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320. Flag on the Field: Unnecessary Graphics, -15 Yards.

If you are even a casual football fan you have no-doubt noticed a trend over the last few years while watching NFL games. The networks are getting increasingly gratuitous with what is called their live video insertion systems (or L-VIS) graphics package.

It all started innocently enough if you can believe it back in 1976. That was the year the concept of showing viewers at home the rough location of the first-down line was conceived and proven possible. It took another 21 years for ESPN to use a system during a Bengals/Steelers match produced by a company called SportVision. Not to be out done, CBS launched their own line a few weeks later during their big Thanksgiving Day game which was produced by a company called Princeton Video Image. The two production companies had been working together than became competitors, each trying to woo the broadcast networks with their proprietary method of putting graphics on the field during live-games.

The 1st and 10 Line:

During each NFL game, there are at least four cameras—each with a dedicated computer—and a fifth computer used for chroma-keying along with two operators to run the current system. It involves generating a 3D model of the field in reference to the cameras and setting up certain colors that can be masked over (usually the greens of the field.) It sounds complicated but it's pretty much the same technology used for years during weather broadcasts.

The Now-defunct DraftTrack from Fox:

Since then, all hell has broken loose in terms of live on the field graphics. We've seen the virtual strike-zone during MLB games, 3-D renderings of the draft surrounding NASCAR vehicles as they go around Daytona, and an infinite amount of virtual objects plopped down in the middle of the stadiums as a palette for anything from advertiser logos to rosters and league standings. We've even witnessed something called video in perspective which takes the basics of the 1st and 10 system and allows for video to be inserted into the live feed. So the capabilities have come a long way and like most things are abused. But just because you can doesn't mean that you should. For example, there is this one annoying graphic display over every network broadcasting NFL games. 

Let's Talk About this Arrow:

This L-VIS graphic is produced by FOX Sports and like every other version on the other networks, it drives me crazy. It's probably the best designed in terms of graphic execution of them all, but that's not really the point. Here are my problems with it:

  1. It's unnecessary. All of the information that it contains (who has the ball, which direction they are going, and the down/yardage is either completely obvious or already displayed in the score graphic above.)
  2. It's garish. They take pride in these arrow graphics and as such make them huge.
  3. It's stays on-screen too long. As the play evolves and the cameras zoom into the action... the graphic often remains on the screen, sometimes taking over the screen until the whistle stops.
  4. It simply detracts from the simplicity of the game. It is the very definition of visual distraction.

They have taken something helpful (the first and ten line) and made it into a large, unhelpful, attention-craving monster. And again, this was the best designed example. Let's take a look at the other networks.

Here's the one from NBC:


And CBS, which isn't even an arrow (though nice 1st and 10 graphic):

So, besides being unnecessary there are the other problems. This is what happens frequently as these graphics are displayed.

Graphic Duels: Which information is more important?

Keep Your Eye on the Ball. They compete with the action on the screen:

Doormat Graphics. You often can't see them anyway:

I understand how we got to this point - it was competition. Almost like a sports graphic arms race. Each network had to demonstrate their capability over the other; then take it one step further. And because one network deemed the graphics necessary - all of them do. I think this ignores the fans completely. Again, there is no new information in the on-field graphic, so at its very best it's redundant. I would respect it more if they'd get rid of the score graphics and do it all on the field. At least they would have made a decision; as it stands it is sloppy broadcasting. Most fans know who has the ball because, well, they have the ball. And we know what direction they are going because they are facing that direction. And we know what down and yardage is left because the station has been kind enough to already tell us.

The thing about American football is that it is so graphically pleasing. They call it a grid-iron for goodness sakes. Sure, it wasn't because of the golden mean but there is a sense of geometric order on the field. Everything is carefully marked out and divided. It's clean and perfect. A game of violence on top of a beautiful and minimalist field and that's what makes these live directional arrows so darn annoying. 

But this is what made me write this article: Fox decided to go one-step further with a playclock graphic. And true to form, this also is distracting and redundant. But they can't help themselves, they just have to keep adding more and more 'stuff' to the on-screen presentation of the game. I would ask when it will end; but I know that it won't. Neither FOX, NBC, CBS or ESPN has ever demonstrated a design restraint when it comes to broadcasting sports.


