320. Flag on the Field: Unnecessary Graphics, -15 Yards.
Nov 10, 2010 at 11:13AM

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.


Article originally appeared on Graphicology (http://www.graphicology.com/).
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