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How Gestalt Psychology Could Impact The Future Of Sports Graphics

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Turn on any live sports broadcast today and you will see the same things on the screen, regardless of the sport, the station, or the time of day – a fancy scoreboard displaying time remaining in the game, the current score of both teams and other pertinent information to help the viewer understand the situation of the game. You will see starting lineup overlays, statistical overlays, and, more and more often in today’s broadcast landscape, you will see advanced graphics such as augmented reality markers, advanced sabermetric statistical graphs and overlays. These signs and symbols, as Susanne K. Langer would describe them, helped to create a deep-rooted ritual history that cannot simply be undone. Langer, an esteemed philosopher in her time, first published her defining book Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art in 1941. Therein, she argues that the key to intelligence is not in the answers we, as humans, give, but rather in the questions that we ask, and that symbolism is “the new key” to understanding how humans think and interact. She writes that “a philosophy is characterized more by the formulation of its problems than by its solution of them.” (Langer 2). Langer touches on many topics throughout the book, including symbols, ritual, sacrament, myth, language, music, etc. Although her ideas were groundbreaking at the time, not all hold the same meaning or truth today, especially with regards to a rapidly changing field such as sports television and media. On-screen graphics in sports broadcasts were not introduced until fifteen years after the first publication of Langer’s philosophy. Social media, another important aspect of the sports graphics landscape, did not see its infantile stages until nearly fifty years later.

An analysis of graphics and design within the sports field, in social media and in broadcast television, demonstrates a major shift in communicative methods from those foremost dependent on language to those foremost dependent on symbols. The trend will continue in this direction due to the changing use of language in our culture. The paper that follows will examine and update the following ideas from Langer’s text and apply these concepts to this rapidly changing form of communication within the larger fields of sports media, design, and broadcast.

Langer argues that the use of signs and symbols is an indication of intelligence and mental acuity. Signs and symbols, within sports broadcast and media, clearly further the intellectual aspect of sport. Rituals, Langer agues, play a pivotal role in commonality. Drawing upon the thoughts of Sigmund Freud, Langer argues that rituals are empirically senseless and are only performed out of compulsion, not of out of purpose. Sport, in a number of aspects, is an innately ritualistic field. However, rituals must be broken in order to make significant progress. Sports were, in essence, created as a substitute for war. Langer describes that symbols and written languages developed out of the barbaric, simplistic language of animals. Language within social media and broadcast in sports will return to this barbaric nature. Furthermore, Langer argues that language itself lacks the ability to express emotion and that music bolsters symbolic language and does, in fact, express emotion. Langer’s philosophies on emotion and expression in language and music still hold true today within sports and especially within sports broadcast television.

Langer argues that symbols are the lifeblood of human intelligence. She writes that the birth of symbols “must certainly be regarded as one of the great landmarks in human progress, probably the starting point of all genuinely intellectual growth” (22). Symbols play a role than sensation alone, or language alone, cannot; they are able to represent the non-representable, stand in for that which cannot be described in words alone. The creation of symbols, therefore, is the first step in the creation of a universal language. To create a symbolic image of an object that can be understood by all opens up a new world of possibilities in thought and beyond. Langer writes that the use of signs and symbols “is the beginning of intelligence,” and calls it a “mental function” (23). This intelligence that Langer describes is one that only humans possess, describing the fact that “Helen Keller, bereft of sight and hearing … with the single sense of touch, is capable of living in a wider and richer world than a dog or an ape with all his senses alert” (21). She argues that the mental acuity of the human man to understand signs and symbols, even without many of the innate, presumed animal sensations – or senses – allows for a much richer and thoughtful life. However, in sports broadcast television, this intelligence takes on a different meaning – one that requires a preexisting knowledge of the sport and its players in order to fully grasp the meaning and gravity of the symbols on screen.

Let us first take a look back at the history of on-screen graphics in live sports broadcasts and how that history has evolved to the point broadcasts stand today. It was not until 1965 when on-screen graphics began to take shape. Soon after, companies began to find ways to update information, like statistics, during the game itself (Bennett & Nachman 2011). On-screen graphics were born from producers who wanted to find ways to give the pertinent information to viewers who may not be able to hear the broadcasters – say, a group of friends watching a game in a bar. However, that simple goal has evolved into a visual overload of signs, symbols, indicators, statistics, advanced statistics, et cetera. Here’s a quick rundown of the types of on-screen graphics that have been developed in the past ten years alone: field goal range indicator, field goal stat indicator displaying ball speed, apex, and a “good from” distance, NBC’s “Green Zone” lighting up the down and distance to gain in a darker green than the rest of the field, K-Zone, K-Zone 3D, Hit Tracker, spray charts using StatCast powered by Amazon Web Services, StatCast steal probability indicator. The list goes on and on. As Dashiell Bennett and Corey Nachman write in their 2011 article, “These days it would be tough to imagine a sports broadcast that didn’t cram every inch of the screen with as many numbers, scores, and robots doing calisthenics as possible.” (Bennett & Nachman 2011). On-screen graphics have moved far past the pertinent information and delved into the depths of nonessential, or even arguably useless information.

