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ESPN’s Yellow (Green?) First-Down Marker Was the Latest in Broadcasts Fixing What Ain’t Broken

At least the network listened after fans complained that it looked too much like a penalty-flag graphic

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The first half of the first Monday Night Football game of the 2019 season was dominated not by the Houston Texans nor New Orleans Saints, but rather the bottom-right corner of the screen. ESPN’s graphics department, which is usually a group of diabolical and absurdly well-resourced geniuses, made a critical error. The short-lived down-and-distance marker that updates after every play looked yellow enough to make viewers think a penalty was called on every play.

In fact, this graphic is more yellow than the actual flag graphic.

You don’t realize how well trained you are to associate a yellowish graphic with a penalty until it happens on every play. It’s like Pavlov’s dog for penalty markers, but ESPN is ringing the bell over and over by accident. The discussion around the graphic is reminiscent of talk around the Dress or Yanny/Laurel, as some people thought it was yellow while others thought it was lime green. Whether this was because we are seeing it on screens with different color settings or that Plato was right about the deceptive nature of human perception is unclear at publishing time.

Whatever the color was, it was close enough to yellow that there was a revolt against ESPN on Twitter, the world’s largest chat room for complaining.

The feedback was so loud that ESPN changed the color of the graphic for the second half. This must have been a stressful day for the people running their broadcast.

The new marker was simpler and better.

The graphic fiasco was just the latest in a line of inexplicable visual choices on broadcasts that are more often looking like video games. Live sports is increasingly the last bastion of programming that can capture people’s attention for more than 30 minutes at a scheduled time, and competition to keep that attention is fierce. Last year, NBC introduced the Green Zone, which was designed to help fans distinguish where the first-down marker was despite, you know, the yellow line existing. ESPN has turned 30 seconds of every broadcast into an acid trip for the last two years with an absurd collection of graphics including Patrick Mahomes being a noir detective, the Bills quarterbacks diving off of Niagara Falls, and Thanos killing eight Seattle Seahawks.

These bells and whistles are distractions, but the graphics arms race will only be better funded. The Clippers CourtVision future will essentially turn the viewing experience into a video game. A player’s expected shot percentage, calculated based on where they are in the court and how close the nearest defender is, turns from bright red to bright green as the odds of scoring increases. That’s just one of the modes that can be viewed to watch the game, and other modes include different visual effects that demonstrate X’s and O’s or more cartoonish features akin to NBA Jam. The NBA has experimented with allowing G League games to be streamed on Twitch, which would further fragment the viewing experience. Amazon experimented with allowing Prime users to choose between two sets of announcers for Thursday Night Football last year. Something we take for granted—having the same viewing experience with the millions watching a sports game—may go away. Let’s enjoy the time we can all complain about the same thing while we still can.