What’s it like to be a referee? Rugby league in world first

Marcus Griffiths wearing a camera rig for Be The Ref
Photo: Owen Cotterell / Juice Immersive Ltd

Eagle-eyed fans may have spotted referee Marcus Griffiths wearing a camera rig at the recent Super League clash between Salford and St Helens.

It was part of a world first virtual reality initiative called Be The Ref (#BeTheRef), spearheaded by State of Mind, in partnership with the RFL’s match officials department.

The purpose of this innovative VR project is to allow supporters to experience exactly what it is like to ‘Be The Ref’ and all of the many skills required to be a rugby league referee, not only in controlling a highly competitive Super League game but being able to run up to 10km while doing so.

Raising awareness with Be The Ref

Owen Cotterell, Trustee of State of Mind and Creative Director of Juice Immersive said; “When the charity and the RFL were looking for compelling ways to raise awareness of the role of the match referee and all of the pressures that come with it, I thought what better way than to enable fans to spend some time in the boots of the referee themselves via a first-person virtual reality experience.”

Juice Immersive, with collaborative partners M7 Virtual, set about devising a 360 degree lightweight camera rig that could be worn by a match official during a game to capture every angle of his or her experience throughout a game.

The results of this early research and development were tested at a pre-season friendly between Warrington and Leigh in March 2021 when Super League referee Liam Moore donned the Be The Ref camera rig for the first half of Chris Hill’s testimonial game.

Photo: Simon Wilkinson / SWPix

Cotterell added: “The results of that world first R&D exercise surprised even us on the project team!

“The sense of true immersion we got when watching the stitched footage back in a VR headset was just next level. The insight the material gave us into Liam’s role in the middle for those 40 minutes was outstanding! We knew at that moment we were onto something really groundbreaking with this project!”

From there, the project gathered momentum and in the final round of the regular season, Griffiths wore the camera rig for the full 80 minutes at the AJ Bell Stadium, even having to deal with a premature end-of-season pitch invasion after a busy nights work.

Photo: Owen Cotterell / Juice Immersive Ltd

Empathy

In addition to the primary purpose of the project to raise awareness and empathy towards match referees among fans, there is also the potential to use the experience, and others like them, as a recruitment and training resource to help develop new referees in rugby league and any other sport.

State of Mind Sport are massive supporters of all referees and officials at all levels of sport and want to change the way match officials are treated as they enable many thousands of people to play the sport they love every week, every season.

Phil Cooper, co-founder and Trustee of State of Mind Sport said, “Abuse of referees is one of the main reasons referees leave the sport and State of Mind are concerned on the impacts on the mental fitness of referees at all levels if they are not treated with the absolute respect they deserve.”

Photo: Simon Wilkinson / SWPix

“This project is a world first that we are extremely proud of and State of Mind and their partners are excited to share the experience with the rugby league, and wider sporting community early next year.”

One member of the State of Mind team is former Super League referee Ian Smith, who tells his own story about the abuse he received as a match official.

The Be The Ref fan experience is due to launch in February 2022 at the start of the rugby league season.

THROWBACK: 13 quick-fire questions with former referee Ian Smith

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