How the NBA All-Star Twitter Emojis Come to Life

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Ethan Johnston created each one of the player-specific emojis for the 2018 NBA All-Star Game. (Photo via @NBA)

With NBA fans from around the globe tuned into All-Star festivities across numerous different platforms, on Twitter, one man’s presence is being felt through every eye-popping dunk, deep three, and tweet-worthy moment.

Ethan Johnston, the man behind the hashtag triggered emoji designs since they debuted in 2015, has his upbringing and countless hours spent playing around on Photoshop as a teenager to thank for his career trajectory.

“I was born and raised in South London, and growing up we didn’t live in the best area, so my mum wouldn’t really want me and my little brother playing out too much. I remember spending a lot of free time as a young kid drawing and painting. It’s weird because as a kid in London, it was odd to be into basketball. Everyone else was watching and playing futbol and I always gravitated to basketball. I never would’ve dreamed that when I grew up I’d actually be designing for the NBA! Honestly, it still hasn’t really sunk in,” said Johnston.

Recognizing Johnston’s passions, his father acquired a version of Photoshop for him.

“When I was about 14, my dad got me an old bootlegged version of Photoshop,“ said Johnston laughingly as he reminisced about the moment. “I remember I was instantly fascinated with it. Since we still had dial-up internet then, when I couldn’t get online, I would spend hours just playing around on photoshop.”

Currently, because of that dedication, Johnston no longer has to use a bootlegged version of the design software and finds himself working for a league that he grew up idolizing.

“There’s always a ton of things to do and not a lot of time to do them. It’s part of the fun of the job. One week, I might be making birthday graphics for players, then I’ll be working on tune-in animations for Snapchat, and then I’ll be doing something like this, where I’m creating emojis for Twitter or for the NBAMoji app. The biggest thing is the turnaround times needed in this business because everything moves so fast on social media. Before working with the NBA, I would take a week on one design. Now, there are times when I barely have an hour to complete a graphic. It’s hectic, but like I said, it’s always a lot of fun,” said Johnston.

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Thanks to the digital prowess of Johnston, each player who was selected as an All-Star this year has a custom hashtag emoji that pays homage to something unique or topical to them.

“Each year, the team at the NBA and I put together a list of ideas that we all think would work as emojis, so it’s really a collective of different thoughts,” said Johnston, who works on numerous other projects with the league. “The list is narrowed down and I’m then tasked with making them come to life. I always try to involve team colors for the player’s emoji, where possible and use reference pictures. With John Wall’s emoji, I would find out what shoes he’s been wearing in recent games and try to model the emoji after one of them. Also, something I consider is that I want to keep the style original, but want them to fit in with the current look of emojis on iPhone and Android, too, so they don’t look completely out of place.”

Now in his third year of producing the hashtag triggered emojis, Johnston relies on the feedback he gets from the team at the NBA, as well as from the fans who are using the hashtags and seeing the emojis adorn their timelines all weekend long.

“I definitely look at people’s replies when the NBA tweets out the emojis to see what designs are resonating with people and which aren’t and I take that on board. Like the first year, people seemed to love the [Demarcus] Cousins ghost emoji, so I’ve stuck with it, but just altered it a bit every year so it’s relevant and still fresh. But overall, it’s just working with the NBA team and getting feedback from them, trying to improve and be innovative every year,” said Johnston

While each All-Star gets their own, the final ones that fans and Twitter users see usually aren’t the only ones ever produced.

A look at some of the versions that didn’t make the final cut. (Images via Ethan Johnston)

“There are A LOT of cool concepts that never see the light of day! There have been so many personal favorites of mine that just don’t make the final cut. Sometimes designs don’t translate well to the small size of emojis, and other times a version just gets dropped for one reason or another. But there are so many awesome ideas that the public doesn’t see,” said Johnston.

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Even though a seasoned digital craftsman, Johnson still finds himself in shock as he sees the emojis he created flash across his timeline.

“It’s amazing! It’s such a cool and unique opportunity to create something that’s going to be seen and used by millions of people. I never really get used to seeing them go from Photoshop on my computer, to actually being live on Twitter. It’s definitely a highlight of my career,” said Johnston.

“The emojis themselves usually start off a whole new conversation on Twitter and that can be used as a springboard into so many other topics. But I think that they just give fans a new way to show support for their favorite players. Gives people more of a reason to talk and be active online while the events are going on.” – Ethan Johnston on what the emojis mean for #NBATwitter.

Along with the emojis just being flat-out cool, Johnston sees them as a way to amplify the conversation for die-hard fans, as well as get more of the casual fans involved in the social conversation.

“I think they really drive the online conversation even more. Everyone loves emojis anyways, so when people see a custom emoji for their favorite players, they instantly want to start using them. So the people that might not have tweeted something about it, now hop on Twitter and add to the All-Star Weekend conversation just to use the new emojis,” said Johnston.

Armed with a passion for the game, imagination, and skill, Johnston continues to bring fans closer to the action by delivering a unique set of emojis that have lit up Twitter already this weekend.