June 29, 2009
Tweaks we'd like to see.
I watch approximately thirty-five seconds of live baseball each year, but still I was interested in Slate's report last week on the inferiority of the traditional camera angle, offset 10 to 15 degrees toward left field, compared to an angle overlooking the pitcher and home plate from straightaway center field (emphasis added):
[Oakland A's TV director Tom] Adza does concede that "for a fan who wants to see live whether it's a ball or a strike, there's no question the dead-center is better. It's kind of a strange thing. In sports TV, we've spent so much money to get better looks at what's happening in a game. But here we show thousands of baseball games on TV every year, and we're not showing the angle that gives the most exact information."
Take that problem, multiply it by 100 or so, and you've got the state of televised football, which operates from such an odd angle in relation to the action on the field that even the most season viewers practically always need two or three additional angles before they really grasp how a play developed (or didn't). The high sideline view that's dominated football telecasts since time immemorial stems from the conventional wisdom that the best view is "on the 50," but think about what you see as a viewer from that perspective: On running plays, the line of scrimmage is an indistinguishable mass of bodies, utter chaos, from which the running back miraculously pops out the other side. How did he make it through that mess? Passing plays are worse, because receivers immediately run off the screen, making both the quarterback's decision to throw and the final result utter mysteries until the receiver suddenly appears again, with no context as to how he got so damn wide open or why the QB let the ball go despite the fact that the man is obviously covered. How did the receiver get open, or fail to?
You can go to a half-dozen replays to answer those questions -- and replay will always be a necessity in a sport like football, with 22 individuals reacting at once to create a single action, as opposed to the one-on-one focus inherent in pitcher vs. batter -- or you can just put the camera in the angle that gives the most exact information in the first place:
Video games got this right immediately: Imagine trying to play NCAA Football or Madden from a sideline angle, as opposed to the traditional end zone look. It seems ridiculous, because the sideline angle dramatically skews depth, distorts distances and obscures what's really happening on the lines; there's no sense of spacing or running lanes. Any video game player should recognize immediately that the game is almost always best understood from a wide, high angle behind one side or the other, not from the sideline. Once viewers adjusted to a different angle, the traditional sideline shot would feel just as awkwaed.
For a long time, the end zone angle was probably impossible, or at least impractical, just as the odd configurations of different Major League ballparks made (and in some places still make) mounting a camera in straightaway centerfield a no-go for baseball broadcasts. But end zone angles are fairly standard replay far these days, and the "SkyCam," heretofore only a novelty for replays, has the potential to revolutionize the way the average fan watches and understands football. It's exceptional for conveying the speed on the field, but also for showing how plays develop. Take USC's running lanes above against Nebraska in 2007, for example, or these back-to-back plays during Georgia Tech's win over Miami last December, and compare the live play to replays from the end zones:
The first clip is proof you don't necessarily have to spring for the state-of-the-art version hovering over the action -- just get good enough cameras in the end zones, and everything opens up.
The one obvious drawback to the end zone angle is a lack of downfield depth; the further the play is from the camera, the more distance is compressed, which risks making five and six-yard gains look much shorter and judging first downs a lot trickier. It's worth occasionally waiting for the spot, though, to give viewers a better immediate understanding of how the ball got there in the first place. And isn't that why they have those yellow lines now, anyway? As usual, viva technology.
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Other humble suggestions: Two ways to fix replay, bring back the shame for I-AA cupcakes, on the inevitable commercialization of spring football, athletic department "salary caps," fixing the virtual game.