Category Archives: Sport

Are esports the next major league sport?

Galen Clavio, Indiana University

In late 2016, a sports championship event was held in Chicago, drawing 43 million viewers during the series finals. That was 12 million more people than watched the 2016 NBA Finals.

It wasn’t soccer, or football, or even the World Series of Poker. Instead, it was the “League of Legends” World Finals, an esports competition.

Video games have been popular for more than 30 years, but competitive gaming, or esports, has recently emerged as a spectator activity that can draw thousands of attendees and viewers. Major sports networks such as ESPN, Fox Sports, MLB Advanced Media and the Big Ten Network have started broadcasting esports competitions, often partnering with major gaming companies like EA Sports, Riot and Blizzard. What is driving this phenomenon, and where is it taking us next?

Wide popularity

At first glance, the idea seems crazy, particularly to older consumers. Why would anyone want to watch other people playing video games? As a researcher focused on user experiences with social media, I have been watching the esports phenomenon develop over the last few years. My current work, with Matthew Zimmerman from Mississippi State University, looks at why users watch esports. Our preliminary findings suggest that esports spectators often play the games themselves, using the viewing process as a way to learn more about the games in question and improve their own skills as players.

In addition, many spectators take genuine pleasure in watching others play, finding the competitive culture immersive and experiencing watching esports very similarly to how they watch traditional sports.

Esports viewing has increased markedly over the past few years: The global market grew to US$696 million in 2016, and may exceed $1 billion by 2019. Media payments for rights to cover the events total nearly $100 million of that; consumers are paying $64 million for event tickets and merchandise. Most of the rest comes from advertising and sponsorship spending. The combined markets of China and North America account for more than half of global esports revenues.

A key attraction of esports is that regular people can play the very same games as the esports stars, often in real-time multiplayer tournaments. Millions of people play “Overwatch,” “League of Legends” and “Dota 2” in their own homes, and many of them participate in collaborative games and battles on communal video game servers or networks such as Steam. Familiar with the games, eager to learn new techniques and excited to celebrate expertise, these at-home players are very interested in watching top-level players in action.

Game 1 of the Grand Finals for the 2016 League of Legends World Championships.

Sean Morrison, a digital media associate for ESPN who specializes in esports coverage, told me he isn’t surprised by the surge in esports attention.

“I think the growth of esports is a generational shift more so than people suddenly becoming interested in video games,” says Morrison. “This generation of teens grew up on YouTube, watching streams, communing on internet forums – you name it. And esports is big business, too; it’s natural that people would wonder what the big deal is. All the hype kind of fuels itself, and that, combined with how many people have now grown up with this as a form of normal entertainment, has made it so big.”

Michael Sherman, college esports lead for Riot Games, the makers of “League of Legends” and other games, agrees.

“Watching video games is a very social behavior. Now you as a spectator have an opportunity to see the best people play. Aspirationally, you watch and say ‘I want to do that,‘” Sherman said to me. “It’s different from traditional sports like the NFL. I don’t watch football and go outside and throw the ball around. In esports, a lot of people watch and then they go play.”

An easy daily fix

While large sports media properties such as ESPN and the Big Ten Network have staked out territory in the esports world, many spectators get their daily fix from Twitch.Tv, a personal streaming service that specializes in video game streams. Twitch allows users to broadcast their own gameplay, while also hosting esports competitions and other video game shows. The service, which was purchased by Amazon for almost $1 billion in 2014, has helped esports to grow, by allowing gamers and viewers to directly connect with each other.

Twitch capitalizes on the very familiar practice of communal game watching. Over time, many video gamers have gotten used to watching others playing games while waiting for their turn with the controller. Twitch globalizes that experience, and – just as friends together in front of a TV can comment on each other’s play – lets viewers and the player interact directly online.

This is a boost beyond what many games allow. It’s quite common for games to have online components where players can take on opponents from anywhere in the world. But only on Twitch and similar esports platforms can nonplayers watch the action. Twitch’s elite gamers generated $60 million in subscriptions and advertising revenue in 2015 alone, per a CNBC report.

League and game growth

The interest and money have been encouraging the adaptation of games into leagues and sanctioned sports for years. Worldwide leagues exist for “Call of Duty,” “FIFA,” “Overwatch” and “Halo.”

The final match of the 2016 FIFA Interactive World Cup.

Lately, college teams have been getting in on the action. “The biggest development has been universities adopting ‘League of Legends’ as a sport,” says Riot’s Sherman. “In 2014, Robert Morris University was the first school to launch a varsity program. Now we’re up to about 25 schools.”

University-based teams allow several important elements of sport organization to coalesce in the esports marketplace. These teams feature young, enthusiastic gamers who are good enough to be competitive internationally, and institutions of higher learning who are keen to utilize the marketing potential of a rapidly developing sport to spread their brand. Esports have existed for many years outside of the official university environment, but official sanctioning by universities could help to boost the visibility of esports, as well as the games played in competitions.

“We announced in August that we had 100 million active monthly players globally for ‘League of Legends,’” Sherman says. “That was up from 64 million two years prior.”

While “League of Legends” continues to expand on the collegiate level, “Overwatch” has an eye on further changing the esports marketplace.

