Sports Replay Technology and Fan Perception
In today’s modern age, the sports and tech world are integrating at unprecedented rates. Fan experience is being shaped by new innovations in tech, brought forth by the plethora of analytical data that is available in the play calling and review process. Video software, like Upper Hand’s Apex software, streamlines and visualizes training in imaginative ways. In most areas, the presence of new technology has undeniably improved the sports industry. New video review capabilities, however, have been met with controversy.
From the inception of video review, officiating was intensely criticized. As more and more slow motion highlights are shown on broadcasts, more fans become incensed with officiating decisions. Video review is meant to create a correctly officiated event, yet, as recent years have shown, it’s doing the opposite.
Video Review is Now Distracting from the Action
An initial distaste for video review focused around gameplay interruption. People were against the idea of a game stopping for five minutes while a ref looks at a monitor. In many ways, this contention is valid. In almost every professional sport, review is now an expected delay. The more time spent in a replay booth results in less action on the field. These breaks are seemingly increasing in length, as officials now feel an immense amount of pressure to make the correct call.
Slow motion video is vital to the fan experience, but it often leads to more difficult reviews. When a video is slowed, it reveals minute details that go unnoticed in real time. For example, out-of-bounds calls in basketball become extremely difficult to call when viewed in slow motion, as the smallest of ball rotations or brushes against a fingertip are perceptible. Harder reviews result in longer reviews. The presence of video review has made referees more sensitive to controversial calls, leading to more complicated reviews. The result— games that inevitably feature multiple stoppages for reviews.
“Clear and Obvious” is Neither Clear Nor Obvious
The fundamental basis of video review is the use of replay to identify ‘clear and obvious’ evidence that either overturns or confirms a call. After years of memorable officiating blunders, no one understands the concept of ‘clear and obvious.’ In its origins, replays were implemented or altered in specific sports following notorious missed calls, such as Dez Bryant’s catch/no-catch in 2015 or Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal in the 2010 World Cup.
Those calls are, however, are outliers— most of the plays going to review are bang-bang calls that could go either way. Today broadcasts have rule analysts meant to walk through replay decisions, yet the ruling of the analyst differs from that of the official. A system meant to make decisions easier has only made them ten times more difficult.
Officials Are Heavily Criticized and Mistreated For Their Replay Decisions
Perhaps the most influential result in the proliferation of video review is the public perception of referees. As more reviews are shown, the more people believe themselves to be their own referees. We make up our own minds about calls, and when a ref makes the opposite call, we demean that decision. Fans in stadiums shower the refs with boos and verbal attacks. Players crowd and pressure the ref. Time spent waiting on a review creates angst, which is then targeted at the ref.
The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup has received criticism for its use of Video Assistant Referee, or VAR. Many important games have come down to controversial referee decisions. In a match between England and Cameroon in the Round of 16, these tensions boiled over. The Cameroonian team felt the ref made multiple incorrect sports replay decisions, leading to their 3-0 defeat.
Cameroon players visibly expressed their distaste after this defeat, with many players harassing the ref, targeting England players, and even refusing to restart the match. Their behavior was widely decried; England’s manager said, “the game didn’t feel like football,” and FIFA is looking to discipline Cameroon. This is one extreme case of players and fans attacking referees for the difficult decisions video review forced them into.
Referees in every sport are challenged and criticized for being inaccurate, inconsistent, and incomplete. These are the very complaints the sports replay process was meant to allay. In reality, improved video review has made referees of us all, and it has redefined games of inches into games of pixels. The story of video review is one of unintended consequences, namely in gameplay interruption, a redefinition of clarity, and distrust of referees.
Ultimately, officiating is a human job. Sports review technology was expected to remove the aspect of human error— it would mean less mistakes and missed calls. However, human error still remains, but now it receives larger criticism. Fans see so many different slow motion replays that every instance has a level of ambiguity. Review technology has distorted the public perception of officiating by drawing more attention and focus to nearly impossible-to-call situations. If fans can recover from player mistakes, we should be able to recover from missed calls. We live in an imperfect world of sports, yet we unrealistically expect video review to achieve perfection.