World Cup shows how tech is often VAR from ideal

Joseph DaborAs the Qatar World Cup moves towards this weekend’s final, the tournament has undoubtedly confirmed how the matchday experience for football fans has changed. Interconnected technologies have revolutionised watching live football games, with tools such as VAR (video assistant referees), goal line technology, semi-automated offsides, immersive playback and even motion sensors within the ball, fans are closer to the game than ever before.

The modern game is now one in which fans have a deep understanding of what is happening live, where they can make up their own minds from home or in the stadium.

On the surface, these technologies have improved the game with better accuracy, fans can make their own conclusions and referees are no longer on their own in their decisions. But are these technologies as seamlessly interweaved in the fans’ matchday experience as they appear?

One of the downsides of modern technology in football is the way the officiating teams implement it, and how isolated the fan is when it’s in use. Its application disregards the fan’s involvement.

Associations, channels, and teams are constantly pushing their matchday experience promising to “spend big to improve the matchday experience”, and battling to provide the most immersive experiences, be that at stadiums or through a TV set. Yet, there is still a black hole in involving or informing the fans of when and how technology is being used, creating a disparity between the decision-making process, and the outcome of the officiating team’s decision.

Suddenly, technology is changing the rulebook for football. Technology is forcing the game to move away from the grass-roots level understanding of the game where neither players nor referees have access to the technology used at the top level. We need to pause and consider how some of these technologies are used, so that we can ensure fans are both included in their process and understand their use to influence decisions.

Take VAR for example, a technology that had long been asked for to help improve and provide clarity of decisions. From a fan’s point of view, there are some simple functional and emotional needs for VAR.

Functionally, being taken on the journey of the referee’s decision-making and, emotionally, having clarity of the decision process and agreement (or disagreement) with the final decision.

The current issue with VAR in football is that it caters to neither of those needs. The experience happens behind closed doors, with fans kept out of the loop both in stadiums and at home. There is a lot that football can learn from the use of technology to aid decision making in other sports, such as rugby union, cricket and tennis, yet still football seems to lag behind.

Google the phrase “modern technology in football” and you will see a myriad of current and future innovations potentially being introduced. In the current World Cup, we have seen semi-automated offsides for the first time. Yet, there is still an unknown element for the fan in understanding exactly what is happening, when the technology is being used and how the outcome has influenced the referee’s decision.

In Qatar, we’ve already seen a number of instances of technology intervening with little thought for the fans, leaving fans in the stadium to use their imagination of the process being carried out, and fans at home to the mercy of the commentator’s opinion to try to explain what’s happening. Ultimately causing frustration and anger towards any final decisions.

VAR is a great example of an experience being created in isolation without consideration for the overall audience. There is a danger, not only in football but in all experiences, and as we introduce more complexity, we must not forget about the user and ensure they’re part of the total experience.

Technology is all about being consistently fair, bringing clarity and avoiding bias or moments of a loss of attention. But in the world of football, full of emotions and tribalism, that technology needs to be applied in a way that engages and respects the fans. That recognises their emotional experience of the game. Only then, will it properly support the total matchday experience.

Joseph Daborn is senior experience designer at Tribal Worldwide

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