The Overwatch League, likely to launch in 2018, looks to have existing sports franchises in major cities across the globe own esports teams as well. The game designer, Blizzard, wants to create fan interest based on geographical and cultural relevance. The Overwatch League would also include regular broadcasts of matches on both TV and internet-based channels, as well as player contracts.

ESPN’s Morrison expects the Overwatch League model to help spur on esports spectator base growth. “‘Overwatch’ is going to blow up in the next couple of years,” he said. “Between the Overwatch League, which is going to be more like traditional sports than any league before it, and the number of competitive series popping up within it, ‘Overwatch’ will likely become the number one esports title before long. Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games like ‘League of Legends’ have long been the center of the esports universe, but games like ‘Overwatch’ that combine MOBA elements in hero choice with faster-paced gameplay are becoming a mainstay.”

The ConversationThe sports media landscape continues to change, and esports seem to be a natural evolution of that process. Competitive video gaming was hard to conceive of 20 years ago, and even harder to conceive of as a spectator sport. But broadband internet, online video, social media and shared gaming experiences have taken esports to the brink of worldwide acceptance as a legitimate form of consumer entertainment. The next five years promise to be fascinating to watch – or to play.

Galen Clavio, Associate Professor of Sports Media; Director of the National Sports Journalism Center, Indiana University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How football clubs fail and succeed after reaching England’s Premier League

Rob Wilson, Sheffield Hallam University and Dan Plumley, Sheffield Hallam University

Football always divides opinion. As the latest English season draws to a close and the Football League playoffs take centre stage, there will be some that grumble about the format. They will say how “unfair” it is that a club can finish third in the league in the regular season, yet be denied promotion by a club that finished sixth after a late surge. Set that aside though, and you are left with the pure drama. It is win or bust, and prolongs the excitement of the regular season, giving more teams, more to play for in a crescendo of late season fixtures.

The playoffs concept was borrowed from US team sports where this end-of-season competition is a regular feature, attracting huge media exposure and significant commercial interest. In England, for thirty years now, the playoffs have determined the final promotion spot within each division of the Football League. Four teams first try to get to the playoff final at Wembley stadium, then face a nerve-jangling 90 minutes or more to secure a step up the football pyramid.

The inspiration from US sports is important. Put aside the passion, excitement, disappointment and any sense of injustice for a moment. The playoffs can be of huge importance financially. A playoff victory can have the power to stabilise a club’s financial position, clear debts and allow significant investment in players. The pot of gold at the end of this rainbow has largely been filled with TV money. The most recent domestic deal was signed for £5.14 billion. Add in the international rights and this swells to £8.4 billion.

Lower down the leagues, the money on offer is not eye-watering. Our conservative estimates put the prize at around £500,000 for promotion from League Two to League One and around £7m for promotion from League One to the Championship. However, the prize on offer for promotion to the Premier League is staggering and has led to the Championship playoff final being labelled the “richest game in football” with a value of around £170m-£200m. Huddersfield, Reading, Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday are facing off for the jackpot this time around.

Revenue generator

The often-quoted £200m figure is a little misleading as it takes into account so-called parachute payments which only kick in if a club is relegated the following season. Clubs will receive a minimum uplift of £120m though, which can be triple or quadruple their turnover. In fact, the chart below shows that when Bournemouth was promoted in 2015, the club saw a six-fold increase in revenue, essentially driven by additional broadcasting fees.

When the prize is so very shiny, straining to reach for it presents a strategic dilemma for clubs. The boost to revenue from promotion can stabilise a club financially, just like it did for Blackpool in 2010, helping it to (theoretically) secure a long-term future. In Blackpool’s case, however, on-field performance was destabilised and supporters became disenfranchised. Seven years later, Blackpool now hope to be promoted back to League One this season, via the playoffs.

Promotion can also increase the level of expectation and create pressure to retain a position in the world’s richest league. The club can get excited and the board can sanction acquisitions that fall outside a reasonable budget and seriously threaten the short and even long-term financial future of the club. This recalls the experience at Queens Park Rangers, which somehow accumulated £143m of losses despite generating about £250m in revenue during their stay in the Premier League. QPR managed to spend a startling £285m on wages and £114m on player purchases, while their level of debt surged to a peak of £194m.

Prepare to fail

The third option is to rein in your ambition, develop a strategic plan, grow incrementally and accept that you may become a yo-yo club like Burnley, or survive by the skin of your teeth like Stoke City.

Either way, the club builds a longer term future at the top table which benefits everyone. Survival through this approach means that a club receives at least another £120m so can build still further and become a stable Premiership club. But even failing and being relegated means a club will still have money to spend, receive a parachute payment (of another £45m or so) and spend a season in the Championship with turnover in excess of three times that of a standard team. This provides a significant competitive advantage over your rivals as Newcastle United showed this year – the Magpies spent big and gained promotion at the first attempt.

Ultimately, the direction of travel comes down to owner objectives, which can differ depending on their background and motivations. One thing that is clear: spending beyond your means does not always guarantee success.

The chart above allows us to examine a club’s transfer spending in the year following promotion. It is a confusing picture, but the red bars show those clubs which were relegated the following season, and demonstrate clearly that spending big is no guarantee of survival. This chart doesn’t show the starting point for each club in terms of player quality, but how you spend it is plainly crucial, and the chart shows too that you can survive without throwing the kitchen sink at player acquisitions.

