Character  &  Context

How Soccer’s Video Assistant Referee (VAR) Influences Belief in Human Referees’ Competence

Illustration of a TV with a soccer field and a Video Assistant Referee icon loading

This year’s FIFA World Cup was nothing short of spectacular. Goals, upsets, and late drama made it one of the best tournaments in recent memory. Not even beer shortages or playacting superstars could put a dent in the excitement.

Beyond its thrills and spills, the 2018 World Cup will also be remembered for the record number of penalties given, rumored to be linked to the addition of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). Much debate and skepticism surround the introduction of VAR. Some feel it corrupts the beautiful game, while others argue that we have taken one step closer to perfection.

In a nutshell, VAR is a system of video review that referees can use to analyze match-changing situations such as goals, penalties, and red cards. If there is a debatable incident, the referee on the field is notified by a team of off-field officials watching the game from a video control room. The on-field referee then has the option to stop the game to watch a replay on the sideline. If the referee chooses to review the play, he can overturn or confirm his original decision.

VAR even played a part in the final. Croatia’s Ivan Perisic’s handball in the box was missed by the on-field referees but captured by VAR. The on-field referee reviewed the video evidence and awarded France a penalty kick which Antoine Griezmann converted for a 2–1 lead.

VAR is soccer’s first attempt at using video technology to aid refereeing decisions at a World Cup. According to the FIFA website, even Maradona, Argentina’s former playmaker, supports VAR: “Technology brings transparency and quality and it provides a positive outcome for teams who decide to attack and take risks.”

Compared to one-time on-field decisions, VAR use did not leave observers with a more favorable view of the referee.

I am a huge soccer fan. But, unlike Maradona, I am not convinced that VAR is living up to its purpose to improve the game for teams and fans. I recently studied how VAR influences the game-watching experience and observers’ perceptions of referees and their decisions.

I recruited men and women between the ages of 18 and 65 from an online panel in the United States and asked them about their views of VAR. (This research is currently in process and has not yet been peer-reviewed.) They reported that the system impacts the quality, flow, outcome, and their enjoyment of games as well as referees’ performance, credibility, and authority. Interestingly, participants said they believe that VAR leads referees to make more mistakes and take more risks, perhaps an underlying reason why we saw significantly more penalties at this year’s World Cup than ever before.

To further understand observers’ perceptions of the technology, we showed a group of participants (the control group) three short clips of goal-scoring opportunities: a situation with Aleksandar Mitrovic during the Serbia vs. Switzerland game, a situation with Antoine Griezmann during France’s clash with Australia, and a situation with Martin Olsson during the Switzerland vs. Sweden game.

For each video, participants indicated whether they thought it was a penalty or not. Over 70 percent of participants rated the situation with Mitrovic as a penalty and the one with Martin Olsson as not a penalty. Therefore, these two situations were considered clear-cut decisions. The video with Griezmann was a 50–50 split call, as only half of the participants rated it penalty while the other half didn’t. Therefore, this video was identified as an example of a questionable decision.

We next showed these three videos to a separate group of participants and asked them to imagine that the referee either made a one-time decision (penalty or not) or made an on-field decision and subsequently used VAR to overturn or confirm his decision. Then we asked the participants to rate the referee and his decision.

First, we wanted to understand VAR’s effect on observers’ opinions of the referee in clear-cut situations. In terms of overall decision-making, a referee who made the correct call (defined by the control group) without using VAR was considered more competent. Said otherwise, compared to one-time on-field decisions, VAR use did not leave observers with a more favorable view of the referee.

In ambiguous situations, situations when a referee needs the most assistance, his reputation was negatively impacted if he overturns his decision, regardless of whether he made the correct call.

We then looked at scenarios wherein the decision fell into a gray area and the penalty was not clear-cut. In contrast, the video technology negatively influenced perceptions of the referee when used after a debatable situation. In this case, if the referee used VAR, he was perceived to be less competent. People were also less likely to recommend him for a future assignment. This is surprising, as questionable situations are the ones for which VAR is most likely to be used. However, results suggest that VAR hurts the referee’s reputation when overturning a decision.

Even though it seems that VAR could lead referees to take more risks by calling more penalties even when they are uncertain with the hopes of correcting the call with VAR, actually doing so might not be wise for them. In clear-cut situations, observers’ opinions were negative if the referee made the wrong call on the field, regardless of VAR use. Overturning a wrong decision is better, of course, but opinions were still negative, at least in the short term. Future research should investigate how VAR use impacts referee reputation and credibility over time.

Continue reading the article on Behavioral Scientist.


Dave Nussbaum is the managing editor at the Behavioral Scientist and director of communications at the Behavioral Science & Policy Association. He is also an adjunct associate professor of behavioral science at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. He received his B.A. from Yale University and earned his Ph.D. in social psychology from Stanford University.

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