Spoiler alert: this historic 2016 World Series is going to be full of flicker.
For those who do not avidly follow baseball storylines, the Chicago Cubs haven’t been to a World Series since 1945, (FDR was President). The Cleveland Indians have fared slightly better, last competing for the title in 1997 (a year musically marked, or marred, by the Spice Girls and Hanson). It’s been even longer since the Cubs (108 years) or the Indians (68 years) won the Fall Classic. In fact, Chicago last won the World Series 27 years before electric lighting was advanced enough to allow Major League Baseball’s first night game between the Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field.
Today, baseball fans watch the game play out on the stadium Jumbotron, their television screen at home or even their mobile device. But commonly used lighting technology still leaves these fans wanting something more: a flicker-free slow-motion replay. And creating that flicker-free experience has nothing to do with the talent on the field or the prowess of the cameramen recording it, and everything to do with the lighting fixtures.
Unfortunately, iconic Wrigley field and the Indians’ Progressive Field are still outfitted with conventional metal halide sports lighting. All lighting oscillates or has a cyclical change in light output. Metal halide lights oscillate fast enough to escape detection by the naked eye, but not fast enough to escape the increasingly quick capture rates of camera equipment. As the camera records more images per second, the images reveal the different levels of light that exist on the field from one micro-second to the next. The light level changes from frame to frame create a noticeable pulsing when the consecutive brighter and dimmer images are replayed in slow motion.
In this series, with games in Chicago and Cleveland all played under metal halide lights, flicker marks nearly every slow-motion moment. Replays of left-handed batters, like the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo, feature flicker all over the thighs and mid-section of the player that make it look like the uniform’s physical fabric is jumping and dancing as the ball floats in. Big moments from right-handed batters, like Perez’s three-run homer in Game One, will be accompanied by a distinct pulsing light coming from the home team’s dugout in the background. Close-ups of close calls, like Javi Baez’s delicate tag of Lindor at second base, also in Game One, are plagued by an image of the field that seems to shake and shimmy in the action, offering poor visual clues and making the replay difficult to watch.
Reader beware: once you start to look for flicker in a replay, you can’t un-see it or become unaware of it. It turns out that nothing undermines the drama created by the slow-motion magic of the major leagues like a sputtering, warbling, flickering replay.
Today, the flicker discussion is a hot topic, not because the acknowledgement of flicker as an issue is new (it isn’t), but because there is now a solution. New LED sports lighting delivers flicker-free slow-motion replays at frame rates that exceed 8,000 frames per second (FPS). To put that in perspective, plays captured under metal halide lights exhibit significant flicker when frame rates reach a mere 300 FPS.
This dramatic improvement is the result of LED lighting that cycles much faster and offers better output control from each individual fixture. These advancements enable the changes in light output to remain undetectable even to those high-speed cameras, effectively exposing each frame to an even and adequate level of illumination, resulting in a slow-motion replay that is smooth and easy to watch.
These flicker-free LED lights are already making their way into sports venues across the U.S., and the difference is visible every time broadcasters slow the action down. The University of Phoenix Stadium, where the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals play, is outfitted in LED sports lighting, as is Bridgestone Arena, home to the NHL’s Predators; Globe Life Park, home of the MLB’s Texas Rangers; the Miami Heat’s AmericanAirlines Arena; and the new home of the Minnesota Vikings, U.S. Bank Stadium, just to name a few.
Unfortunately, for Cubs and Indians fans and general baseball enthusiasts, it doesn’t matter if you’re watching this World Series on a smart phone in a taxi in Chicago, a tablet underneath the table at a dinner in suburban Cleveland, an old LCD TV with bunny ears deep in Iowa farmland, or on a new, 4K-ready, 65-inch flat-screen anywhere in the world – every watching fan will see flicker in the replay.
It seems that in the not-too-distant future, flicker in replays will become a thing of the past, a classic feature of an outdated technology, like the grainy popping that precedes songs played on a record player, or the screech of chalk against the blackboard. But for fans that would like to see a flicker-free slow-motion replay of that signature Kris Bryant smile, or watch Corey Kluber paint the corners without the grass and mound dancing around, they will have to apply the time-honored slogan so often used when discussing their beloved baseball teams:
“There’s always next year.”