There is broader evidence that the most successful clubs, with the most money, do tend to outperform, but the trade-off between financial and sporting performance is hazardous. Many clubs now choose to chase multiple and escalating objectives: recall the devastating failure at Leeds United in 2003, when creditors were owed almost £100m after the club chased the dream of playing in the Champions League. You chase that dream at your peril is the warning; plan carefully, and spend wisely is the advice to your board. Relegation doesn’t have to be a trapdoor, but promotion can be a trap.

Rob Wilson, Principal Lecturer in Sport Finance, Sheffield Hallam University and Dan Plumley, Senior Lecturer in Sport Business Management, Sheffield Hallam University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Does playing chess make you smarter? A look at the evidence

Giovanni Sala, University of Liverpool and Fernand Gobet, University of Liverpool

The stereotype of the chess player is someone who is smart, logical and good at maths. This is why so many parents around the world are keen to get their children playing chess – in the hope that the game might help to boost their son or daughter’s intelligence levels and help them succeed in a wide variety of subjects.

But apart from chess being a great game, its history rooted in eastern India military, is there actually any evidence to show that playing chess can make you smarter?

In a previous article, we showed that chess players exhibit, on average, superior cognitive ability compared to non-chess players.
And the skills needed to play chess have also been shown to correlate with several measures of intelligence – such as fluid reasoning, memory, and processing speed.

But while the existence of a relationship between general cognitive ability and chess-skill is clear, is this simply because intelligent people are more likely to engage in the game of chess, or does engaging in chess make people smarter?

Brain game

The notion that playing chess makes you smarter goes something like this: chess requires concentration and intelligence, and as mathematics and literacy require the same general skills, then practising chess must also improve one’s academic achievement.

With this idea in mind, the Institute of Education conducted a large investigation to test the effects of chess instruction on the academic skills of nearly 4,000 British children.

School chess club.

The recently released results were disappointing – it seemed chess played no effect on children’s attainment levels in mathematics, literacy, or science.

Promptly, the chess community questioned the reliability of the results, particularly given that other studies offer a more optimistic picture about the academic benefits of chess instruction.

Assessing the evidence

The chess community is probably right in criticising the recent study, as it suffers from several methodological shortcomings that probably invalidate the results.

Before the results were published, we carried out a review of all the studies in the field. Our results showed some moderate effects of chess instruction on cognitive ability and academic achievement – especially mathematics.

Does chess need intelligence?

And yet, we still need to be cautious in interpreting these results as a positive indication of the power of chess on cognitive or academic skills. This is because most of the reviewed studies compared the effect of chess with groups doing no alternative activities.

This is a problem because research has shown that the excitement and fun induced by novel activities can cause a positive temporal effect on test scores – a placebo effect.

Crucially, when compared to an alternative activity – such as checkers or sports – chess did not show any significant effect on children’s skills. So, it could well just be that the observed positive effects of chess instruction are merely due to placebo effects.

Chess notes

What all this shows is that it is unlikely chess has a significant impact on overall cognitive ability. So while it might sound like a quick win – that a game of chess can improve a broad range of skills – unfortunately this is not the case.

The failure of generalisation of a particular skill, in fact, happens to occur in many other areas beyond chess – such as music training, which has been shown to have no effect on non-music cognitive or academic abilities. The same applies to video game training, brain training, and working memory training, among others.

Ancient intelligence or just a good game?

The fact that skills learned by training do not transfer across different domains seems to be a universal in human cognition. In other words, you get better, at best, at what you train in – which may just sound just like good old fashioned common sense.

But although expecting chess to enhance children’s cognitive ability and overall academic achievement is just wishful thinking, this doesn’t mean it can’t still add value to a child’s education.

Clearly, playing chess involves some level of arithmetical and geometrical skill, and designing mathematical games or exercises with chess material can still be a simple and fun way to help children to learn.

Giovanni Sala, PhD Candidate – Cognitive Psychology, University of Liverpool and Fernand Gobet, Professor of Decision Making and Expertise, University of Liverpool

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is FIFA expanding the football World Cup for the good of the game?

Roy Hay, Deakin University

FIFA’s decision to increase the number of countries taking part in the final tournament for its World Cup has provoked a predictable range of responses from those involved in football. The Conversation

From 2026 there will be 48 countries in the final tournament instead of 32. They will take part in 16 groups of three, with the top two in each moving directly to a knockout phase. The number of matches played will go up from 64 to 80, though the tournament will still be completed in 32 days, as it is now.

Each member association has been promised more money from the increased revenue the tournament is forecast to generate. Whatever the amount, it means much more to the smaller and less affluent of FIFA’s 211 member nations than to the European and South American superpowers.

Coming in for criticism

The main objections raised are that the decision has been made on financial and/or political rather than footballing grounds. More countries taking part means more games and more money from sponsors, media rights and fans.

There is a fear that the standard of play in the early stages will be lower, and opportunities for collusion in the final game – to ensure qualification for the next round – in the group stages will increase.

In the long run, it is claimed, this will decrease interest and involvement in the tournament. But this opinion is not shared by former Scotland manager Craig Brown, who points out that the Europeans have increased their football championship tournament numbers from eight to 24 since 1992 – with no related drop in interest levels.

The logistics of hosting the tournament will put it beyond the reach of most countries. Even the US, the overwhelming favourite to host the 2026 tournament, may have to look for partners to assist. Joint hosting with Mexico and Canada has been mooted, though perhaps Donald Trump’s wall might get in the way.

