Today I’m going to be liberal in my interpretation of game and discuss an issue in modern day sports. Specifically the proposed usage of instant replay in soccer. It’s still a game right? :) It’s something that I personally find interesting and believe has applications to video game development. More importantly, the obvious answer is wrong and people should understand why.

Instant Replay

What is instant replay exactly and how is it used? When there is a close or controversial call the next play is delayed while the referees review video footage and determine the correct call. The specifics vary by sport.

In the NFL plays are not automatically reviewed. Each team is given two challenges per game. Only certain issues may be reviewed – was it a catch, did the ball cross the goal line, etc. A ruling is changed only if there is “incontrovertible visual evidence”, otherwise the original ruling stands. In the final two minutes instant replays are called by an official for anything close.

In MLB only three types of plays can be reviewed – home runs, fan interference, and whether the ball left the field of play. Naturally, many fans are calling for additional events to be made reviewable.

World Cup 2010

Today there is no use of instant replay in soccer at any major domestic or international level. A series of incorrect calls in the 2010 World Cup brought public demand for instant replay into the limelight. Let’s take a look at some of those calls.

USA vs Slovenia. The game is tied 2-2 with 5 minutes to go. USA scores a goal that is disallowed for reasons unknown to this day. FIFA rules do not require public statements from referees on decisions (a separate issue). If anything it was the USA who was fouled in the box. The goal should have counted but did not. The game ended 2-2.

England – Germany. With Germany leading 2-1 Frank Lampard scores what should have been an equalizing goal for England. The referee was apparently out of position. The goal should have counted but did not. The game ended with Germany destroying England 4-1.

Let’s say instant replay is added to soccer. What would be reviewable? First and foremost would be goal validation. If a goal is scored a replay can be employed to make sure that the ball crossed the line and no player was offsides (video #3). Play is stopped on a goal so this is a natural point to pause and review. Second, verify that any “almost” goal wasn’t an actual goal (video #2). If the call on the field was incorrectly called a no goal then play can be stopped and the goal can be awarded.

It’s important to note that incorrect calls relating to the ball crossing the line is exceptionally rare. It happens, yes, but not often. The most common incorrect call is on offsides. Either the player was offsides and a goal was incorrectly allowed or a player was not offsides but a goal was incorrectly disallowed. The offsides call can be hard to make during the high speed run of play and is incorrectly called often enough to be an issue.

Should instant replay be used to correct bad offsides calls? No! No it should not! It is a terrible idea and the reasons are non-obvious. I’ll go into details, but first…


Given the focus on offsides in this article it’s worth explaining to all readers. If you are familiar with the rule you may safely skip to the next section. Here is the wikipedia definition.

“A player is in an offside position when the ball is touched or played by a team mate, he may not become actively involved in the play. A player is in an offside position if he is closer to the opponent’s goal line than both the ball and the second-to-last defender (which is usually the last outfield player), but only if the player is on his opponent’s half of the pitch. Goals scored from an offside position are nullified if caught by the referee.”

In other words either the ball or two opposing players must be between you and the opposing goal. The goalie is almost always one of the players, so the general case is either the ball or one defender must be between the player and the goal. In the picture above the right most red circle is an offside position. It is important to note that simply standing in an offside position is not an offense by itself. The referee will only blow the whistle if a player is an offsides position *and* involved in play. Standing in an offsides position while the ball is 50 yards away is ok, but as soon as the ball comes near the offsides player the whistle will below.

I consider offsides an anti-cherry picker rule. If it didn’t exist then each team would have one player stand directly beside the goal at all times. The game would devolve into kicking the ball the length of the field for the cherry picker to tap in. Lame.

A Matter of Time

I’ve been over bad calls and how instant replay can fix them. Now I have to convince you why it’s a bad idea and shouldn’t be done. I have two main arguments.

Soccer is unique in the sporting world in that the clock doesn’t stop. There are two 45 minute halves and play stops for brief moments on fouls and out of bounds. The only extended breaks are halftime and injuries. Teams get only three substitutions per game so physical fitness is critical in strategy. The USA national team is known for having not necessarily the most technical players in the world, but the most fit. They win games by wearing other teams down or beating them on fast counter attacks. See this beautiful goal against Brazil as an example.

That’s it. Very limited. As a defender if you foul in the box you give up a penalty kick. Therefore the rule of thumb is don’t foul in the box! Don’t even come close to fouling in the box! Don’t do something that could incorrectly be called a foul in the box! I think the game is better with this attitude than “cut it as close as you can and let the replay cameras decide”.

Video Games

So what does all of this have to do with video games exactly? Video games know what happened. There is no gray area that would require an in-depth instant replay analysis. True, but there are always lessons to be learned.

Notice how subtle changes can drastically impact the meta-game of a game. By meta-game I refer the elements of strategy that exist beyond the surface. In soccer adding instant replay for offsides would change the meta-game to focus on pushing the limit every play and hoping to get a “cheap” goal while being onsides by the narrowest of margins.

Quake deathmatch has a meta-game completely different than what a first time player would expect. On the surface it’s about running around and shooting the enemy. It’s about hand eye coordination and movement strategy. At high levels of play it changes to become about map control and map running. It’s about memorizing the spawn times on the red armor, quad damage, and picking them up the exact moment they spawn. A top tier player will pick up all the items starving their enemy of anything powerful.

Starcraft is about macro – having lots of bases. Warcraft 3, a very similar game, is about micro – controlling small armies with surgical precision. Basketball meta can devolve into intentional fouls at the end of the game (which I loathe). Oregon Ducks football strategy, the blur offense, changed the meta to be about stupifyingly fast play calls.

The meta isn’t always hidden. Tetris is all about, surprise suprise, getting a Tetris. Pick 3 puzzles games usually focus on combos. Individual clears in either are near worthless if you are going for a high score.


I’ve probably spent two hours writing and re-writing this section. I just can’t seem to tie it together. Lesson learned: stick to programming topics.

In the end this post is a brain dump. If there are any golden nuggets of useful knowledge buried within the steaming pile then that’s at least some degree of success.