How Far Away Are We From Video Referees On A Large Scale?

If this past weekend in the sports world taught us anything, it’s that human referees aren’t all their cut out to be. 

It’s an understatement to say the expansion of sports media has effected how the consumer views the referee. Compared to instant replay, human referees seem stuck in the stone age. After all, how can two human eyes with zero capability of being able to replay what they just viewed compete with dozens of high-definition cameras that possess unlimited replay capability.

Gone are the days that fans can only assume the ref got the call wrong. Within a few seconds, television networks and Twitter users can validate or invalidate fan assumptions. They can see for themselves how the ref screwed their team over with a wrong call. 

During this year’s March Madness, Intel introduced a new viewing option for fans called TrueVR. From the Sweet 16 on, fans could watch games in 360-degree virtual reality. At the Final Four, viewers could watch the action from the vantage point of seven different setups. While it remains to be seen if TrueVR ultimately got what Intel was hoping for, the impact this technology could have on the future of professional referring could be insurmountable. 

Let’s stick with basketball. Say you’re the NBA and you want to curtail the impact poor referring has on potential fan interest in your sport. Intel comes to the NBA and says “we’ll put seven different 360-degree virtual reality setups for officials to use during the games.” You place a setup centrally located along each baseline. You place two setups, evenly spaced out, along each sideline. You place one final setup above the court using a skycam setup. 

The idea of video referees is nothing new. In fact, the sport of soccer has slowly been implementing them into the game and have so far received a positive reception. How far away, though, are we from seeing a game being officiated by nothing but video referees?

Imagine a system of seven different 360-degree virtual reality setups being utilized by three different remotely-located referees to officiate an NBA game. Outside of an employee whose job it is to inform the coaches and players of the details regarding the calls on the field (a mixture of sound and light emitting from these VR setups would initially inform those in attendance that a foul has occurred), referees would have zero interactions with the players on the court.

The art of players courting the refs throughout the game in order to curry their flavor would be removed. The impact of hecklers and fan reception toward bad calls wouldn’t rattle refs. It won’t cause them to potentially make-up for a bad call with another bad call in the future to even things out. Instances where video replays are already utilized would instantly be sped up. No more leaving the field of play to huddle over a monitor that plays one replay at a time.

Would calls be missed? Probably. Would those calls be those pertaining to judgement calls where there isn’t a line in the sand on what warrants being called? More than likely. Until players where uniforms with built-in technology that measures the force of their shoves and if their velocity had decreased to an extent that a charge is warranted, that’s always going to be the case. 

The second half of the NCAA Championship Game was atrocious to watch and it was the refs fault. Having a staff video referees more than likely would’ve mitigated some of that atrocity on display. Fouls would’ve been awarded to the appropriate players. Out of bounds calls would’ve been awarded to the correct team. Gonzaga would’ve won the game. All-in-all, the game would’ve been an utter delight. 

Let’s not overlook the amount of technological advancement that would need to occur in order for a system to function at peak efficiency. The pieces are there though. While something like would take awhile to trickle the sports ladder, leagues like the NBA have the finances to make it happen sooner rather than later.