Critics also fear that the underlying problems of corruption at FIFA have not been tackled, and that hosting decisions in future may not be made in terms of the technical quality of the bids.

That is a real concern. While a reform process is underway within FIFA, it is far from complete, and the impetus to continue seems to be waning. Much of the driving force behind the anti-corruption movement has come from the US, and Trump may not be a keen supporter.

What are expansion’s potential implications?

Only eight teams have won the World Cup since it began in 1930 – five from Europe and three from South America. It is not clear how increasing the numbers of teams in the final tournament will change the fundamental influence on the game of these parts of the world.

The concentration of the world’s playing talent in Europe’s major leagues, where club competitions dominate, will remain.

Recently, it seemed China might be threatening that hegemony with obscene levels of spending on foreign players and coaches. But even its football-loving head of state has seen the cost of that strategy and called a halt to it.

Down the track, however, China is a possible future host of the tournament if it can raise the standard of its national team.

The implications for Australia are minimal. The number of places in the final tournament for countries from the Asian Football Confederation will increase, but by how many remains to be decided. As the standard rises in Asia, Australia will find it harder to qualify, as it is finding under the current regulations.

One local commentator, Mike Cockerill, has suggested Australia might consider rejoining the Oceania Confederation, which might guarantee a place at last. But that assumes Australia will always beat New Zealand, and it has failed to do that in the past.

More relevant is the fact that, apart from the Kiwis, there is no country in Oceania that would draw a crowd similar to that of matches against the top teams in Asia.

The chances of Australia ever being able to host the World Cup final tournament, always tiny, have now become even slimmer. The only hope might be a joint bid with the other countries of Southeast Asia.

If Australia really wants to be accepted as a participant in the Asian Football Confederation, this is an area where the interests of the game and national political considerations might align. So far, football in Australia has not exploited the potential the game has to open doors and advance our common interests with our northern neighbours.

Roy Hay, Honorary Fellow, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Football agents should not be sent off – they just need a better set of rules

Daniel Parnell, Manchester Metropolitan University and Paul Widdop, Leeds Beckett University

The war for talent is raging across the world. From Silicon Valley to Zhongguancun, organisations and institutions battle to recruit the best the world has to offer. So why is the football labour market viewed any differently to that of other industries and sectors? Surely demand for star players should be no different to the demand for product designers, data scientists and programmers.

Yet in light of the current controversies surrounding issues such as third-party ownership (TPO) and accusations of greed, and due to its mass market global appeal, football is different.

It seems strange then, that so little is known about the inner workings of the football machine – and in particular, those mysterious agents who grease the wheels, move the cogs and, apparently, make vast sums of money in the process.

Football agents make some of the biggest deals in football, sometimes profiting hugely from the talents of their superstar clients. Their role can be defined as “representing clubs and players within the context of contracts or transfer negotiations”.

Essentially, they are middlemen. But their role is increasingly growing to include responsibilities traditionally undertaken by the football club, such as being sold to another team. This raises the significant possibility of conflict of interest, when agents and clubs disagree about the player’s career path. Muddying the waters further is a hierarchy of power and division of labour within the role of agent so that some smaller agents work under the orders of the more powerful few.

So where do these agents come from? In a report on the big five leagues, just over half of agents had already worked in the football industry. Of these, 23% had a playing career, 13% scouted for players, 7.5% worked as a football manager and, 5.5% were sporting directors.

At the top of the profession, are the powerful few described by the media as “super agents”. Jorge Mendes is considered by many to be top of the pile, with clients including Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Costa and Jose Mourinho among the £625m worth of contracts he has secured.

But given the current lack of transparency and regulation, all the agents and their dealings are difficult to identify, although they are viewed as the most powerful men in football.

Despite the significant number of people registered as agents in professional football, their presence is not evenly spread. A recent report highlights that representation in Europe’s five big leagues (England, Spain, France, Germany and Italy) is so highly concentrated that half of those leagues’ footballers are managed by only 83 football agents or agencies.

These increasingly powerful upper hierarchy of agents operate globally across divisions, leagues and continents.

Agent Jorge Mendes and the number of his transfers (thickness of lines) between clubs (circles), up until June 2016.
Widdop, Parnell and Asghar, Author provided

Public and industry opinion towards football agents remains hostile – Napoli’s owner, Aurelio de Laurentis, has described them as the “cancer of our world”. The media frenzy often directed at agents is adding pressure across the football industry to better regulate them. But football intermediary Jonathan Booker claims that it is those in football leadership, not the agents themselves, who have stood by and let this status quo continue.

And what about the agents themselves? Despite the fact that they should have a key voice in the debate about their role, you rarely hear from them. As part of our research we have interviewed football agents and intermediaries operating across the UK, Europe and beyond.

One of them explained that TPO has become common practice as a direct result of the economic recession, which led to financial institutions withholding loans, overdrafts and other financial benefits to clubs. He also argued that “the advantages [of TPO] can be multilateral”, explaining:

The buying club can obtain a player who will make their team better without having to pay the full amount the selling club is asking for. And the investor, whether that is an agent or consultant or company, will look for a return on that investment.

