How Artificial Intelligence enters the world of sports too

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analysis are everywhere. The speed at which they are being interwoven in our lifestyle is that high that we don’t realise how deeply they affect us.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analysis are everywhere. The speed at which they are being interwoven in our lifestyle is that high that we don’t realise how deeply they affect us. We think of virtual assistants like Siri or a thermostat that learns your habits like Nest. But AI is imbedded a lot deeper in our daily life than that, it is even integrated into what we all perceive as completely analogue: sports.

During the World Cup in Russia the Red Devils intensively used data on their opponents to prepare for the games. And the results were conclusive. If you think that the winning goal against Japan was only based on strong team work we have to disappoint you. The phase that resulted in Chadli’s goal was thoroughly analysed in advance by SciSports, a Dutch statistics agency specialised in the analysis of football players and teams, and a partner of the national football team. The fact that Belgium got that far in the World Cup is partially thanks to the expert use of data and the information the trainers could collect from that.

The national Belgian team is not the only one to rely on the expertise of SciSports. The company now studies the data of more than 350,000 players worldwide. Their approach considerably differs from what the average footfall fan does. You know them, the real experts, who go to the stadium en masse or watch matches of any importance on a huge screen. You can hear from them that Lukaku can’t play and that the bad pass by Nainggolan in the semi-final of the Champions League has cost him his place at the World Cup. The average ‘football expert’ dismisses the figures that contradict those two affirmations, because what does a computer know about football? Apparently it’s also difficult for scouting teams to set the emotional aspect aside. Lots of money is spent in the billions-worth business of professional football based on intuition. When student and later SciSports founder Giels Brouwer discovered at a lecture that many professional football teams scout purely based on gut feeling, he was flabbergasted. He was convinced that scouting should be done as in the video game Football Manager, which ultimately inspired him to start his small company. A start-up of a few students at the University of Twente that markets an AI solution (football algorithms): you can’t get more archetypical in the digital business world.

And it doesn’t end with football. Sport algorithms are used in cycling, athletics and rugby too. The Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco use digital products such as a Digital Stats Hub, Live Match Tracker and a Match Predictor Game, all based on AI applications. Sport organisers and policy makers on the international stage increasingly become aware that sports can do with a hefty dose of AI in their development. What once started in football as a ‘buying and selling’ video game is no longer a game but real business.

(Kris Poté is vice chairman at Capgemini and former Belgian 200 metres champion.)

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