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Reader Comments (14)

Perfect analysis. I couldn't agree with you more. Awesome post!
November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBob
I wholeheartedly agree. Interesting (maybe even troubling) how similar the graphics are to what's in the Madden football video games. Life imitates art that imitates life.
November 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterthebullfrog
Excellent comment - they do look more and more like a video game interface.
November 11, 2010 | Registered Commenterjj
I think your rational on this is a little illogical. Execution aside, the numerous overlays & tickers that appear on the screen can be much more distracting. Using your logic, we should consider removing the large number yardage indicators as well. The truth is, on-field graphics can provide a more seamless, connected, engaging, unobtrusive and visually informative presentation of the game that allows for easy visual transition of focus between foreground and background. I agree that the execution could often be better and that the having duplicate info on the screen at the same time is awkward and unnecessary, but overall I think your argument is lacking. With the ability of technology and the knowledge that there is not one perfect solution for all users, I would like to see the viewer be given control on what is displayed (which info/data they would like to be provided with, how they would like it presented and when it would be displayed [in between plays, during timeouts, etc])
November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCasey
I think giving the user control is a great idea. (And the tickers are a bit of a problem too - it's all too much really.) Not sure how my logic is lacking, but you make great points, so thanks for commenting.
November 11, 2010 | Registered Commenterjj
Totally agree, especially about the playclock graphic. Not only is it the most unnecessary of the on-field graphics, it's also the most poorly designed and garish of them all
November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJesse
Execution could be better, but it's nice not having to use peripherals to keep an eye on the action and the situation. I don't want to miss the miffed snap because I was trying to see what the yardage was or how much time was left on the countdown. They're a bit invasive, but I don't miss anything while trying to find information.
November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJosh
While I also would prefer a simplified presentation, it seemed like the basis for your argument took the ideas of 'less is more' and 'football being graphically pleasing' a little to far. Providing pertinent info during the game can help add to the experience, so the way in which that info is provided is where the exploration should occur. On-field graphics, properly applied, still work within the "grid" of the gridiron. So to me, at the fundamental level they can work in the same way as the numbers on the field, without distracting from the game. Your explanation seemed to take the stance that they were inherently bad, so I just wanted to offer a counter argument. And as much as I prefer things that are graphically appealing, this isn't really why people find football captivating, so I'm not sure that statement adds much to the conversation and it seems to be a little skewed towards a designer's perspective than having any basis in reality.
November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCasey
What? Nothing to say about the Meteor Puck that Fox used to use in NHL hockey?
November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIan K
Aside from the screen clutter, I have two main objections to the on-field graphics. First is the placement of the down & distance arrow: it's totally inconsistent! In the screen shots above, the tip of NBC's PIT arrow is basically at the line of scrimmage, but their GB arrow straddles the line. If the placement provided some useful information, maybe I could tolerate the arrow, but not the way it's used today. Second is the relationship (or lack thereof) between Fox's arrow and their play clock. The arrow "lays flat," as if painted on the field, while the play clock is "upright," floating about a foot above the field. It causes visual confusion and drives me crazy.
November 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLarenR
As a former collegiate player I mostly like the 'on the field' graphics, the exception being when they are covered by players and Fox's ticking play-clock.

I normally watch multiple games simultaneously. They allow me to instantly recognize the situation and move on to deeper analysis such as formation packages. The graphics definitely aren't perfect yet - tooooo big - but I hope they will be continuously tweaked toward 'decent.'
December 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMLB
couldnt agree more with the article. i actually had the same topic in mind for a blog post of my own. instead, as a personal project, im putting together my own on screen graphics project.
December 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrandon
I have the same objection as LarenR above. I would object much less to the on-screen graphic if it's placement was uniform. Sometimes the line of scrimmage goes through the arrow, sometimes it goes through the text within the graphic, and still other times it goes through the back of the graphic. It's much more visually confusing to me than not having the graphic at all.
December 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCarol
I love this post. In the meantime, one of the playoff networks has merged the time clock into the on-field overkill graphic. All this info is in the mostly very beautifully and compactly designed scoreboard graphic. My theory about why this is is that all the networks are using sports as advertising for their other shows. If they clutter the field with this garbage, then we might not think there large and getting larger "lower third" moving ad graphics promoting other shows are intrusive. Those are the real villains. We need the FCC to say enough to that. Or we just need to say it ourselves.
January 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

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