Ravens Watch

The Story Behind The Virtual Raven that Took Flight at M&T Bank Stadium

Mixed-reality experts explain the process of creating, and executing, the experience.

Just over a week ago, as the Baltimore Ravens were set to kick off against the New York Jets—and just before a photorealistic raven was set to fly and caw its way across M&T Bank Stadium—Greg Harvey was feeling anxious.

The morsel of an idea that he manifested with his team at The Famous Group and the Ravens this past July was about to be realized. And with its successful execution—and subsequent virality—came a new frontier in mixed-reality technology.

While those actually in the stadium saw it on the RavensVision Jumbotron screen, it felt even more lifelike for those watching on their phone or tablet, unaware that it was a stadium activation.

But the process from inception to execution didn’t come without plenty of tests and rehearsals up to a few hours before the game. And the streaking Ravens doing their part to raise the stakes in a primetime Thursday night game only heightened the proceedings.

“I was so nervous,” says Harvey, the CEO and executive creative director of The Famous Group, based in Culver City, California that describes itself as a fan experience company. “I was about to black out when the bird went live.”

Thankfully, everything went off without a hitch. It went so well, in fact, that the team used different variations of the virtual bird nine times throughout the night in which the team clinched the AFC North and Lamar Jackson broke the single-season rushing record for a quarterback. Comparisons to Game of Thrones, a show that brands itself around the same dark and brooding motifs as the Ravens, were abound, as the Internet tried to decipher what it was seeing.

“The Ravens are not afraid to try something new,” says Andrew Isaacson, The Famous Group’s executive vice president. “The game’s circumstances were just a nice happenstance—it had nothing to do with the performance on the field.”

The video took off on social media—it got picked up across ESPN’s platforms and programs as well as Bleacher Report.

“We weren’t sure how impactful it would be in the stadium,” says Jay O’Brien, the Ravens’ vice president of broadcasting and gameday entertainment. “Fans didn’t really know what they saw—but they wanted to see it again.”

The Famous Group and the Ravens have a longstanding partnership, having worked together to design more essential gameday screen graphics such as third down prompts and first down celebrations. But in order to attempt something of this magnitude, O’Brien, along with his partner on the project, Brad Downs—the Ravens’ vice president of marketing—had to be open to failure. Both have been with the Ravens for more than a decade, dedicating themselves to the team’s game day experience.

“We are committed to trying new things and working with new technology,” O’Brien says.

Mixed reality is centered around a virtual object interacting with a physical space. Building the animation that became the raven—it doesn’t have a name, though all those involved took to calling its first appearance “The Summoning”—was a nimble one. The Famous Group commissioned a company to do a laser scan of M&T Bank Stadium to determine which parts of the field would work best for the bird to land. From there, it got technical, with different software engineers and sound designers working from scratch to form what became the finished product.

Once the model was complete, the collective team got to work to ensure that things would go smoothly. A camera operator needed to be coached on where to point to follow along on the field with what, to a naked eye, would look like nothing. Isaacson and the Ravens were in the stadium control room at midnight the night before the game making final tweaks, even blacking out the RavensVision video board to shield from any potential cell phone cameras.

After a last few pregame rehearsals hours before the game, there was nothing left to do but wait and see. Once it was over, the burden of months of pent-up nervous energy and long nights was immediately lifted. And if you’re wondering if the bird will return for a Ravens playoff run, O’Brien and Downs are mum on the subject—content for now to bask in a successful flight.

“We’ve experienced a lot of exciting moments with the Ravens,” O’Brien says. “But the control room excitement after the raven flew right before kickoff was up there with C.J. Mosley’s interception to win the AFC North in 2018. So many people in that room had spent so much time to make that moment impactful for the fans. There was cheering like we had won something on the field. It was a special night.”