Addressing concerns about the impact of agent deregulation by FIFA in April 2015, he continued: “What does football expect? To become a coach in a professional club you need a relevant, often nationally accepted qualification. To become an agent you need to simply pay a small [£500] fee. This has created a context whereby a huge influx of agents have appeared, lacking due knowledge of regulation and impacting upon the system by continually approaching players with misplaced promises whilst trying to gain a living.

“It has opened the gate to the rogue agents that give all agents a bad name.”

FA as agents of change?

In the UK, the picture appears bleak, contradictory and dominated by big money. While we have strong calls by the FA for tighter local regulation, the Premier League is pushing for an easing in youth (aged 14-15) player regulation. This will no doubt heat up the chase for younger and cheaper players and will open up the disturbing reality of child trafficking and exploitation, when agents arrange ownership of very young players from developing countries. There’s no suggestion that the Premier League condones trafficking or exploitation of young players.

While agents call for global leadership and governance from FIFA to get rid of the rogue elements from their industry, many observers (and insiders) are treating this is a long-term aspiration (given they have enough to deal with already!). In the interim, the FA has an opportunity to lead and demonstrate a gold standard of practice, by heading up a coalition of stakeholders including the Association of Football Agents, the Premier League, English Football Championship and leagues, Players Football Association and government.

Complete transparency on all transfer and financial sensitivities, a formal and enhanced accreditation process and a national programme of education and training would allow the FA to protect its assets, repair its integrity, and position itself as a leader in football regulation.

Daniel Parnell, Senior Lecturer in Business Management, Manchester Metropolitan University and Paul Widdop, Research Fellow in Consumption, Leeds Beckett University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Video refereeing could be a major own goal for football – here’s why

Mathieu Winand, University of Stirling

Ajax’s 5-0 cup victory against fellow Dutch premier division side Willem II on September 21 saw a first in football: the official world debut for a video assistant referee in a competitive game. The Conversation

Sitting in a van with six TV screens inside the stadium, the assistant quickly proved his effectiveness. He recommended by headset to the on-pitch referee that his initial decision to give Willem II midfielder Anouar Kali a yellow card for kicking an Ajax player’s ankle was too lenient, and Kali was dismissed a few seconds later.

While video refereeing is already routinely used to review decisions in sports like rugby and hockey, football has been late to the party. Ahead of the Ajax-Willem II game it was trialled first in a friendly between Italy and France earlier in September, successfully resolving claims in respect of a yellow card and a penalty.

It was then tested again after the Ajax game in Feyenoord’s 4-1 cup victory over FC Oss on September 22, also in the Netherlands. More tests are set to follow in different competition formats in Australia, Brazil, Germany, Portugal and United States and there have also been discussions about introducing it in England and Scotland.

In the system being trialled, the video referee communicates with the referee on the pitch within a few seconds of any incident. As well as advising on penalty and card decisions, they might help clear up cases of mistaken identity or infringements in the lead-up to a goal such as offside or foul play. If the on-pitch referee wishes, they can also review the video footage themselves before making a final decision.

Goal-line technology

Video refereeing is a more intrusive extension of goal-line technology, in which video enables football referees to instantly make an accurate call about whether the ball crossed the goal line. Though again arriving much later than in other sports, goal-line technology recently became a feature of top European leagues like the English Premier, the German Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A.

It is used at the Champions League and Europe League finals, and was also used at the Brazil World Cup in 2014 and Euro 2016. In Germany’s 2-0 group win over Ukraine at Euro 2016, for example, the technology vindicated the referee’s decision to reject goal celebrations by Ukrainian players after a shot was cleared right off the line by German defender Jérôme Boateng.

International football federation FIFA for a long time resisted introducing goal-line technology, arguing it would threaten the universality and simplicity of football and the pace of the game, as well as removing some of the controversy and debate between fans.

But the federation came under pressure to reconsider following numerous high-profile incidents such as Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal for England against Germany at the 2010 World Cup. The technology was finally given the green light in 2012. FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, has since also spoken positively about it, notwithstanding that the accuracy of the technology is debatable.

The fans’ view

So should football now introduce video refereeing across the board? Not necessarily. Managers and coaches tend to be supportive, but fans share many of FIFA’s concerns. The worry is that this is not being taken into account.

Various surveys have shown a large majority of fans in favour of video technology, yet one major international survey from 2012 was much more equivocal. At least one of the more positive surveys also showed that despite fans’ enthusiasm, they fear it could assume too much importance. “Penalty decisions were the only types of decisions where the majority of fans felt using video refereeing was justified”, it said.

Another earlier survey had 90% of fans fearing that players or managers would use video refereeing to gain a competitive advantage, for example by breaking the flow of the game. Elsewhere, fans have fretted that the technology could remove the enjoyment and passion from debating key decisions, particularly when the stakes are high. Both debating and the atmosphere at games have been demonstrated through research to be important for spectators’ experience and satisfaction in football.

At the University of Stirling we found a similar mixture of support and concerns when we surveyed 270 Scottish fans about goal-line technology in 2014. The majority thought the technology detracted from the atmosphere created by contentious goals and lessened the debate around crucial decisions.

They weren’t in favour of in-stadium viewing of goal-line technology, which is currently considered prohibitively expensive by the Scottish Football Association, or of any other video technology being introduced. The more a fan identified with a team, the more strongly they tended to oppose the introduction of future technologies.