Langer mentions Gestalt psychology within her book, a theory based on the fundamental belief that the sum of the parts is less important, or less valuable, than the whole itself. Gestalt theories, which are derived from a German word meaning placed or put together, can be applied to the problem at hand here, of the overabundance of on-screen graphics (Silverstein, 2018). The idea that the human mind will fill in missing pieces to create the whole image garners attention regarding graphics within the sports broadcast and sports media fields. An overabundance of information exists in today’s landscape; this overabundance may be hurting specific entities such as Major League Baseball, in regard to fanbase population. A return to more simplistic graphics sets within broadcasts – one that focuses on providing the viewer with the essential information, rather than the nonessential – will allow the more casual fan to enjoy the game for its core values, while the more keen eye will use Gestalt techniques to fill in the missing information that the graphics are no longer providing. These highly advanced statistical overlays require a preexisting knowledge of the sport, its statistics, and its players. It is unlikely that, especially within sports that are struggling to survive due to a depleting fan population, these graphics will continue to exist in such a way that alienates the common fan – the common fan that they, the sport, needs to tune in in order to survive.

This is not to argue, however, that this overload of visual clutter will stop altogether. Rather, the opposite seems to be more likely to happen in the future; broadcasts will become solely focused on the graphics and advanced statistics that more traditional broadcast elements will begin to get overlooked – elements such as audio, announcers, music, production values and cinematography. During the 2019 MLB playoffs Wild Card games, ESPN debuted a StatCast broadcast – a broadcast that was syndicated independently from the main broadcast and focused mainly on the use of StatCast graphic overlays and the use of advanced statistics. The StatCast made use of many of the aforementioned features and on-screen graphics: K-Zone 3D, Hit Tracker, overlaid spray charts, and even additional cameras to give more of an immersive experience to the viewer (Brown 2019).

Although these types of broadcasts have seen “favorable” numbers in regard to viewership, there are questions to their merit especially within a sport like baseball that is struggling to keep its viewership up (Brown 2019). ESPN tabbed its usual star-studded crew of Matt Vasgersian, Alex Rodriguez, and Jessica Mendoza for the normal broadcast on ESPN, and opted for a team of Jason Benetti, Eduardo Perez, and Mike Petriello for the Statcast on ESPN2. Maury Brown, esteemed baseball writer, notes that “ESPN will leverage the tried-and-true story telling that comes with baseball broadcasts. The key is that visualized data adds one more piece of telling the game story which helps retain viewers in the hyper-competitive media landscape” (Brown 2019). However, it clearly seems that ESPN has deemed the “tried-and-true story telling” piece of broadcasts far less important than the stats and graphics on screen by their choice of announcers for the game. ESPN seems to believe that the stats and graphics will hold up the broadcast on its own, without the need for fantastic story-tellers. Again, let us return to the Gestalt theory that the whole is more important than the sum of its parts – that the human mind will fill in the missing pieces where necessary. The viewer does not need to know the exact defensive positions of every player on the field at all times, or the exact percentage of times the batter pulls the ball or hits it to the opposite field to be able to understand the moment and the gravity of the situation, given a capable story-teller is on the call and able to effectively communicate through the language he or she uses. It seems that companies such as ESPN most predominantly, although other broadcast companies are following suit, are becoming less and less afraid to break tradition – to do something new in their broadcasts. The common broadcast has become ritualized over the years with common on-screen graphics, language by broadcasters, music, et cetera, but the current times seem to call for a destruction of that ritual.

Langer devotes a great deal of her book to discussing ritual. She argues that ritual acts are not, per say, active premonitions of the mind in any real attempt to create rational thought, but rather an “elementary need” of the mind. She writes that ritual, “like art, is essentially the active termination of a symbolic transformation of experience” (Langer 36). She later uses the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s ideas, writing:

It was Freud who recognized that ritual acts are not genuine instrumental acts, but are motivated primarly a tergo, and carry with them, consequently, a feeling not of purpose, but of compulsion. They must be performed, not to any visible end, but from a sheer inward need … Empirically senseless, they are none the less important and justified when we regard them as symbolic presentations rather than practical measures.” (Langer 41).

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As Langer clearly articulates, rituals are nothing more than purposeless actions repeated out of compulsion for a symbolic end. In learning and sharing, there is a foundation that everyone has to understand. The foundations start with symbols and words, get immortalized with rituals. When that ritual goes away and we have nothing to substitute for it, we have problems with communication and with society as a whole. Rituals within sports broadcast graphics, such as the starting lineup graphics in all sports broadcasts and the 1st & 10 system overlay in football broadcasts ground the viewer in a common sense of being. During the 2018 NFL season, NBC implemented a new graphic system that broke the established, ritualized 1st & 10 markers that all viewer came to understand since its inception in 1998. As Roger Sherman writes, “The yellow line is simply a part of football” (Sherman). Twenty years later, NBC added a secondary graphic overlay that, on third-down plays only, highlights the yards needed to gain a first down in a slightly different shade of green than the field itself. Sherman writes, “the Green Zone does absolutely nothing besides tell the audience it’s too stupid to identify the first-down marker with just one on-screen graphic” (Sherman). Sherman provides this example as another in a long list of what he has dubbed “Graphics Creep” – the idea that on-screen graphics have creeped into every corner of broadcasts, also known as visual overload.

