Automated offside is here, and it’s damn cool

Sports

Finally, a computer will save us from arguing about whether someone was on or offside.

Finally, a computer will save us from arguing about whether someone was on or offside.
ScreenshotClub World Cup

Even through the many, many bumps and hiccups (the kind of hiccups where you feel like you’ve pulled a tilt) I’ve been pro-VAR. It’s hardly perfect, and far too much still depends on people’s whims and judgments. Besides being in the hands of what floats between the ears of one person, we are now on two: the VAR officer and the referee on the field. Let’s go back to this for a few weeks and realize that two people had to think this was punishment for it to get ridiculous. Two.

So yes, far from perfect. Everything that depends on people always will be, especially when it comes to opinions. And that’s still what refereeing is, no matter how clearly you try to capture something in a rulebook.

Still, to me, VAR is progress, and what it saves is worth the cost. The goal being ruled out when a player is tipped yards onside is a good thing, and it still happens. Getting rid of the blatant bloated call is still a good thing, even if it feels like the most basic of things. It will take time to remove the sludge around it.

Offside was arguably the most frustrating part of the VAR revolution. Not because it does things wrong or right, but just how long it takes. Yes, there’s the gloom of celebrating a goal – the most catastrophic moment in sport – and watching it get wiped out. People seem to forget the goals awarded after an offside call, but balance this somewhat, but the focus is always on the negative. And it led to the awkward play when a linesman can’t quite mark a fringe call until there’s a break in play so the VAR can step in if needed. Again, it’s bumpy, but it’s progress.

But it’s the standing that we all hate the most. We watch the lines set on our TV, and we’re never sure if they’ve done it right. Is it the knee or the shoulder of the last defender to adjust to? Is this corner in the stadium really the best? And what about that fullback looking for his contact lens on the other side? Isn’t he the last defender?

And it could take forever, and we can only imagine what it’s like for those in the stadium who can’t watch. At the end of it, you don’t even care if the goal counts or not, you just want it to be over. The last thing we want is for this to feel endless.

Well, at this week’s Club World Cup, our salvation may be born. Automated Offside VAR is in effect, and it’s damn dope:

Dale Johnson explains the whole thing in that thread, and there’s an example from earlier in the tournament to illustrate. Basically, it works as goal-line technology. Cameras around the stadium create an AI version of the match, capturing different data points from each player 50 times per second. With that information, they can position the players at any time and from any angle to see if they were offside or not. The future use of this kind of technology is staggering, for analysis and exploration and whatever, but this is the immediate.

The thought that we could have these decisions in a matter of seconds, that’s actually the moment when we realized that an assistant was raising his flag after a goal in the olden days, feels like manna from heaven. We won’t feel a pause or worse. The flow of the game will continue.

That doesn’t mean it will be perfect, and the problems arise in the things we can’t predict. Even goal-line technology, as widely acclaimed as it has been, missed a crucial goal against Aston Villa in 2020 because players’ bodies happened to be positioned to block the cameras. You couldn’t replicate or predict that. That disallowed goal kept Villa in the Premier League, and it’s a real study to find out what would have happened to them, Bournemouth (who would have stayed) and a host of individuals. These calls have deep and far-reaching consequences. Should a camera break during a World Cup semi-final… well, let’s not think about it.

But the actual technology itself is fascinating. And it leads to the question of whether this is possible – tracking 22 moving bodies and a moving ball that can be viewed from any angle in seconds. If it takes seconds, why isn’t it possible to go down by radio and tell the umpires exactly where the ball should be and where the marker should be?

Why do I still have to suffer from the misguided concept Angel Hernandez or Larry Vanover have of the attack zone if we could just map it out? And it doesn’t even move! There are several experts out there who will tell you that automated attack zone technology just isn’t there yet. Well, check out this automated offside and ask them why not? Or why do NHL fans have to watch two linesmen bent over a Nintendo Switch to watch blue-line cameras that have all the quality homemade porn in the garage to find out if a skate was over the line or not? The answer is here.

MLB, arguably the only right thing it’s been up to lately, is at least going here and using it in the minors to smooth it out. The NFL doesn’t have such a test lab environment, but there’s definitely a better way. So should the NHL.

I know the answers lie in something like, “The leagues don’t want to pay for it.” That’s always the answer. Not like they can’t afford it. FIFA didn’t do it need neither did this, but spent it with his considerable treasury. If a lumbering idiocy like FIFA can be used, what’s the NFL’s excuse?

There will be those who still cling to “the human element!” But ask them to define that, and they can’t. It’s a loose allusion to a time gone by, and a fear of technology. What they say is they like mistakes. But mistakes have to come from the players and coaches. The arbiters of the games must be as perfect as possible to give them the most even playing field. Yes, Don Dekinger and Kerry Fraser live in infamy and are some of those leagues’ most storied tales. That doesn’t mean they have to be repeated. They should be a sign of how far our service has come.

Also… this toy is great!

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