All these surveys remind us that the debate around video technology is far from over in football. Seriously damaging the atmosphere at games is arguably not a price worth paying to try and improve the game. It could potentially jeopardise one of the world’s most lucrative commercial products. For that reason, the governing bodies need to proceed cautiously. It is important that football decisions are as accurate as possible, but not at any cost.

Mathieu Winand, Lecturer in Sport Management, University of Stirling

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mark Halsey incident suggests football referee system in England needs reforming

Tom Webb, University of Portsmouth

Over the weekend, referee Mark Halsey claimed that he had been told to state that he had not seen an incident which occurred in a game he was officiating between Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers in 2011, in order to ensure that the offending player was punished following the fixture. This allegation was later denied by the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), the body that manages elite referees in England.

Unsurprisingly, this has caused widespread debate and questions, principally aimed at the Football Association, the Premier League and the PGMOL. Some within football have even claimed that an investigation into practices involving protocol upon receiving referee match reports and deciding whether retrospective action is required should be undertaken.

But the fact that this debate is being aired at all demonstrates that there are deep issues with the structure in which elite referees in England operate. In short, this debate demonstrates the undue pressure that referees are under to get decisions right.

This comes amid statements from the Premier League prior to the start of the season identifying that player behaviour was intolerable towards referees. It was suggested that there should be a “crackdown” on this type of behaviour towards match officials and a potential increase in the number of red cards as a consequence.

Global football

The issue here is that football is a global sport and the Premier League is the most watched league in the world, a product that generates substantial turnover and profit. This season the Premier League begins the latest television rights deal, lasting until 2019, which is estimated to be worth £8.5 billion for domestic and international broadcast rights.

Such figures create a significant pressure on clubs, managers and players to get results and for referees to be correct in the decisions that they make on the pitch. These decisions can affect the course of a match, or potentially the whole season.

So the leadership that elite referees receive and the structures that they operate within are vitally important. Referees must feel supported. The fact that elite referees train remotely, meeting every two weeks as a group, means that they must also be able to self-regulate their training and motivate themselves, something which effective leaders and support structures must also be aware of. This also requires that the leadership and support of referees must be adequate for their needs, which currently it is not.

In England, elite referees are managed by the PGMOL, an organisation which does not exist in other comparable leagues such as those in Spain, Italy or France. The PGMOL exists in England due to the financial input from the Premier League, the FA and the Football League, with the majority of financial backing received from the Premier League. But the existence of such a body only in England is at odds with the FIFA statutes, which demand that referee organisation should be “directly subordinate” to the member association – in England, the FA. The football association in any given country should be the organisation that solely manages, leads and organises referees at all levels of the game.

A structural issue

So the involvement of the Premier League – the fact that they fund elite referees – is problematic in England. Particularly because the Premier League board is formed of the chairpersons of the current clubs in the Premier League. The members of the board all represent their own clubs’ interests and the Premier League is a product which is sold through television and image rights around the world. Obviously, this presents potential conflict of interests in a number of areas.

So an issue such as Mark Halsey’s becomes much more complicated. A former referee claiming that he had been told to deny he had seen an incident on the pitch adversely affects the stakeholders: the clubs in the league. The potential sanctions imposed on important players of those clubs through retrospective action has the potential to lead to financial losses, through reduced prize money for a lower league place or a shorter run in a cup competition.

Due to the organisation, structures and leadership in other comparable European leagues, such as Spain, Italy and France, there is a reduced chance of this type of incident occurring. Conflict of interests between leagues, clubs and referees are less likely. In short, the systems and protocols in other leagues are often simpler because they do not have a tripartite body such as the PGMOL; the referees are under sole control of the football associations.

At the very least, the support networks and protocols that referees function within on a day to day basis in England should be reconsidered. But comparison with other European leagues suggests that it is the structure of refereeing itself which requires further consideration in the Premier League.

Tom Webb, Senior Lecturer in Sports Management and Development, University of Portsmouth

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why football, not chess, is the true final frontier for robotic artificial intelligence

Daniel Polani, University of Hertfordshire

The perception of what artificial intelligence was capable of began to change when chess grand master and world champion Garry Kasparov lost to Deep Blue, IBM’s chess-playing program, in 1997. Deep Blue, it was felt, had breached the domain of a cerebral activity considered the exclusive realm of human intellect. This was not because of something technologically new: in the end, chess was felled by the brute force of faster computers and clever heuristics. But if chess is considered the game of kings, then the east Asian board game Go is the game of emperors.

Significantly more complex, requiring even more strategic thinking, and featuring an intricate interweaving of tactical and strategical components, it posed an even greater challenge to artificial intelligence. Go relies much more on pattern recognition and subtle evaluation of the general positions of playing pieces. With a number of possible moves per turn an order of magnitude greater than chess, any algorithm trying to evaluate all possible future moves was expected to fail.

Until the early 2000s, programs playing Go progressed slowly, and could be beaten by amateurs. But this changed in 2006, with the introduction of two new techniques. First was the Monte Carlo tree search, an algorithm that rather than attempting to examine all possible future moves instead tests a sparse selection of them, combining their value in a sophisticated way to get a better estimate of a move’s quality. The second was the (re)discovery of deep networks, a contemporary incarnation of neural networks that had been experimented with since the 1960s, but which was now cheaper, more powerful, and equipped with huge amounts of data with which to train the learning algorithms.

