(Expansion on Blog Post: The Wide World of Esports: How AI is Changing the Game)
OK, I’ll admit it: I’ve never been a huge sports fan. I tried for a while to be a New York Giants fan like my dad, but the jersey never quite fit. Video games, however, were far more interesting to me. Lately, I’ve been hearing the term “eSports” more frequently, and a conversation with some gamer friends sparked my curiosity to understand more about this rising phenomenon.
Esports athletes – from streamers to billionaires
When I first heard the term “eSports,” I imagined it referred to watching gamers stream games like FIFA 20 or Madden NFL, but it turns out it’s so much more than that. Gamers from all over the globe stream games like Overwatch, League of Legends, and Fortnite to millions of viewers every day. Many have made a career out of it, and their prize earnings from competing in tournaments can range with 6-figure to 7-figure prizes1. For example, Kyle Giersdorf, a 16-year-old gamer from Pottsgrove, PA won a Fortnite tournament in 2019, winning a prize of $3 million2. This is just scraping the top of how vastly lucrative this industry is. According to Statista, the projected global market revenue for eSports is expected to reach $1.6 billion by 2023. Most of these revenues come from major sponsorships, by celebrities like The Weeknd and companies like Samsung, and the rest comes from media rights, publisher fees, merchandise, ticket sales, and streaming services.
How is AI changing the game?
Where does AI fit into this presently million-dollar industry? The rise of AI technology has produced analytics platforms, like Aim Lab, which provides AI-powered coaching to eSports players, suggesting better strategies and alternative tactics to increase the odds of winning a tournament. For example, this platform can record a player’s performance in a first-person shooter game. At the end of the game, a screen will pop up with observations of the player’s performance and recommendations for improvement. After providing recommendations on where to shoot, where to pay extra attention, how to switch weapons faster, etc., the game restarts and the player has the ability to try again with this new perspective4.
AI performance analysis – eSports and beyond
In my original post, I asked my peers to think about ways AI technology could be further used in the eSports industry. What sort of disruptive opportunities does the combination of AI and athletic performance bring to this unique industry? One classmate mentioned the potential use for AI in analogue sports: an AI that records an athlete pitching a fastball, or kicking a soccer ball, and provides feedback on how to improve their form, their aim, and so on. Thinking back to Christensen’s Signals of Change article, I wondered if using AI to analyze professional athletes’ performance would be considered a new-market disruptive opportunity, arguing that professional athletes might be considered “nonconsumers” for performance AI to the level that AI is being used in eSports. Nonconsumers are usually identified as people who lack convenient access, ability, or the wealth to accomplish a job. They usually hire someone to do the job for them6. In this case, athletes hire coaches to tell them how to improve their skills. Can AI completely replace a coach, or provide services a coach can’t?
Based on an article by CIO.com, it seems that categorizing professional athletes as nonconsumers may not be so simple. The author shares how AI has been playing a major role in performance improvements, both for the players and the coaches. When referring to the impact AI is having on strategic game decisions, the author writes, “Through a combination of wearable sensors and high-speed cameras, AI platforms can now measure the speed, spin, and placement of a tennis serve, a curve ball, a forward pass, a penalty kick, and dozens of other similar actions, not to mention the motions and positioning in space of the players who perform them.”5 Now, it stands to reason that professional athletes do in fact have access to high quality AI that analyzes performance and provides feedback, yet it’s still considered feedback that traditional coaching can’t provide.
It would require a lot more research to find out the extent of how AI is being used in professional sports, and whether or not it’s used across the industry or if it’s only the wealthiest teams who have access to it. Perhaps there’s opportunity for a lower-quality AI to help train college athletes, preparing them for the big leagues. For now, I’m satisfied with what I’ve learned in both the eSports and professional sports industries.
- “See how much the top eSports teams, athletes, and their organizations make”, Mai-Hanh Nguyen for Business Insider, 2018.
- “Who is ‘Bughha’? Kyle Giersdorf, 16-year-old Fortnite winner, is $3 million richer,” Chris Bumbaca for USA Today, 2019.
- “eSports market revenue worldwide from 2018 to 2023,” Christina Gough for Statista, 2020.
- “Artificial Intelligence & eSports: It Was All a Stream,” Alley Lyles for medium.com, 2020.
- “Artificial Intelligence in Sports: A Smarter Path to Victory,” by Atul Soneja for CIO.com, 2020.
- “The Signals of Change: Where are the Opportunities?” Clayton M. Christensen, Scott D. Anthony, Erik A. Roth for Harvard Business School Press, 2006.