Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston after the phantom punch is one of the most iconic images not only in the history of sport, but in the entire history of photography. It was taken by a man named Neil Leifer, who purchased his first camera with the money he made shining shoes on the streets of New York City. He only got his break in sports photography when he was working at the Giants’ stadium as a wheelchair attendant, where he snuck onto the field in the 1958 NFL final posing as an official photographer, and ended up snapping the game-winning touchdown of what came to be known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played”. He then became responsible for not just the Ali/Liston photograph, but also the Ali/Williams photograph, taken from the rafters, with Williams flat on the canvas. In many ways, he is the Muhammad Ali of sports photography.
When we consider the stories behind sports’ most fascinating photographs, we always tend to think of the story in front of the lens rather than behind it. That’s why someone should make a game about sports photography.
I play the big sports games every year. This year, I ended up reviewing NBA 2K21, Madden 21, and FIFA 21, and in preparing screenshots for each review, I became my own Neil Leifer. Sports games actually look quite ugly in general play, the screen constantly marred by stamina meters, clocks, run markers, sponsorships, and a lot of other UI that gets in the way of the crisp, clean, boot-on-ball appeal of sports photography, so I mostly use the photo mode.
As fans of those series – or, indeed, any sports game – will be aware, none of those games have photo modes. Even while titles like Horizon: Zero Dawn, Spider-Man, Red Dead Redemption 2, Ghost Of Tsushima and a bucketload more offer an in-depth photography mode with unique and interesting features, FIFA et al still only has an instant replay button which has barely changed in two decades. Using it to take pictures is like trying to become a professional sports photographer with a second-rate camera. Say, the type you could buy for shoe-shine money.
Leifer was famed for his unusual approach and risk-taking, and it’s his energy you have to channel in order to get a great shot in a sports game these days. I might not have had to climb atop the rafters at the Houston Astrodome, but I am now well accomplished in using each game’s slightly different zoom and roll functions, have practised trying to hide the infuriatingly omnipresent player marker in NBA 2K and Madden, and I have a much greater appreciation for the which stadiums are the most photogenic. St. James’ Park, on a clear night, running down the wing with the lights of the Gallowgate glowing behind you is a gorgeous sight to behold.
While trying to snap the best pictures I could, my thoughts moved quickly from ‘wouldn’t it be great to take photos in a football game’ to ‘wouldn’t it be great to be the photographer at a football game’. So close to the action, capturing the stories, writing your own story with every flash of the bulb. Sports photography is an underrated art form, and a crucial part of the history of the beautiful game, and several thousand ugly games too. Yeah, the pseudo photo modes in sports games suck, but more than that, the very craft of sports photography deserves all the appreciation it can get.