasing or anything. Already, two pixels are gone for the pupils. It’s really working under constraints.

TN: I’ve noticed you’ve done your research. There is a lot of detail in there you would have had to know. Right now, I am looking at Russell Westbrook with the red eyeglasses.

JG: He is a franchise player and I knew him from his persona, from following sports media, and it helped that when you type the name into Google, 99% of the pictures of him are from post-game press conferences where he is wearing these super nice clothes and huge red glasses. I felt like it would be a betrayal if I didn’t put those glasses on him.

TN: Do you have a personal favourite?

JG: I have a couple. Any time I got to put goggles on people I was very happy. I did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as one of the classic players, and then also P.J. Tucker on the Phoenix Suns. He doesn’t wears the goggles all the time, but there were five or six pictures I saw where he was wearing these huge goggles that were orange down the side. That’s too awesome for me not to put on his portrait.

TN: I had to do a bit of research to see who that was…

JG: He popped up on the front page of Sports.ws one day and I was so happy. I was assuming from when I had to do his illustration, he was a middling player and didn’t seem like a big guy with super impressive stats but he made the top three one day. I was very happy. Took a screencap.

Steve Nash was fun, I got to make him look like an alien with his pompadour-type haircut.

the caption

From top left to bottom right: PJ Tucker, Andrei Kirilenko, Chris ‘Birdman’ Andersen, Andrew Wiggins, Tyler Zeller, cody Zeller, Elfrid Payton, Nik Stauskas.
All © Joe Gottli/Sports.ws.

TN: A personal favourite of mine is your Kevin Garnett. And Andrei Kirilenko, the Russian dude with the blue eyes.

JG: I got to make him look super terrifying. That’s the Eastern European or Russian way of taking a photo: you just don’t smile. “This is my resting face.” But he just looks like a murderer with, like, a fifteen year-old boy’s haircut.

TN:Do you wish there was one player who was a superstar based solely on the experience of drawing his portrait?

JG: Birdman on the Heat, Chris Anderson, is relatively well-known, but all of his tattoos were seriously fun to draw. I tried to do it justice. That was, I think, the most researched one, finding what his full neck looked like and trying to get the colours right.

TN: I’ve noticed you got Allen Iverson’s tattoos correct as well.

JG: It was a matter of finding distinguishing stuff for each player. Immediately, if they had a tattoo, or if they had cornrows, or if they had an afro or a flat top it made it a lot easier for me. Also, doing all of the Zeller brothers was fun. I think there are three: Cody, Tyler, and I think there is a third who didn’t make it on a roster, but I got to do all three. Getting to take one of them, and then compare what is different from brother to brother. They all line up more or less, but there are tiny differences in each one.

TN: You recently did a second go-around of players, with lots of rookies and some updated players you’ve done before. Was it just like picking up from where you left before, or did the process change in some way way?

JG: It went well. I was worried because that it was so long since I had done a big batch, I wouldn’t… be any good at it anymore. But it went surprisingly well. Andrew Wiggins had a very distinctive look to him, so when I was able to do him first, that really helped. The fact that the first round overall guy had a look to him I could imitate, it was a confidence boost and it helped with the rest of them. Wiggins has the big chest, his bones sort of popping out of his jersey… I can work with this. But they all seem so young! Like babies!

I also had to do a whole palette change for Charlotte…

TN: Becauses the Hornets are BACK!

JG: The Hornets are BACK! And in purple and teal again. It was great to do that.

TN: Considering it is the holy grail of 16-bit NBA style, did you ever play NBA JAM as a kid?

JG: I did, but I didn’t have an SNES. My neighbour Andrew did, so I would go over there and we would play. Typically, he would be the one playing everything. I had a childhood of just watching my friend play video games and we would play NBA JAM sometimes, and I would always lose, so it would just be him playing the computer while I sat in the room. But I loved it, and the announcers — “Bookshakala!”, “He’s heating up!” — that sticks with anyone who had a 16-bit gaming experience. I played it a bit, but maybe not as much as you’d expect given the breadth of work I’ve done in pixel portraits on NBA players.

TN: You’re in a fantasy basketball league for the first time, are you enjoying yourself?

JG: I like it, I’m enjoying myself quite a bit. There is a learning curve at first. The league I am in is called “A Celebration of Noobery” and it was supposed to be all first year people who had never done it, but I think a few people fell through the crack who actually have some fantasy experience. I started 0-7, but I think I picked up my first win and looking at my first schedule, three more wins on the go right now.

TN: You’re doing better than me! (Note: I am also in that league.)

JG: Being in the league and having to keep track of players, I find myself reading Twitter about the NBA and specific players a lot more than had I just done those portraits. [Sports.ws] is different from other fantasy sites, but it’s intuitive to me, I’ve been coding it this whole time. I have to keep track of 12 guys and make sure they’re healthy, whether I need to bench them, which Pacers player I need to get rid of…

TN: So it’s fair to say you’re becoming more of an NBA fan?

JG: I’m following it more than I thought I would. I’m genuinely happy when I see players and teams doing well. I followed the Raptors last year because they were the hometown team, and trying not to be a bandwagoner because I’m not a superfan, but it was interesting to see how well the Raptors were doing. The story was so great. After Rudy Gay was traded they were sort of a patchwork team and not supposed to do really well, but they meshed together so well and made a run and were one game away from eliminating the Brooklyn Nets … so now I’m following the Raptors this year.

TN: Your thoughts on the purple throwback?

JG: Love it! I love the the lightning bolt pinstripes! Everything.

In baseball, when you have a baby blue jersey I’m going to love it no matter what team it is. It seems like in basketball, if you have a purple jersey or go full yellow, I love it. The Cavs and Denver’s third jerseys are great! And I love the throwbacks for the Raptors.

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Joe Gottli’s portfolio and web store can be found at joe.gottli.com, or follow him on twitter @joegottli. Posters of the entire league in pixel style are available in different sizes, including three classic players for each team. Individual teams and players are also available.

is the founder, editor and designer of Flagrant Fowl.

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