The combination of these techniques saw a drastic improvement in Go-playing programs, and ultimately Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo program beat Go world champion Lee Sedol in March 2016. Now that Go has fallen, where do we go from here?

The future of AI is in physical form

Following Kasparov’s defeat in 1997, scientists considered that the challenge for AI was not to conquer some cerebral game. Rather, it needed to be physically embodied in the real world: football.

Football is easy for humans to pick up, but to have a humanoid robot running around a field on two legs, seeing and taking control of the ball, communicating under pressure with teammates, and all mostly without falling over, was considered completely out of the question in 1997. Only a handful of laboratories were able to design a walking humanoid robot. Led by Hiroaki Kitano and Manuela Veloso, the ambitious goal set that year was to have by 2050 a team of humanoid robots able to play a game of football against the world champion team according to FIFA rules, and win. And so the RoboCup competition was born.

The RoboCup tournament held its 20th competition in Leipzig this year. Its goal has always been to improve and challenge the capacity of artificial intelligence and robotics, not in the abstract but in the much more challenging form of physical robots that act and interact with others in real time. In the years since, many other organisations have recognised how such competitions boost technological progress.

The first RoboCup featured only wheeled robots and simulated 2D football leagues, but soon leagues that permitted Sony’s four-legged AIBO robot dogs were introduced and, since 2003, humanoid leagues. In the beginning, the humanoids’ game was quite limited, with very shaky robots attempting quivering steps, and where kicking the ball almost invariably caused the robot to fall. In recent years, their ability has significantly improved: many labs now boast five or six-a-side humanoid robot teams.

No ordinary ballgame

In order to push competitors on to reach the goal of a real football match by 2050, the conditions are made harder every year. Last year, the green carpet was replaced by artificial turf, and the goalposts and the ball coloured white. This makes it harder for robots to maintain stability and poses a challenge of recognising the goals and ball. So while the robots may seem less capable this year than the year before, it’s because the goalposts are moving.

The tasks involved in playing football, although much more intuitive to humans than chess or Go, are a major challenge for robots. Technical problems of hitherto unimaginable complexity have to be solved: timing a kick while running, identifying the ball against a glaring sun, running on wet grass, providing the robot with sufficient energy for 45 minutes’ play, even the materials that go into constructing a robot can’t disintegrate during a forceful game. Other problems to be solved will define important aspects of our life with robots in the future: when a robot collides with a human player, who can take how much damage? If humans commit fouls, may a robot foul back?

RoboCup offers up in miniature the problems we face as we head towards intelligent robots interacting with humans. It is not in the cerebral boardgames of chess or Go, but here on the pitch in the physical game of football that the frontline of life with intelligent robots is being carved out.

Daniel Polani, Professor of Artificial Intelligence, University of Hertfordshire

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Real or fantasy, football is now consumed by numbers

David Beer, University of York

Football has always been a numbers game. The long history of betting has meant that there are established odds on first goal scorers, final scores, clean sheets, cup winners, league position and the like. These odds are a familiar part of the consumption of football. But numbers are playing an increasingly prominent role in the way that football is appreciated and consumed by its fans.

With the rise of real-time in-game betting there has been an intensification of such processes. It’s now possible to bet with up-to-date odds as the game unfolds. This real-time betting is often combined with features such as the option to cash-out during the game – where gamblers, working against fluctuating odds, try to predict the optimum point to cash their bet so as to maximise their yield. Here betting and odds become an integral and more active part of the consumption of the unfolding game.

It’s not just betting that’s driven by more and more numbers – they also spill out into football coverage and drive conversation. TV, radio and newspaper reports are saturated with numerical accounts of the game, statistics about the performance of players, managers, teams and even referees.

These statistics are quoted in the pursuit of new or unpredictable insights into the game itself. Pass completion statistics, win ratios, bookings per game, the distances covered by individual players and many others stats become the focus of the debate. Statistics are used to try to engineer and legitimise different perspectives on football, to alter the perceptions of the consumer and to reveal hidden depths of the game – or, more often, to reinforce dominant accounts of the performance of managers, referees and players.

Every move logged.
Rosli Othman /

Fantasy football

Numbers are so ingrained now in the way that football is consumed that they’re also seeping out of real football and into the imaginary. Fantasy football emerged in the 1990s, the popularity of the mid-90s TV show Fantasy Football League is representative of the interest in this pastime – and it has massively escalated in scale and complexity in the years since.

For those not familiar, fantasy football is a game in which you virtually manage imaginary football teams that draw upon the realities of the matches themselves and the performance of real players. The aim is to put together a team, using actual players from actual professional teams, to try to score the most points possible in an imagined league table.

The means of scoring points varies between the different versions of the game, but usually points are allotted for things like scoring goals, not conceding goals, assisting with goals, scoring a hat-trick, and so on. Some versions also have more subjective measures included. One of the largest fantasy football competitions, Dream Team, also includes points for players that score at least seven out of ten in the ratings given to them by the journalist covering that game.

The hundreds of thousands of teams found on Dream Team are indicative of the popularity and scale of fantasy football. So now the statistics that surround players are not only used to gauge their actual performance and their betting odds – they are also scrutinised for their value as a fantasy football player. And real football matches are consumed through the lens of these fantasy football metrics.

