How Artificial Intelligence is going to disrupt the sports viewing experience

By: Prakash Mallya

From the goal-line technology used in football to the Hawk-Eye and the Direct Review System (DRS) in India’s favourite game – cricket, technology is being used every moment to make decisions on-ground, and to enhance viewer experiences off-ground. Right from marketing, ticketing, merchandise sales, sponsorship activations, athlete training, visual analysis and more, capturing and analysing data has become the life and blood of sporting events worldwide.

USA’s National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), for instance, uses technology and cameras to identify racing infractions; fitness enthusiasts have AI-supported workouts that not only provide them with biometric details but also pep-talk; AI supported golf platform Arccos Caddie allows players to virtually walk the course with guidance on which club to use, which direction to hit, and other information based on weather, course, and player ability.

Representational image.

Representational image.

Role of AI in the FIFA mania

With technology itself undergoing several transformations, new and disruptive ones are emerging more frequently than ever, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is gaining popularity as it covers several areas within the sports domain. Examples on the rise of this trend are rife, such as Goldman Sachs’ analysis on the likely winner of the FIFA World Cup, 2018. They did this after running over 2,00,000 scenarios, based on team data and individual player attributes to project-specific match scores and simulate over 1 million variations of the tournament draw to calculate the probable winner. Using Machine Learning (ML) to predict the outcome of the NBA, and leveraging AI to predict the winners in soccer, are other good examples of the trend.

Then, there’s what we see right now. From mid-June to mid-July this year, enthusiasts were glued to the greatest in football clash – the FIFA World Cup 2018. Fox Sports took advantage of AI and ML to deliver the innovative FIFA World Cup Highlight Machine, making video analysis possible from the FIFA World Cup archive, as well as the 2018 footage; it also extracted data, allowing users to search for goals, red cards, and players by name.

Then, there is the AI system developed by researchers from the German Technische Universitat of Dortmund, the Technical University in Munich, and the Ghent University in Belgium, to analyse FIFA rankings, each country’s population and their Gross Domestic Product (GDP), bookmaker’s odds, how many of the national team players play together in a club, the player’s average age, and how many Champions Leagues they have won, to predict player as well as team performance – making the technology indispensable to business decisions and team composition.

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Enhancing experiences

The enthusiasm for AI spans beyond football and will be extended to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, for which the Japanese government is developing an AI-based spectator guide system. Developers have also been invited to share ideas that will enhance the athlete and viewer experience, and even span business applications – from operations and logistics, that could improve the Olympics event as a whole.

On the motorsport tracks as well, it has literally become a race to adopt technology and we are not talking mere analytics; using AI, 100s of sensors talk to each other about the wind movement to help the driver decide on how to handle the curve ahead, when to step on to the accelerator to capitalise on those last crucial 90 seconds of the race and much more. The Renault Sports Formula One team is now working on a digital transformation plan for the next major F1 event. Designers are working with Microsoft HoloLens that will also give fans the option of understanding the mood of the driver as he races towards the checkered line.

The use of these technologies, though, is not just that of a crystal ball. It is extremely useful in player performance analysis, as well as training and development. Right from their daily schedules, training session details and more, AI helps sports professionals understand their strengths and overcome weaknesses. It also makes the whole sporting experience more personal for the spectators allowing them to feel that they are a part of their favourite team or close to their favourite player.

FIFA VAR Refereeing Project Leader Roberto Rosetti (top) demonstrates a video operation room (VOR), a facility of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system. Image: Reuters

FIFA VAR Refereeing Project Leader Roberto Rosetti (top) demonstrates a video operation room (VOR), a facility of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system. Image: Reuters

Way ahead

Despite the amazing potential, prevalence and use of AI is still limited in India, presenting a huge opportunity for entrepreneurial minds to bring benefits of AI to the table for the players (AI connected sneakers by Boltt Sports Technologies, an India-based startup) and for viewer experiences (RCB Chatbot introduced in 2017 to interact with fans).

As machines become ever faster and ever more adept, there is no doubt that in the not too distant future, technology will create better venue experiences that not only draw fans out of their living rooms and onto the stands to cheer their players on, but also to experience the live passion of the sport within the comfort of their own homes – changing a sporting experience forever.