It’s Wimbledon time, and once again, I have had the pleasure to visit The Championships to experience it myself and take a look behind the scenes. I am excited to report that the organizers at The All England Club have been hard at work integrating cutting-edge technologies into the fan experience.
As has been the case for the last 34 years, IBM is the official technology partner for the tournament. And perhaps unsurprisingly, given the hype and excitement, this year’s headline innovations are in the domain of generative artificial intelligence (AI).
The way fans engage with tennis has evolved over the years. There was a time when families would gather around the television to watch Wimbledon together, but now, with the proliferation of mobile devices, people often watch individually, even when in the same room. The modern viewer's experience often includes using apps and following social media feeds in real time. Understanding this shift, Wimbledon's technologists have faced the challenge of adapting and creating new experiences that resonate with today's audience.
Automated AI Commentary
Wimbledon has been using AI for many years, but one of the most exciting examples has been creating its automated video highlight reels, which were introduced in 2017. This involves using machine learning algorithms to identify exciting, dramatic, and important elements of matches and curating them into short, engaging videos. These videos are optimized for sharing on social media and focus on actions, including player and audience reactions like cheers and fist-pumps, as well as game analytics like aces and break-points.
This year they will be accompanied for the first time by automated text or voice commentary, thanks to the capabilities of generative AI. Creating this has involved using watsonx – IBM’s AI and data platform – to train large language models (LLMs) similar to the GPT3 and GPT4 models that power ChatGPT. However, the difference here is that the models have been specifically trained in the language of tennis. Simon Boydon, Chief Architect IBM@Wimbledon, told me: "We've trained some of our watsonx models so that we can actually take all of that statistical information that we know about a match, convert that into some really human-sounding text, put it through text to speech and create that AI commentary."
This automated AI commentary is now available on the highlight reels for men's and women's matches. In the future, it could be expanded across many other use cases, including creating commentary for games that do not currently have human commentators, such as juniors, seniors and wheelchair matches, creating analysis in multiple languages and even personalized to peoples' preferences.
But the innovation doesn't stop there. The integration of advanced technologies at Wimbledon aims to connect with a new generation of fans who engage with sports in markedly different ways than the generations before them, which brings me to the second headline innovation for this year…
Intelligent Draw Analysis
A new "draw analysis" technology has been introduced to provide fans with insights into match-ups as they happen. These insights go deeper than the seeding and previous tour performance data that fans have traditionally used to assess and discuss players’ chances of victory.
The draw analysis provides an overview of each player’s potential path to the final, presenting the likelihood that they will come up against specific opponents as well as a “favorability ranking” that assesses their likelihood of taking home the iconic Wimbledon trophy (and $3 million in prize money).
The AI-powered draw analysis provides deeper insights by taking into account factors that go beyond the usual statistical analysis. For example, a player’s ranking might be impacted by the fact that they have been injured or been out of action for some other reason. Additionally, it will recognize situations where a player might pose a specific challenge to another, more highly-seeded player due to their specific play style or history against similar opponents. This is designed to allow fans to identify opportunities for anomalies and surprises that will not be apparent by looking at traditional statistics alone.
Boyden tells me, “What we use is our underlying AI, which powers our IBM Power Index, which is a way of understanding who's playing well and who's not playing well. We use that to understand when two players come together who's more likely to win. And what we've now done is to extrapolate that out across the draw so you can see really easily in a visual way whether someone has got a more favorable draw, if they got a more challenging draw, who would we predict they might be most likely to meet in the quarter-finals, ...”
Fan Experience - Beyond The Screen
These innovations are about inspiring a generation of fans who are used to engaging and interacting with tennis – and sports in general - in a very different way than previous generations have done.
The concept that they are often watching via individual rather than communal screens may seem less social. But this belies the fact that often they will be communicating and sharing content with a global network of friends and fellow fans as they communicate over messaging apps and across social media channels as the action unfolds.
It's also about recognizing that global tournaments like Wimbledon attract a large number of casual fans as well as tennis die-hards. Technology innovations like those showcased here can help engage everyone more deeply by bringing them up-to-speed on what their favorite players have been doing since the last grand slam tournament, as well as introducing them to up-and-coming players who are just starting to become household names.
All of this means that Wimbledon fans can rely on technology to help transform raw data into meaningful and engaging insights. Innovations like these will allow organizers to continue to serve up new ways for fans to engage with their favorite players, as well as to enjoy the on-court action.