The destruction of this long-standing ritual of the yellow first down line left viewers confused and it broke apart the commonality that the ritual had coalesced over the past twenty years. (SHOW TWEETS REACTING TO THE NEW GRAPHIC) The destruction of life-symbols or a loss of ritual causes disorientation. This interference with ritual causes great injury to a person’s whole being. To have to go against one’s conscience disorients “one’s whole world, humanity, and purpose. It takes a strong mind to keep its orientation without overt symbols, acts, assertions, and social corroborations…” (Langer 291).

Langer discusses, at length, the formation of language and its importance. Language forms out of necessity from the emotive nature of animals. She writes, “Animals … are one and all without speech. They communicate, of course; but not by any method that can be linked to speaking. They express their emotions and indicate their wishes and control one another’s behavior by suggestion” (84). Langer argues that apes, given that they possess no ability to babble, cannot possibly formulate a complex language such as that of humans. However, apes, as well as other simplistic animals, without the ability to form a complex language system, still possess the ability to create symbols. The symbolic transformation from emotive action to linguistic meaning, regardless, still exists. Langer describes that “One ape will take another by the hand and drag him into a game or to his bed; he will hold out his hand to beg for food, and will sometimes receive it. But even the highest apes give no indication of speech” (84). Regardless of the lack of speech, this innate ritualistic emotive action of the ape begging for food has transformed into the universal symbol of the hands out and its associated meaning of begging or hunger.

The rise of social media has allowed humans the ability to, once again, communicate without the use of a written language. Emojis, text slang, abbreviations, and the like have combined to create a nearly universal shorthand language that can be understood by all cultures regardless of written language. Arielle Pardes explains the linguistic possibilities of the emoji as a form of language in a 2017 article:

In 2017, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation proposed an emoji mosquito as a way to better describe mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria and Zika. (Unicode approved the mosquito, along with 156 other icons, in early 2018.) Not everyone can understand English, not everyone can wrap their mind around the medical consequences of Zika, and not everyone is literate. But an icon of a mosquito? Everyone can understand that. That offers a good indication of the future of emoji: a way to transcend language as we know it, toward a global culture and form of communication. We don’t all speak any one language—except emoji. (Pardes, 2019).

These types of communication signify a return to the barbaric language that Langer discusses. Hamza Alshenqeeti argues in his 2016 study that emojis “are a language, but one with universal concepts … and thus have a wider comprehension potential amongst different cultures” (Alshenqeeti 2016, 61). His study shows that people, regardless of culture or language, use emojis at similar rates and in similar situations within conversations, showing a universality that other languages could never replicate. Alshenqeeti writes:

In effect, if emojis do not have a direct convention and connection to English for example, can they really be viewed as a language? The answer to this lies in the fact that the user of an emoji must have a certain understanding of the rules of English, in terms of tone and socio-cultural/pragmatic intent in order to determine which emojis best meet their desired context and intent. (Alshenqeeti 2016, 61).

The universality of emojis in today’s social media culture has had a major impact on the sports media world. Take, for example, the Atlanta Hawks 2016 schedule release. A staple of the major sports’ social media landscape are the graphics or videos created by each team to release their schedule for the following season. The NBA’s Hawks, in 2016, turned this ritual of the media landscape on its head by releasing their entire schedule in purely emoji form (Wilson & Burke, 2019). The Hawks’ social media team meticulously matched team names to specific emojis, at times taking more liberties with the meanings than others. For example, the “fire” emoji was used for the Miami Heat and the “bumblebee” emoji was used for the Charlotte Hornets. However, some teams such as the Brooklyn Nets and San Antonio Spurs did not lend themselves easily to an existing emoji. Regardless, the tweet went over well and received much more engagement than any of the preceding tweets about the schedule release – all tweets using basic, boring English. Creativity often means more on social media than giving out the most useful information. Jaryd Wilson, the mind behind the tweet, explained the situation in a 2019 article:

No one actually cares about the NBA schedule because you’re going to play everybody in your conference 3 or 4 times and everybody in the opposite conference twice. Internally, teams care because it’s their marketing calendar for the year and the moment they can start putting plans together, but fans don’t care. What they do care about are unique ways to present mundane items like an 82-game schedule. (Wilson & Burke, 2019)

Again, much like the on-screen graphics we have seen in recent years, this type of visual communication requires and assumes a preexisting knowledge of the subculture at hand. Definitions, or as Langer would put it, symbolic transformations from emoji to team names must already be known by the viewer in order for the visual language to take shape. However, this is nowhere near the only example of an extreme use of emoji within the sports media field. Many teams have begun to use emojis as a branding tool, either for their program itself or for the players within their program.

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