Is VAR a game changer or a game killer?

Premier League VAR

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that digital viewing platforms will grow and technology will take a predominant place across all sports. With competitions returning slowly (for the moment, without spectators or very few), technology has offered fans a way to immerse themselves into the game. All this seems great, but when innovative technology starts “merging” with the rules of the game itself, then debate sparks among professionals and fans. 

This is where VAR (Video Assistance Referee) comes to mind, acting as an assistant referee who reviews decisions made by the head referee with the use of video footage. The VAR team communicates the decisions to the referee via a headset with the purpose of minimizing human error that might influence the result of the game.

Not that new

Technology of this kind has already been implemented in several sports to support the referee’s decision or add further excitement to the experience. However, so far, it has been used for limited specific actions. The new technology that these sports are planning to implement in the near future would potentially overrule almost all field judge’s decisions and in all cases.

Tennis, for example, relies on the “Hawk Eye”. But this technology is only available on certain surfaces (grass courts and hard courts) and is limited to a certain basis – available only three times per set and on request from a player. 

Officially launched at the ATP Cup in Australia following unofficial trials during the ATP Next Gen Finals in Milan last November, the VAR or Video Review now allows the player to challenge a line judge for a foot fault call, as well as a double bounce or touched ball

In soccer, VAR has been used for a few years now, especially related to specific decisions where the main referee may ask his assistant to double check his decision before making the final call. Now, the assistant referee monitors the entire game and provides indications on how to judge the calls. This has made a huge difference, since everything is now monitored and tracked, which some argue is “killing” the essence of the sport. We’ll come back to that later. 

Replay System in the NFL has also been around for a while. It seems like “part of the game”, especially since the clock stops often in American football, making it easier to integrate and use such technology. In Rugby, they call it TMO (Television Match Official). Implemented in 2001, it has been designed to aid rugby referees in their decision making. During the last Rugby World Cup in Japan, TMO was implemented for the first time on almost every call. Despite mixed opinions, the Rugby Union has decided to continue using it during all official games. 


How does the technology work?

Most systems are based on the principle of triangulation, using visual images and timing data provided by a number of high-speed video cameras located at different locations and angles around the area of play. 

If we take the example of tennis, we have a set of ten cameras. The system swiftly processes the video feeds from the cameras. A data store contains a predefined model of the playing area and includes data on the rules of the game. 

In each frame sent from each camera, the system identifies the group of pixels that corresponds to the image of the ball. For each frame, the system calculates the location of the ball by comparing its position on at least two of the physically separate cameras at the same instant in time. A succession of frames builds up a record of the path along which the ball has travelled. 

It goes as far as "predicting" the future flight path of the ball and where it will interact with any of the playing area features already programmed into the database. The system can also interpret these interactions to identify infringements of the rules of the game. The system generates a graphic image of the ball path and playing area, which means that information can be provided to judges, television viewers or coaching staff in near real-time. The tracking system is combined with a back-end database and archiving capabilities so that it is possible to extract and analyze trends and statistics about individual players, games, ball-to-ball comparisons, etc. 

The technology is clearly pretty advanced, but is it advanced enough to make an almost perfect decision? 

According to an article in the Daily Mail about the implementation of VAR in the Premier League, the technology is not precise enough. James Sharpe and Adam Shafiq explain that “the technology used in trying to determine when a ball was passed and when a run was made is actually not advanced enough — with a margin for error that could be as big as 38.8cm (14inches)”.

The “Hawk-Eye” case

The technology is provided by different stakeholders, depending on the sport. 

The company Hawk-Eye and its technology that goes by the same name was developed in the United Kingdom by Paul Hawkins. The system was originally implemented in 2001, in cricket, for television purposes. 

Specifically, engineers at Roke Manor Research Limited, then a Siemens subsidiary in Romsey, England, developed the system. Paul Hawkins and David Sherry submitted a patent for the United Kingdom but withdrew their request. All of the technology and intellectual property was spun off into a separate company, Hawk-Eye Innovations Ltd, based in Winchester, Hampshire

On 14 June 2006, a group of investors led by the Wisden Group and including Mark Getty, a member of the wealthy American family and business dynasty, bought the company. The acquisition was intended to strengthen Wisden's presence in cricket and gain entry into tennis and other international sports, with Hawk-Eye working on implementing a system for basketball. According to Hawk-Eye's website, the system produces much more data than what is shown on television. 

Put up for sale in September 2010, the company was sold as a complete entity to Japanese electronics giant Sony in March 2011. Smart move! 

Nowadays, Hawk-Eye is an integral part of over 20 sports and, every year, covers 20,000 games or events across 500+ stadiums in over 90 countries.


Marketers and sponsors already love it!

From a marketing standpoint, VAR is a great opportunity! The additional stop-time it generates are an opportunity for more commercial breaks. 

Rolex has been a great supporter of tennis and it was a natural fit to support the Hawk Eye when the occasion arose. For a brand that values precision as strongly, it made perfect sense to push a technology that would give only more accuracy to the game. 

The Financial Times reported in May 2019 that FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, was exploring sponsorship deals worth up to UK£100 million (US$123 million) for their VAR inventory

MLS is also looking into sponsorship opportunities, but overall, “If there’s going to be some sort of product integration [with VAR], it’s got to be authentic. It’s got to be endemic,” said Carter Ladd (Senior Vice President, Brand Alliances ) during a recent interview with Sports Business Journal.  


Is VAR killing the essence of the Game?

Many players, but also fans, have contested VAR, saying that it kills the spontaneity of the game. Just look at poor Alvaro Morata, who had 3 goals retracted in the Champions League game Juventus – Barcelona! After the game, he said “It’s becoming impossible for us to celebrate, I wonder what the reaction of fans will be when they are back [in the stadiums]. Maybe if I had slightly smaller feet, it would’ve been fewer [offside goals].” 


Another criticism is that spectators don’t always understand the mechanics behind the decisions. In that way, the US Majors Leagues are way ahead, with NFL referees providing explanations right after the call with their microphones on. Soccer is not quite there yet but will hopefully evolve quickly in that direction. 

The last drawback is the interruptions. The speed of each sport will be directly linked to the evolution of VAR. It might not have as much of an affect on “clock-stop” sports like ice-hockey and basketball, but more traditional sports like soccer that have a “continuous game” will most likely be completely transformed. This impacts the fans as much as the players, who risk losing focus and momentum. Since the advent of VAR, soccer games are often extended even longer. 

Like it or not, technology will be more and more present in the world of sports. Will it kill the essence? Only time will tell…

A The Consultancy Group article, written by Anthony Schaub & Alessandro Di Benedetto

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