This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 22 eSports Issue. Subscribe today!
IN THE YEAR 2065, cybernetic advancements give rise to augmented human soldiers, a new breed of badass charged with preserving our way of life. Their mission leads them to a seedy bar in Singapore, where they encounter an underworld boss and his elite squad of mercenaries. Among them is a 5-foot-11, 215-pound battering ram of a man who's exactly like the world's most ferocious running back circa 2015: the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch.
Welcome to the world of Call of Duty: Black Ops III, the highly anticipated first-person shooter game set for release in early November. What follows is the exclusive behind-the-scenes story of how Lynch put his stamp on the blockbuster franchise. The game has long captured his imagination. Now it will carry his likeness, giving him the distinction of being the first athlete to appear as a character in a Call of Duty game.
So strap on your helmets. Here comes virtual Beast Mode.
11 A.M. ACTIVISION MOTION CAPTURE STUDIO, LOS ANGELES
Lynch's gold teeth glisten through his grin as he arrives to begin the motion capture process that created Gollum. "Really glad to be here," he says, offering his hand to executives from publisher Activision and developer Treyarch. The feeling is mutual. "For Marshawn's role, we needed an imposing figure," says Mark Lamia, Treyarch studio head. "When we learned he's a huge fan, we thought it'd be awesome to have him inside our game."
Lynch says his COD fandom was sparked during his college days at Cal. The nine-year NFL veteran now logs on daily for battles with teammates old and new, because "it's a cool way to keep in contact," he says. "It's a fun-loving way to let off some stress." As a bonus, the game aligns with Lynch's on-field philosophy. "You're shooting up everything but always fighting for a bigger picture. The whole game is Beast Mode."
11:15 A.M. LIGHT STAGE
Lynch takes a seat at the center of a cocoon-shaped light stage where 16 cameras will capture a 360-degree image of his skin texture and features. "This looks scary," he says, before grilling the shadowy figures who line a row of monitors. "How many lights you got on here?" (6,280 LEDs.) "You counting them little s---- too?" (Yes, even the little lights.) "Is this healthy?" (Sure, Kevin Spacey went through the same process for his role in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.) "Who? The dude from The Jetsons? The spaceman?" (No, the dude from House of Cards.) "That's a show? What they do?" (Politics.) One last question. "Can y'all make me an app right quick?"
11:35 A.M. CYBERWARE SCANNER
"Am I gonna leave this thing with brain damage, or is this gonna make me smart?" Lynch asks. More like option C: The mechanical arms rotating around Lynch's head are capturing 3-D mesh data of his skull and facial muscles, which, when wrapped with the skin data, produces a complete down-to-the-pore representation of his head. "Y'all trying to kill me," he says.
11:50 A.M. REFERENCE PHOTOGRAPHY
Standing atop a circular platform, the now-shirtless running back is spun around as a photographer shoots him from every conceivable angle. (Check out a gallery of Lynch's entire day at Activision.) Later, animators will refer to the images as they add art to the running back's 3-D model. Lynch believes his digital doppelganger must be a dish of three key ingredients: "He better have dreads, gold teeth and my distinctive walk. Then people will be like, 'Oh, that's really Beast Mode right there!'"
12:30 P.M. SCENE PREP AND REHEARSAL
Those same people would flip if they could see Lynch dancing in his mo-cap suit at the center of this 60-by-30 stage as 62 cameras feed to a monitor and display his movements in real time. Lynch, meanwhile, is baffled by his grayscale rendering, which makes it appear as though he's naked. "What the hell is this?! Am I playing a stripper?"
Not quite. Director Adam Rosas walks his cast through the bar scene. Lynch will lead his fellow guns-for-hire -- played by veteran mo-cap performers Jeremy Dunn and Ben Jenkins- -- to a table for booze and banter. The bosses will enter. A melee will erupt. They'll shoot up the tavern and flee to the streets of Singapore.
"So I'm a villain," Lynch says gleefully.
A stagehand arms Lynch with two handguns and a rifle, all made of blue plastic. Then Lamia, the studio head, lobs a warning: Mo-cap acting, he says, requires imagination. Unlike on a movie set, Lynch must make do without production design, props or written dialogue. In fact, Lynch will be ad-libbing his lines, which won't be recorded today but could be added later in postproduction. "This is hard," Lamia says. "You really have to act."
"I got you, boss," Lynch replies.
12:45 P.M. FILMING ON MO-CAP STAGE
Action! Lynch beckons his men to the table. "I'll show you how a playa live!" he says. Once seated, he pantomimes smoking from a hookah. He coughs. He swigs his imaginary beer. He burps. He turns to the actor with the funny accent. "Where you from again?" he asks Jenkins. "England," the Brit replies. "Y'all got good grass in England?" Lynch asks. "We got football," Jenkins says. "F--- football," Lynch counters. "I'm talking about that good grass!" Rosas cuts through the laughter with direction: "The bosses walk in! Get up. Aim now. Move forward to intimidate. And fire!"
The actors let fly a barrage of make-believe bullets before sprinting offstage. And cut! "That was brilliant!" Rosas cries. "You're a one-take wonder!"
"On my way out here, I was nervous," Lynch says. "Now I'm fittin' to join the Army!"
2:45 P.M. SCREENING AT TREYARCH STUDIOS, SANTA MONICA
Lynch's immersion into Black Ops III continues with a classified theatrical presentation of the game. Toting a Cup Noodles, he takes his seat in the media room as the film unspools on a big screen. When it fades to black, all eyes turn to the fanboy. A spoon of noodles is frozen to his chin. One, two ... five seconds of stunned silence. Then: "Hell yeah!" The COD honchos let out an audible sigh of relief.
Then Lamia hits his guest with a sledgehammer. "Would you like to play the game now?"
3:15 P.M. HANDS-ON DEMO
Game on! Seated before a monitor for a six-on-six battle, Lynch feverishly works his sticks alongside 11 in-house game testers, digital assassins who know Black Ops III's every wrinkle. But Lynch isn't fazed. He stays true to his Beast Mode running style, or as he puts it, "I'm shooting the s--- outta s---!"
Problem is, Lynch can't find quality engagements. His team wins, but he knows the pros pulled their hits. "Don't be doin' that, man!" he barks at the testers. "Show me what you got!"
Rematch! This time, the pros play through the whistle. Again, Lynch's boys win. "Marshawn Lynch is the perfect match for Call of Duty," says Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision. "I mean, he's a guy who fills stadiums, crushes competitors and has a Beast Mode. What could be more COD than that?" But this player isn't ready to hang up his fatigues. Lynch texts several "cousins," summoning them to Treyarch for more gaming.
7 P.M. GAME OVER
When the monitors go dark on Lynch's crew, COD's No. 1 fan offers his spoiler-heavy five-star review of the game. Then Lynch takes a moment to reflect. "I've been in the Super Bowl, movies, music videos, Madden. But to have your own character in Duty is, I mean, it's almost like you arrived."
But the gamer is conflicted. Digital Lynch will be a formidable foe, no doubt. Leaving nothing to chance, he slides his email address to a map designer. "I need some cheat codes, feel me?"