VAR – When New Technology Is Introduced

VAR – When New Technology Is Introduced

The video assistant referee (VAR) has been entering the grand stage of football during the 2018 World Cup. The introduction of VAR is interesting in itself but it is also a broader story about technology entering mainstream: A technology that delivers on its goal(!) but fails to anticipate broader implications (Think Facebook and democracy; push notifications and phone addictions; service worker ratings and anxiety etc). To be clear, VAR is not automated technology – it’s technology enabling four off-site referees to help the match referee change wrong decisions to correct ones via video playback and in ear communication.

VAR – delivering its goal

As with most technology, VAR is introduced to solve a specific need: “The sport’s governing bodies want to improve decision making and accuracy”. This is a straightforward engineering goal as there is a clear metric to optimise. And based on initial trials in German and Italian leagues, it’s been a great success. FIFA president Infantino claims: “From almost 1,000 live matches that were part of the experiment, the level of the accuracy increased from 93% to 99%. It’s almost perfect.”. VAR is almost perfect based on its goal in isolation, just like Facebook is almost perfect at sucking in users attention. But it never makes sense to view such goals in isolation.

The Unintended Consequences

If VAR is such a big success, how come a vast amount of ex-football players and pundits are being very harsh? Sure, many people are averse to changes, but that hardly accounts for all of it.

Distribution of goals

In the 2018 World Cup, there have been more penalties per game and the highest percentage of goals scored from set-pieces than in any WC tournament since 1966. The number of penalties in 2018 – before group stages are over – has already surpassed the number of penalties in 2014. It’s clear that this is an unintended consequence and a direct failure of introducing VAR without assessing the rules it is to manage.

Referees are turned into middle managers

When the cameras are zooming in on referees after a potential penalty kick, it’s easy to see many referees express doubt and hesitation. And for obvious reasons: Over the next 30 seconds, they might be told to change their initial verdict. This is first step in undermining the referee’s authority.

The spontaneous joy of the match is removed.

You can’t really enjoy a goal after its been scored, but who knows if it will be changed after 30 secs? And once a penalty kick is not awarded in a doubtful situation, focus is on waiting to see if it will be changed. Sure, as Gary Lineker point out, this adds drama. But the drama comes at the high cost of spontaneity and flow. In some matches, there have been 4+ time consuming VAR episodes in a single half. Football is becoming more interrupted and Americanised.

VAR is probably here to stay – but there is much work to be done to make the use of technology better. This will only happen if we stop optimising toward an isolated goal of reducing referee errors and looking at the broader goals of football.