Too Much of a Good Thing?
Everybody loves autumn. The sweltering dog days are slowly losing their bite, the leaves begin to change …… Forget all of that. Autumn means one thing – football is back!
Recently, I took my son to the home opener of the Carolina Panthers. Mere moments after the game started my son turned to me and asked “where is it, Dad?” The perplexed look on his face had me a little concerned. “Where is what, son?” hoping I wasn’t missing something obvious as this was clearly disconcerting for him.
“Where is the yellow line and the blue line? How can I tell when they get a first down?”
Every year when we kick back in our recliners to watch the first weekend of games, it doesn’t take long to see that more changes have taken place in the off-season. More channels showing more games which have new rules and new penalties, but enough graphical information is splattered on your screen to keep you informed. You did want that, right? This trend started innocently in 1998, when a truly significant advancement in technology found its way into the National Football League and changed the way we would watch the game forever.
*For our readers who may not be familiar with the game and all of its terminology, you may want to follow this link. It will serve as an excellent reference. Wikipedia - Football Glossary
The 1998 football season was memorable for several reasons. The nation rejoiced as the undefeated Tennessee Volunteers won the national championship, Peyton Manning began his legendary NFL career, and football fans watching at home were introduced to a simple yellow line superimposed on the field representing the first down yard line. The “1st & 10 virtual first down system” appeared with little fanfare during a Sunday night game on ESPN, and instantly became the most significant technological innovation in televised football since instant replay and high definition.
Here’s the story
Bill Squadron and Stan Honey quit their jobs to build a startup company. Sportvision, as they named it, had the singular objective of integrating this augmented reality (AR) technology into televised sports. They knew they had a great idea, but also knew that the NFL was historically slow to accept change. They presented their idea to NFL owners, and the reaction was very positive, albeit cautious. After all these guys wanted to literally change the way football looked like on millions of TV screens. It didn’t help that the costs were substantial. The major networks, including ABC, reacted similarly, and eventually passed on the idea. What Bill and Stan didn’t know was that ABC had passed the idea to ESPN, its new affiliate, anticipating a better fit. ESPN execs loved the idea, the NFL gave the green light, and steps were taken immediately to implement the yellow line into ESPN broadcasts. By the third week of the season, the yellow line had become a staple of every game televised by ESPN. Predictably, the other networks changed their minds and lined up to use the technology.
By the beginning of the 2002 season, every local, regional and national broadcast of both college and NFL games had Bill and Stan’s popular and profitable yellow line on display. An added bonus to the NFL was the increase in the number of viewers, as it helped casual or novice fans understand the game better. Sportvision was no longer just a startup. It started a phenomenon. The company moved forward to apply AR into numerous other sports, with amazing success. You can see images and videos of their products in every sport at the Sportvision website: www.sportvision.com
Unfortunately, there was a downside. Bill and Stan’s company had the patent on the 1st & 10 system, but not on all use of AR in football, or in any other sport. New media tech companies began popping up, seizing the opportunity. While this did lead to some very impressive new AR products, namely in PGA Golf, NASCAR, and the Olympics, it also led to “AR overkill” in many football broadcasts. I am still baffled by the fact that the same companies that were so reluctant to use the yellow line were suddenly willing to experiment with so many new ideas, no matter how unnecessary. TV screens became cluttered with too many graphics, AR effects, and redundant information that it overwhelmed the game itself. Fortunately, in the last few years the NFL and NCAA have re-evaluated their televised product. The circus of graphics seems to have left town, leaving just a few things behind. The yellow line remains, and always will. The wonderful thing is that the game is once again the most prominent feature on the screen.
In these two images we see the latest AR image, where the down and distance is superimposed on the screen, accented by the colors and logo of the teams. This is certainly important information, but this image falls into the redundancy category. Down and distance numbers can be seen anytime with a glance at the scoreboard graphic. For decades it has been seen on the neon markers managed by the chain gang on the sidelines. It is also declared prior to each play by the game announcers. And if those options aren’t enough, you can ask the person beside you. Odds are one of you will have figured it out at this point.
Perhaps the most obnoxious and unnecessary idea that was approved, briefly, involves the “red zone.” The red zone is the common term used for the area inside the opponent’s 20 yard line. This is apparently for viewers that cannot see the giant white numbers on the field marking 20 yard line, the 10 yard line, or the goal line, where the giant team logos are painted. But does anyone need the red zone area to actually BE red? Thankfully, this ridiculous example of AR overkill, and ultimate form of clutter on the screen, only lasted a week or two until it was laughed into the circular file. Ironically, this bizarre image is taken from a broadcast on The NFL Network. The shameless addition of the corporate logo within the literally red zone somehow seems appropriate, all things considered.
The final image is the ultimate illustration of this article. The only redeeming thing about this image from a FOX broadcast is that the red zone remains its natural green color, and that the game is still partially visible, if you look from the proper angle.
Allow me to summarize this article by identifying each of the wonderful, informative, always necessary enhancements that FOX gave us only two seasons ago.
- Notice the once innocent, now exploited, yellow first down line. I almost feel sorry for it here.
- We have a new line – the blue line, representing the line of scrimmage. This is borderline insulting. Imagine this shot without the blue line. Can you tell for yourself the location where these enormous players are lined up face to face?
- Prominently displayed again is the team-colored down and distance, with two additional red arrows to remind you what direction the offense needs to keep going if they still want to score a touchdown. We’ve covered this.
- An added bonus here is the play clock counting down on the lower right side. This actually is important. After all, it is 3rd down and 5, in the red zone. I wonder what color the field will be if they don’t get the play off in time.
- This game between the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers was not the only game being played at the time. FOX must have overlooked the unspoiled screen space on the top right, so we get scrolling updates of every other game. This is important to a lot of fans so by itself it is a valuable addition. Just allow yourself time to sift through the other distractions to locate it. It is extremely vital that a large noticeable FOX logo is attached.
It would be a real shame if we did not know exactly which network has stripped this game of its original purity. The fact that AR has changed the way we view football is undeniable, but how much is too much of a good thing?