The Real Winner of Michigan–Ohio State Was the Ref Cam (and, uh, Ohio State, Too)

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 24:  Dwayne Haskins #7 of the Ohio State Buckeyes passes for a touchdown in the first quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Ohio Stadium on November 24, 2018 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
A zebra with a view. Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Ohio State–Michigan rivalry was supposed to be different this time. The Buckeyes have dominated the matchup throughout the 21st century and Michigan hasn’t won in Columbus since the year 2000, but the one-loss Wolverines had been on a hot streak this season and boast the best defense in college football. Ohio State, meanwhile, appeared to be on the ropes. If Michigan was to finally give the wedgies rather than receive them, Saturday represented its best shot in years. However, in a testament to the elasticity of form, Ohio State won, 62-39, and pulled Michigan’s underwear up and over its head yet again. But while the teams didn’t show us anything new, the television broadcast offered an exciting touch of modernity: the ref cam.

Ref cam—a camera attached to the hat of an on-field official—is not a new invention. It works great for hockey. Fox Sports has used it for soccer and rugby broadcasts, as well as during select college football games, like the 2016 Big Ten Championship. When overused, the angle provides viewers with little insight and lots of motion sickness. In early experiments, the footage was shaky and looked as if someone had smeared milk across the camera lens. It also showed that referees don’t always have the best view of things.

Saturday’s Michigan-Ohio State game demonstrated that the technology has improved, and it also showed that production crews know how to get the most out of it.

The angle is reminiscent of XFL broadcasts (in a good way), when camera operators would run onto the field to get close-up shots during live action. The effect on Saturday offered more than just in-your-face thrills, however, and the ref’s-eye-view gave an elucidating perspective to a few close plays.

Given that Ohio State won in a blowout, the game’s only real dramatic tension came from the ref cam itself. If Skycam makes it feel like you’re playing a video game, then ref cam is akin to being at a stadium with such lax security that you can wander onto the field and catch a few plays from right behind the linebackers. (As a bonus, you needn’t worry about breaking any ribs.)

Ref cam has more than proven itself—it managed to make a lopsided rivalry like Michigan–Ohio State look fresh.