The Precursor To The Bright Yellow On-Screen “First Down” Line In Football Was A Tracker Used In?
Today, we take on-screen tracking in sports broadcasts for granted. Football games get bright CGI lines across the field (best known in the form of the yellow “first down” line), baseball games have pitch trackers, golf games have ball trackers, and so on. Virtual overlays on the game feed while we’re watching is simply par for course.
Yet when the concept was first introduced back in the mid-1990s, the very features we take for granted now were reviled by fans. The very first instance of such on-screen indicators was introduced in 1996 to help track the hockey puck in NHL games. Dubbed “FoxTrax”, because it was introduced by Fox Sports and it helped track the hockey puck on the screen, the process was a curiously physical one. Because the technology simply didn’t exist at the time for a computer to actively track the puck and create a real time overlay on the screen, the engineers at Fox built a custom puck that had LEDs embedded inside (and flush with the edge of the puck) that pulsed light 30 times per second and could be tracked using infrared technology. These pulses were invisible to the players and fans in the arena, but could be picked up by the modified broadcast cameras recording the event and displayed as a blue glow—seen in the screenshot here as a blue dot in the center of the red circle we added for emphasis.
Fans hated the effect. Despite the fact that it was, in fact, difficult to watch hockey on fuzzy standard definition TV screens due to how fast, tiny, and difficult to make out the puck was, viewers found the glowing puck distracting and felt that it was childish—implying that they couldn’t track the puck on their own. Although Fox tried to bill it as the biggest technological breakthrough in the history of sports broadcasting, it was ridiculed as the most absurd thing introduced to the sports broadcasting genre. When the broadcasting contracts for the NHL changed, Fox Sports lost the exclusive rights to NHL games, and because the technology belonged to them (and nobody else wanted to license it), the glowing puck vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
Image courtesy of Slate.