Michelob Ultra and ESPN have decided to use AI to answer an enduring question: What would happen if tennis legend John McEnroe played against himself? In an upcoming ESPN+ special titled “McEnroe vs. McEnroe,” the 63-year-old star, who retired from singles in 1992, will play against a complicated, AI-trained version of himself.
According to TechCrunch, the process for the actual game is quite complicated. After the real McEnroe sends a ball over the net, the AI avatar reacts to its direction and “waves” – at this point a new ball is launched from a balcony cannon, which is obscured by a smoke screen. The positioning of the balcony gun and smoke screen is designed to make it look like the ball is coming out of the avatar’s racket. The avatar itself is projected onto a hologram particle screen. This teaser below shows off a tantalizingly small amount of footage.
As for how this all came together, the real-life McEnroe spent a day working with production company Unit 9, which used full-body motion capture and scanning in tandem with Unreal Engine’s MetaHuman Creator technology. Adweek says that the McEnroe avatar and its programming are based on five different points in McEnroe’s career, including his debut in 1979, his rise to the top of the sport in 1981, and his last year as a pro in 1992.
In addition to working with the real-life McEnroe, Unit 9 also analyzed hundreds of hours of footage from his career and recorded 308 different shots for the virtual avatar. Given that McEnroe is now 63, he will be playing against a much younger version of himself – whether that means the AI will have the edge, of course, remains to be seen. If this somewhat odd matchup has piqued your interest, TechCrunch says the special will air tonight, May 7, on ESPN+ at 10 p.m. ET.
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