Observations on whether Table Tennis is "watchable"

Table Tennis Discussion

Last updated 6 years ago

Sergio Martinez

Sergio Martinez Asked 6 years ago

I wanted to share some observations I made both as a table tennis player and also an amatuer film maker.  I have done a lot of research on both subjects and wanted to share my thoughts on something that I noticed.

I was reading and doing research on the history of table tennis.  A lot of the advocates for hardbat complain that the new equipment made the sport unwatchable on television.  The speed of the ball made it hard to see when watching on the tube thus causing people to lose interest.  In response to this, the ITTF then began changing rules on equipment and ball size (back then they went from .38mm balls to .40) which made the sponge style a bit slower.  We see still see a similar argument going on with balls going from celluloid to poly.   Hardbat advocates like to say that instead of making all these changes we just need to go back to the old slower spongeless style.  While I do enjoy watching that style, I have to disagree with this conclusion and I will explain why.

In my personal research I have observed a few things through the history of table tennis.  It is my opinion that the reason that table tennis became "unwatchable" on television was not due to equipment but rather due to technology.  We have to remember that when table tennis came out and games were broadcast it was on old black and white television.  The game was slower back then and so it was easy to watch.

Here is an example of "old timey" table tennis:
We see here the game is slower compared to modern day table tennis.  Sure there are some fast flicks and some quick forehand shots, but nothing like seeing Ma Long go at it against Timo Boll.  Here hardbat is being used. As is obvious, the ball and the action is very easy to see.

"See!", some people may exclaim.  "Back then the game was easy to watch!  Spongebat ruined table tennis!"

I beg to differ.  Let's look at some black and white footage from 1970.  Spongebat was introduced in competition in the 50's so I am going to assume that is the type of equipment that is being used here.
I want to point out that the game being played here is VERY fast even compared to modern standards.  It is certainly a lot of faster than the Reisman/Barna footage and I think it stands up to today's play.  But what do we notice?  The ball is still easy to see.  It's a blur (but so are Marty Reisman's forehand attacks) but we can see the action.   

Now let's fast forward to 1981:
hile this is a great game and we can enjoy the form, the ball is nearly invisible.  If you watch a lot of footage from this era, it can be very similiar.  I think this is when people began to complain that the game was becoming too fast and difficult to watch on television.  

But what is the difference?  What changed between 1970 and 1980?   

It is quite obvious.  The color television was introduced.  In the black and white footage, there is a direct contrast between the ball and the table.  It is easy to see things because you have basically two colors.  It is very easy to see the ball in such a setup.  Notice as well in the hardbat footage that the arena was set up specifically to be filmed in a black and white setting.  The table is very dark, the ball obviously is white and the backdrop is pure black in order to see the ball better.  While such effort was not put into the "set" in the 1971 footage, there is enough contrast to easily see the ball.  (By the way, when filming in black and white it is important to understand how the real color affects the black and white footage.  For example: for the original "Frankenstein" film starring Boris Karloff, did you know that while the Monster looks deathly pale on screen, that the actual color of the makeup was a lighter green?  This was because pasty white makeup did not have the same effect in black and white the same way that the green did.  I'm saying all this to illustrate what the color of table tennis equipment would look like in black and white.)

When you introduce color, all of a sudden you have a mishmash that distracts the eye,  Instead of a focus of black/white all of a sudden the brain has to process every sort of color.  All of a sudden the contrast that existed in the black and white footage is simply not there any more.  People began to complain, but it wasn't the fault of the equipment.  Now our brains are looking at something different and it makes it harder to see.

Not only that, but the color footage from that era was not HD footage and was not filmed with a high frame rate.  That means that image will not be as sharp and the motion will look blurry because there are less frames capturing the action.  I think that back then, color television could not keep up with the speeds of the sport because there was a technological limitation that was preventing the rallies from being able to be filmed clearly.  Back then there was not digital film like there is today.  Film was made out of celluloid and it was expensive.  To film with high frame rates would be too costly and disastrous.  There was digital film but it was nothing like today and storing film like the digitally was not as convenient as today.

Today, we have are now going into 4k resolution.  Images are not only clearer but we can capture high frame rates.  A fast moving ball can be seen more clearly because now we have twice the action being captured (normal footage is usually filmed at 30 frames per second).  Not only that, but it's cheap to film in high frame rates.  My iPhone can film in 4k at 60fps.  That is just simply amazing and I don't think anyone ever imagined that a device the size of a small notepad would ever outdo a 50 pound studio camera from the 1980s.  I know I didn't image it even 10 years ago.  

Technology is always getting better.  Watch a game from 1980, and then one from 1990.  Then watch a game in 2000, then 2010.  Then go to 2015.  It gets easier to see things.  You see the ball more clearly, the player's motions.  Even the sound is clearer.  (The pretty girls in the audience too!)

Look for example even at the old Ping Skills videos compared to the new ones.  While I like the old ones, the new ones certainly have better detail that the old ones did not have.  And (correct me if I am wrong Alois) but the time between the old and new videos is not much more than 10 years!

So to sum it all up:
If HD existed in the 1980's when color first came out, I think most people would not have said the same things that are being said today about the sport.  I know we can't go back and change things and I know that in the future the sport will inevitably change somehow, but it's nice to look back and see how far along not only the sport has come along, but also how technology itself has changed it.

Alois Rosario

Alois Rosario Answered 6 years ago

Hi Sergio,

All really interesting reading and thoughts.

You are right the first PingSkills videos are only 7 or 8 years old.

Anyone else have thoughts and ideas on this?

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Thoughts on this question

Ilia Minkin

Ilia Minkin Posted 6 years ago

I think that you've made a very good observation. I also don't buy this rant about the sport unwatchable because of "being too fast"

(1) I think that the quickness of the sport is a distinct trait that makes it really unique and amazing to watch just to find out what well trained brain and body can do

(2) In women's game, which is unfortunately often not taken into account, speed is less and rallies are longer

Jeff Plumb

Jeff Plumb from PingSkills Posted 6 years ago

Excellent discussion. I'm also a believer that the speed of the game is a selling point. I also think that watching a good player win points through his serve is exciting.

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