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

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 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 (This research is currently in process and has not yet been peer-reviewed.)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.

In ambiguous situations, situations when a referee needs the most assistance, his reputation was negatively impacted if he overturned his decision, regardless of whether he made the correct call. In fact, in an ambiguous situation, a referee’s use of VAR may be only beneficial to him when he confirms the decision he has already made on the field.

Given these results, if you are a VAR team, you might want to encourage your on-field referees to use VAR when a clear and obvious error has been made and allow them to use their on-field judgement for the ambiguous situations.

As Maradona mentioned above, VAR is meant to help ensure the games are just. But this research raises questions about how coaches and players during the game may change their opinion of the referee’s competence based on his use of VAR. The preliminary data on VAR’s impact on observers’ referee evaluations indicates this assistance should only be used sparingly.

It seems like VAR is here to stay—particular to avoid another clear-cut error like Maradona’s Hand of God (despite his advocacy for the technology now). Perhaps over time, with repeated exposure (or obligatory acceptance), we will come to live in the world that Arsene Wenger described: “Video will help the referee, not question their authority. It will give them more credit, more authority, and fewer mistakes.”

VAR use in the World Cup has even broader implications for the use of technological decision aids in general. From doctors to lawyers to educators, as experts rely increasingly on technological assistance, their reputation and public perception of their competence might be similarly affected. Perhaps exposure to the use of technology is key to decreasing negative evaluations of experts in the short run and increasing belief in human experts’ competence over time.