Real or fantasy? Tough to tell.
mrmichaelangelo /

Video games

Fantasy football is far from the only imaginary game around. Football has also become a mainstay of video games providers. In these games, gamers become the football managers of actual teams – dealing with the financial details of the commercial side of the game to the coaching, management and transfer of players. These games, too, are generally played through data. The scale of data about football players and teams contained in these games is vast. The consequence is that the data in the video game comes to mediate the game of football itself.

The games rely on extensive and detailed data about football teams. Because of this, the knowledge accumulated from playing these football management games comes to blur with players and teams from the actual sport. Gamers can then come to understand and have expectations of actual football players based on the metrics they have consumed about that player within the video game – they might know how quick they expect a player to be, for instance, or perhaps the likelihood of injury or their shooting accuracy.

So the video game structures and shapes peoples’ understandings and expectations, sometimes before anything is known about the actual player or team. The information in these games is so detailed and accurate that there have been reports that the database used for the popular Football Manager games will be drawn upon by Prozone in their work with professional football clubs.

So, thanks to numbers, we’ve reached a time when often people’s understanding of football is funnelled through imaginary games, imaginary players, numerical constructs. It’s not unusual to understand this game through the stats that are produced, recited or played with.

David Beer, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of York

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why sticking with your manager is better for football clubs in the long-run

Simon Chadwick, Coventry University

You’re not special, you’re not special, you’re not special anymore!

So, football fans have been chanting at Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, who famously once referred to himself as the “special one” for his managerial skills. The mockery is not without reason.

Last season’s champions are currently languishing in the lower reaches of the Premier League table and speculation has been rife about Mourinho’s future. His truculence before the media should not be taken as an indication of a desire to quit, though. Jose has always been the master of creating a siege mentality, deliberately positioning the clubs and players he has coached as victims of great conspiracies.

But it is hard to recall a time when one of his teams has performed this badly. Chelsea already have lost six Premier League games – they lost just three during the entire 2014-15 season. Many are therefore questioning just how much longer Mourinho should be kept on as manager.

Having arguably mismanaged Mourinho’s first departure from the West London club back in 2007, Chelsea’s board of directors don’t seem to be making too many noises publicly about him. But the club’s Russian oligarch owner, Roman Abramovich, is known for being rather impatient with the managers he employs, so for many it’s a case of when – not if – Mourinho is sacked.

The question is, then: is it better for a club to sack a manager sooner, or later?

There is conflicting research about the point in a season at which a struggling manager or coach should lose their job. By sacking a manager straightaway, the argument is that there will still be time to attract a new one. After all, the replacement will also need time to settle into their new position, and turn the club’s performance around. Indeed, in Chelsea’s case, if Mourinho were to be sacked at this point it would leave the incumbent 27 games (or 81 points) to hoist the club back up the league.

But other research shows there may be a “honeymoon period” for new managers, during which results initially improve … before continuing in a downward trajectory. So Mourinho could be given a chance to turn things around into the new year and if results fail to pick up, a new manager could be brought in for the second half of the season. The club may then benefit from a new manager’s probable honeymoon period of good results.

Other commentators alternatively contend that the apparent failure of a manager is too often used by directors to mask other failings inside their clubs, such as the paucity of financial resources they provide their manager with. But having spent £66m (with net transfer spending of £32m) during the last player transfer window, Mourinho can hardly claim to have been constrained in this regard.

There is a possibility, too, that dismissing Mourinho would merely be a proxy for confronting more fundamental issues faced by the club. Reflections on his first spell in charge reveal that even back in 2007, Chelsea was grappling with damaging internal matters. If this is the case, whether it is acknowledged by the club or not, there would be little to gain by replacing him.

Benefits of stability

The alternative scenario to an imminent sacking is that Abramovich, having courted Mourinho for a second time in 2013, might be inclined to give his manager until the end of the season to change the club’s fortunes. There is some sense in this approach; after all, a world-class manager with a strong record of achievement doesn’t become a total failure in just 11 Premier League games.

Another body of research becomes applicable at this point, as it emphasises the importance of retaining a manager, at least until the end of a season. Some researchers argue that the performance benefits of managerial stability outweigh whatever advantages might come from a mid-season swap. Stability is acknowledged as being important in helping turn around a team’s fortunes, largely because it brings a degree of certainty and clarity to plans for the remaining months of a season.

The ‘special one’.

This may account for the respective current approaches of both club and manager in handling the uncertainty surrounding Mourinho’s future. As the Chelsea boss said in his Champions League pre-match press conference: “I’ll face bad results with honesty and dignity.”

Ultimately, if the Chelsea board wants to draw inspiration from the academic research then, on balance, the evidence appears to suggest that leaving Mourinho in charge is probably the best course of action – at least until the end of the season. Statistically, it is likely that keeping him in post will yield more points than replacing him with someone else. This is especially the case right now, as few high quality replacement managers are currently available for hire.

But Premier League football is an uncompromising business. Chelsea needs the financial rewards that a top-four finish generates, not least because it brings the riches of UEFA Champions League qualification. Furthermore, Mourinho and the club are constantly being scrutinised and the Portuguese is prone to making controversial statements, attention neither of them needs.

The academic research – and his reputation – may support his case, but if Mourinho wants to stay on at Chelsea, even the “special one” will have to dig deep.

Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sport Business Strategy, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.