IT’s sport, but not as we knew it?
Posted on 29th April 2019
For years now, we’ve become used to the site of cameramen (they do tend to be men) with their super-lightweight cameras following the play in big football matches, running down the touchlines and zooming in on the action. You can’t imagine a major football or other sporting tournament without the accompanying cameras. And there are a LOT of cameras. At Euro 26, there were 42 cameras at each of the 10 stadia, for every match. But quite a few of these did not have a human being operating them.
Some are cameras on a wire and increasingly drones are involved, but the old-fashioned idea of the cameras up at the back of the grandstand, with the operator following the action throughout the match, still resonates for many. Then, once all the video has been recorded, a director will assemble and edit the footage so we can see, for example, Liverpool (other teams are available) in all their pomp and glory. Yet all this is changing as AI plays an increasing role, not just in the broadcasting of sport but also by taking a seat in the director’s chair.
The BBC recently reported on a basketball match that was filmed and directed by AI. Fixed cameras were able to track players, the ball and also the game itself, following passes from one player to another and, of course, the scoring of points. Not only might this improve the viewer’s experience, but from a commercial viewpoint the lack of human camera operators will reduce the costs involved, although you can see this not going down well with the broadcast unions…
There is already substantial use of technology in monitoring how and where the players run and interact during various sports, and we are becoming used to the vagaries of VAR in football. However, we have learned that VAR does not always solve every argument or clean up every dodgy decision (although I am prepared to make an exception for the Spurs’ goal against Manchester City). Despite this, I believe there is a debate to be had, not just over how we record and broadcast sport, but also over the extent to which computers are taking over a world that millions love for its unpredictability and capacity to surprise.
With VAR, I suspect we’ll see its extension beyond “critical decisions” – because so much money is involved and “we’ll want to get it right.” Like VAT, VAR will be extended into all sorts of other areas not originally envisaged. But unless we want our major sporting competitions to become nothing more than glorified computer games, some important decisions to limit the use of technology will have to be taken. Otherwise, where does it all end – do England give back the World Cup because it’s demonstrated conclusively that the ball was not over the line in 1966?*
When it comes to the adoption of AI to control the cameras and direct the footage that spectators see, we’ll need to consider whether we are happy to see skilled individuals lose their jobs or alternatively just accept that this is “progress.” This is the dilemma that AI is increasingly creating, not just in sport but in many other areas of life and work. And it’s not going away. Just how we engage with AI (and it with us) will be one of the biggest issues of the next decade.
Stuart Alexander, Be-IT
* I have some colleagues who would say yes!
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