(SportTechie)— At the 2014 World Cup, soccer teams were just starting to make use of analytics, social media was only beginning to embrace sports streaming, and there was no such thing as a virtual referee on the pitch. Four years later, at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, these technologies and new ones will be on display as technological innovation continues to shape the way fans consume content, athletes train, and referees make calls.
The World Cup in Brazil was full of new equipment materials, big data, early iterations of wearable devices (in a pre-Apple Watch era), and goal line technology.
Fans were posting on social media at unprecedented rates using free WiFi, and Twitter was dabbling in sports broadcasting with nightly analyses and highlights of goals. There was even a brain wave-powered exoskeleton, which debuted during the opening ceremony when a paralyzed teenager kicked a soccer ball.
In 2018, we’re living in a much more connected world: people regularly wear devices on their wrists, athletes use real-time data to make informed decisions about their training, and precision technology catches infractions the human eye might miss (think camera and laser technology used at tennis matches and Nascar races).
The world’s most popular sport again takes center stage for the next four weeks. Here are some innovations to keep an eye on as the soccer elite compete in this new information age.
Video Assisted Referees (VAR)
The most exciting new technology at this year’s World Cup will be video assisted referees, or VAR. Simply put, this is the first time video replays will be used to assist refs at soccer’s biggest tournament after a decade of consideration.
The VAR system comprises of a team of assistant officials, located in a remote video room, who will use technology to help head officials make calls. The VAR team uses an automated three-dimensional line system (calibrated with lasers before the match begins) that will help refs spot infractions, such as red card or offside penalties.
The technology draws an invisible line from the ground into the air around each player, giving officials the spacial awareness to call offsides even if just an arm, shoulder or head is over the line, and not just easier-to-spot legs or feet. The tech is assisted by multiple cameras placed around the stadium that offer triangulation.
The VAR system has been used in a few European and Australian leagues over the past year and was approved for use at the World Cup this past March. VAR has faced coming-of-age problems, however, and with that scrutiny regarding whether it’ll be ready for the tournament.
This week at a news conference, FIFA’s director of refereeing, Massimo Busacca, tried to temper expectations by warning that the system won’t be perfect for this World Cup. This year, it’ll only be used in an advisory capacity on difficult calls.
VAR will complement the goal technology used at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Goal-line technology provides a means of instantly determining whether the entire ball crossed the goal line. Match officials wear smartwatches and receive a signal on their wrist within one second if a goal is scored.
The system uses both cameras and magnetic fields to make a determination about the ball’s location. Several cameras detect the ball and use software to evaluate its location, while cables placed underground and around the goal interact with technology inside the ball to determine via magnetic fields whether the whole of the ball has crossed the goal line.
This year, a limited-edition $5,200 luxury smartwatch made by Hublot will be worn by soccer referees during the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. The watch, branded as the “Big Bang Referee 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia,” will represent the “very first competition in which the referees are supported by video assistance” on their wrists, according to Hublot.
“Wanting a customised watch for the referees, FIFA asked Hublot to conceive the perfect watch to accompany them on the pitches during the matches,” the watchmaker said in a statement. “Hublot designed this connected watch, its first, for the footballing universe.”
Big data made its first appearance at the World Cup in Brazil, though it was used by just a few teams there, including the 2014 World Cup-winning German National Team. The Germans partnered with SAP to build a data analytics war room in Brazil, and used Adidas MiCoach wearable technology to monitor player fitness, speed and other training metrics in the SAP Match Insights analytics platform.
Their partnership marked just a showcase of SAP’s Match Insights being used in soccer for the first time. Germany used the technology for game prep and post analyses of matches. Now SAP has a much more robust cloud-based sports platform that’s used more widely across soccer. It will also once again help the German National Team analyze matches and get player insights about opponents.
Analytics in general have become an important component of the way athletes train. If the 2014 World Cup represented a showcase of these technologies, the 2018 tournament will be much more data-filled, bringing teams granular training and match analyses in real time.
In addition to each team’s own analytics capabilities, FIFA approved of the use of tablets for coaches on the bench for the first time. Each of the 32 competing teams will have the option to use tablets fed real-time information about player metrics, positional data, and video footage.
Technologies such as these will shape soccer long into the future. While the United States National Team didn’t qualify for the tournament this year, the U.S. Soccer Federation already has its eyes on the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. U.S. Soccer recently signed a $1.5 billion deal with STATSports to monitor its four million registered soccer players.
Those athletes, ranging from youth leagues to the national teams, will be provided APEX athlete monitoring devices, which will be worn as a vest and track distance, speed, acceleration, deceleration, load and heart rate.
The Brazil World Cup made headlines for being the most social World Cup in history, meaning people were talking about the month-long tournament on social media sites, such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, more than they had in the past. This year, the internet won’t only be a place where conversations take place, but also where fans consume games and watch highlights.
Over the past few years, technology and social media giants, such as Twitter, Amazon and Facebook, have been scooping up streaming rights across sports.
Earlier this month, Amazon announced that it had secured English Premier League soccer rights for U.K.-based Prime members, giving Prime Video the exclusive rights to broadcast 20 matches in each of three seasons, beginning 2019-20. Amazon’s original docuseries “All or Nothing” will include a behind-the-scenes profile of Manchester City.
Streaming live sports games online has become easier-than-ever for cable cord-cutting consumers. For the soccer tournament this year, consumers will be able to catch games and highlights in a variety of ways.
Fox Sports has exclusive English broadcasting rights in the U.S. and will stream every game through FoxSports.com and the Fox Sports app. People without cable will be able to catch games through internet TV packages, such as Sling TV, YouTube TV, and DirecTV Now.
Twitter will play an increased role in World Cup coverage on social. Within seconds of every goal, Twitter will clip and post the highlight. Broadcasters from Fox Sports and Australia’s broadcaster SBS will air live shows each night on Twitter recapping the day and previewing the next. For the second World Cup in a row, Twitter will also host voting for the Man of the Match after each game.
The previous World Cup brought innovative manufacturing tactics and materials for cleats and jerseys from the likes of Nike, Adidas, and Puma to the forefront. This year, one of the bigger equipment upgrades will be the Adidas Telstar 18 game ball, which will feature an embedded NFC chip that will enable the ball to communicate with mobile devices to unlock new fan experiences, including exclusive content, and access to challenges that users can enter.
Scouting technology won’t necessarily be on display at the World Cup, but it is being used increasingly across soccer and could eventually be used to spot talent for future tournaments. A new scouting platform called ScoutMe, which was recently adopted by the All India Football Federation, is seeking to unearth talent in rural regions.
Tonsser, a European scouting app, has been partnering with professional teams in Europe, including the English Premier League’s Southampton FC, to enhance club scouting efforts using algorithms that discover top players. Those athletes are then invited to exclusive club trials.