To VAR or not Far Enough

Watching the introduction of VAR into the English Premier League is proving to be a frustrating and contentious user experience. Technology has been introduced to reduce refereeing errors but stops short of embracing innovation.

In the current implementation a team stationed in a video operation room checks on-field referee decisions, if that means humans scanning multiple frames of video from different cameras it’s no wonder it takes so long to review a decision. 

Do we have to wait so long?

That VAR takes more than a few seconds is a clear indication the whole solution needs rethinking. The expertise and massive on-demand compute power of hyperscale cloud is already enabling complex stats calculations to be done in other sports.

Image and video analysis with machine learning or a sensor-based tracking system could be used to achieve a response time similar to Goal Line Technology. However human intervention will need to be eliminated. A fully automated VAR system is probably around the complexity of a self-driving car.

Swapping human referees for computers 

Computing decisions are often binary, true, false or mathematical, if the unit of measurement for one player being further up the pitch than another is a pixel then decisions will be based on that, so rules would have to be defined mathematically.

What is extremely difficult for computers or Artificial Intelligence (at present) is to understand the principles behind laws, such as fair play, unsporting conduct, etc, laws or rules embody such ideas. For example, the principle behind the offside rule, is unfair advantage, a toe, an armpit or width of a pixel is hardly an advantage, but half a yard (45 cm) would be. Telling the system to make an allowance of 12 cm (width of a line on a soccer pitch), or 50% of the attacking players body size will reflect the spirit behind the rule without being pedantic. 

However, a human arbitrator will still be needed to maintain good order and game management. 

Delight the fans

Amazon, Netflix and Uber, were all capable of bringing together technology in such a way that it became easier for customers to do something. In most cases they became the pioneers of technology development in their field. The key point is they presented an existing product as something better than the previous version.

VAR is not bringing much delight, fans don’t see it as something better, yes, it has reduced the amount of errors, but it is spoiling the rush of goal celebrations, (or penalty saves…) as fans are no longer sure if a decision will stand.

Performing reviews in near real time would remove the negativity of annulled goals but taking things a step further could improve the experience of watching the game live.

Keep the crowd informed.

The work that AWS is doing with the NFL and F1 are references of how technology can enhance the experience of a sports event. It shouldn’t be too difficult to start with sharing the information of Goal Line Technology, so once a goal is scored, every (signed up) phone and smart watch in the stadium pulses.  Announcing VAR decisions directly through updates that can be read on a smartwatch would keep broadcasters and those in the crowd informed. Live stat streaming and replays to phones and wearables in the stadium, would add value and keep the crowd engaged.

Innovation isn’t an add on it’s core to the customer experience

For many enterprises technology and innovation is no longer an add on, it is core to survival. Amazon, Uber and Netflix completely transformed their respective sectors, the products they offered were not new, but they had sufficient understanding of customers to make demands of technology to meet those needs.

Soccer is such an entertaining game, it may well survive for a time without innovation,  VAR is part of the first wave of technology adoption in soccer, lets hope it doesn’t stop there.

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