At the last World Cup, four years ago, you couldn’t watch the football (soccer) action in 4Klive at home, and HDR TV standards weren’t even a thing. The biggest single sporting event in the world is usually used as a TV sales pitch every four years for manufacturers, and this time we’re finally getting the latest and greatest technology. It’s the perfect hat trick: 4K, HDR, and live in your living room.
In the US there are a variety of ways to access 4K World Cup matches. Hisense is delivering 4K HDR streams of every World Cup game on its H6E, H8E, or Laser models, with the Fox Sports World Cup app (for cable subscribers). AT&T’s DirecTV network is broadcasting all games in 4K HDR, and Dish is showing 56 of the 64 games live in 4K HDR. Comcast Xfinity X1 customers will be able to watch on-demand a day later in 4K HDR, and Layer3 TV / Altice will also be broadcasting in 4K.
Even us football-mad Brits will be able to get in on the action this time around, thanks to the BBC. The BBC is streaming a 4K HDR trial to compatible TV sets, but you’ll need to get in quickly as it’s limited to a first-come, first-served basis. Tens of thousands of people should be able to access BBC’s 4K coverage through iPlayer, and I was able to test it out for the first time today. I usually watch 4K Premier League games through Sky Q in the UK, so I’m used to the resolution bump but this is the first time I’ve watched a live football match in HDR.
HDR is transformative in TV shows and movies, and documentaries like Blue Planet IIare the best way to show off 4K and HDR at its very best. The BBC is using HLG, or Hybrid-Log Gamma, for its HDR broadcasts, a newer standard that it has developed alongside NHK broadcasting networks for live video. In the World Cup matches, its effects are immediately obvious. Jerseys look way more colorful, the pitch looks more like real grass rather than a bright green mush, and the shadows and highlights are impressive.
The only issue I noticed in today’s broadcast was that, at times, the picture felt too dark in a bright room. I think that’s a combination of the color accuracy of HDR, the overcast weather at the stadium for the Egypt vs. Uruguay game, and my LG OLED TV emphasizing the black portions. I’m not used to seeing a football pitch look so good, and when I turned back to a non-HDR version of the game I immediately noticed the color differences.
The other benefit of 4K HDR sports broadcasts is the improvement in frame rates. In the UK we use the PAL format at 50fps for 4K, while in the US it’s NTSC at 60fps. Regardless, the increased frame rates on 4K broadcasts look great for sports. I regularly watch the Formula One in 4K / 50fps, and the cars look way smoother racing around the track at 200mph. It’s harder to notice in football, as the frame rates only subtly improve the action when it’s more fast paced.
Broadcasters still have a ways to go before 4K and HDR live sports are standard in households. Production costs and complexity alone make it challenging right now thanks to the amount of bandwidth required at each end. Broadcasters will also need to tackle the delay problems that streaming high-resolution 4K content introduces. The BBC’s stream was around a minute behind a regular 1080p broadcast through satellite or antenna, which presents problems in live sports when your neighbors are celebrating a goal loudly before you, or in the internet age when you’re looking at Twitter and seeing the goal before it appears on screen.
Now that 4K HDR is finally becoming a reality for the World Cup, it’s inevitable that at the next competition in four years the standards will progress and we’ll be demanding even more out of our TV sets. For now, though, I’m going to enjoy the World Cup even if I can’t cheer on the United States national soccer team once England get knocked out in the early stages.