He sees an opening on the left wing and immediately punishes them. After rushing down the side, he looks for his teammates in the center and quickly makes the cross in to finish it off! 

Turn on any sports channel and you’ll hear something similar. Chances are you pictured Ronaldo or another star player running down a fresh pitch. In fact, this could actually describe a play from an artificial intelligence bot in a recent international tournament. It’s time to shift our thinking as AI becomes the star player.

As we already know, using AI to enhance human athlete performance is becoming a pervasive practice. The next step for AI in sports is introducing AI players. In fact, we currently have AI agents smart enough to mimic high-level human tactics. They have the potential to revolutionize the sports industry while pushing the envelope regarding what AI can really do.

How Is AI Used in Sports?

  1. Competitive AI
  2. E-sports
  3. Mainstream AI
  4. Advanced robotics

The immediate response from many people is that such a world will never come to be — how could we enjoy watching machines? Many claim that playing against traditional AI can often be a repetitive and boring experience. Others can’t imagine any joy from beating their machine opponents. To address this, let’s start by examining why we like traditional sports and then outline how AI will come to meet these demands.

More From Jye Sawtwell-RicksonRage Against the Machine Learning: My War With Recommendation Engines


Why Do We Love Sports?

Sports fan psychologists have nailed down eight core reasons why people love their sports.

8 Reasons We Love Sports

  1. Group affiliation: Sports provides a common topic for friends to discuss and enjoy.
  2. Family: This is similar to group affiliation, but applies particularly to family members.
  3. Economic: Sports can act as a tool for betting and earning money.
  4. Escape: Sports can be a diversion from any dissatisfactions with regular life.
  5. Entertainment: Sports provide various forms of pleasure-giving entertainment.
  6. Eustress: Sports can arouse an enjoyable level of stress by way of excitement, by way of competition with others.
  7. Aesthetic: Sports can be perceived as providing aesthetic pleasure to the viewer.
  8. Self-Esteem: Sports can provide people with an increased self worth.

Many of the motivations mentioned above aren’t unique to traditional sports. For example, getting together with friends and family to bond is about the people, not about the sport. As such, if the conditions are right, a similar variant involving AI could make inroads into the industry.

More Built In Sports!Is Football Ready for a Tech-Driven Revolution?


How Is AI Used in Sports?

The adoption of AI into the world of sports will be slower than other AI and software applications. Many of the motivations of sports relate to how others around an individual think and behave, so it’s not enough to change a few people; you need to change preconceptions around an entire industry to be truly effective. Here are four ways we’re already seeing AI infiltrate sports and how those applications appeal to our existing interest in sports: 

  1. Competitive AI
  2. The Rise of E-Sports
  3. Mainstream AI
  4. Advanced Robotics


1. Competitive AI

Firstly, AI must be able to compete with humans for humans to get interested. We can already see AI’s competitive edge with some of our most complex board games and e-sports. Here are some key cases:

These are all examples of deep learning AI, where strategies are not pre-programmed, but learned. Deep learning systems consist of up to billions of individual parameters which are layered together to create a complex network. Some goal is defined for the system, such as winning in a simple two-player game, which the system can begin to optimize toward. This optimization process happens through machine-based trial and error. The system plays millions of games with itself, each time learning about what works and what doesn’t, and adjusting its parameters. After all these games, the system will have (hopefully) learned to play at or above its human counterparts, which is exactly what we’ve seen with the games mentioned above. This brings us to the wild world of e-sports.

Looking for More Like This? We Got You.Taking Athletics To The Next Level Using AI


2. The Rise of E-Sports

Our robotics capabilities are still somewhat limited, as seen in various robotic games such as soccer. It will still be some time before we can apply AI players to most traditional sports (though Boston Dynamics is getting there quickly). Instead, AI is likely to become most common in the world of e-sports.

Are AI the Future of Sports? Maybe Not . . .

E-sports is quickly becoming comparable (in terms of market share) to traditional sports. The industry has eclipsed $1 billion in revenue in 2021 and has a projected 15 percent year-over-year growth. The largest team in e-sports, Cloud 9, had a valuation of over $300 million, which equates to five percent of the world’s largest sports franchise, the Dallas Cowboys, at $7 billion. In prize pools, e-sports already exceed many, including the Golf Masters and Confederations Cup, at over $40 million.

The key thing to note is that e-sports are still relatively new. As opposed to traditional sports, some of which have franchises that are over a century old and have been big businesses for over 30 years, e-sports only began 25 years ago and the most popular game, Dota 2, was released just 10 years ago. The size of the prize pools contrasted with the young e-sports shows how quickly the industry has grown. Once this continued growth hits a critical mass and breaks into the mainstream, e-sports may provide similar family and group affiliation motivation that we see in traditional sports.

Consider that FIFA now runs an international tournament of e-sports for their very own games. For fans at home, the experience is largely the same, watching the same match on the same television with the same live commentary. Granted, the animation of the current games still has room for improvement, but it improves every year with new games. The rapidly advancing animations, along with the fact that they’re AI-generated, allow for far greater creativity. For example, you can watch in 3D and experience being in play or maybe even in the referee's shoes. The fact that the world’s most lucrative sport (soccer) is already moving into e-sports, so it won’t be long before others follow.

There are other reasons e-sports make a good first choice for those interested in AI games, such as the ability to more efficiently train and improve AI. For a computer game, AI can play millions of games (e.g. 5 million games for AlphaGo) for training as opposed to traditional sports where AI must physically play the game to learn strategy and test its performance (and even this limitation is something OpenAI is working on). 

A Curveball . . .Sabermetric Sales: 5 Actionable Strategies From ‘Moneyball’ for CROs


3. Mainstream AI

Right now, if someone asks you to watch two programs compete against each other inside another program, you might think they’re a little weird. This is a reasonable reaction, but like it or not, AI competitions are becoming more and more mainstream. 

There are various competitions between AI that garner millions of viewers. Here’s a list of various games and AI representations on YouTube which already have large audiences.

I tried (and failed) to beat the new smart bots in Rocket League.
  • Rocket League is a popular soccer-like game, which has an active bot-community. Their videos featuring AI competitions have millions of views. The game itself has around 50 million human players.
  • Code Bullet focuses on programming various AI to play in games such as Flappy Bird and Storm the House. The channel has over 2.5 million subscribers with videos earning up to 15 million views. For reference, the Dallas Cowboys have 90,000 subscribers while Real Madrid FC has 4.5 million subscribers.
  • The first stream of the new StarCraft AI had over 2 million views. As a reference, the finals of the main 2018 StarCraft tournament (human-only) had 1 million views.
  • A video featuring the training of a Super Mario AI received over 10 million views .
  • Halo, a first-person shooter, has various AI vs. AI competitions set up by players. These can receive up to 400,000 views each. 
  • Injustice 2 has an AI simulator function that allows players to customize how the AI plays, leading to many users posting their AI strategies, videos receiving 100,000 views.
  • Fighting games lend themselves well to AI since they have a highly controlled environment. This Killer Instinct AI video describes their innovative AI and has nearly 20,000 views.
Training the Shadow AI of Killer Instinct (2013)

Overall, this is on the order of 100 million views on YouTube, which was only around two percent of one day of streaming (as of 2017). However, given the relatively small community this number is significant. Coupling the growth of AI bots with the growth in e-sports will create massive expansion in the genre as a whole. However, this growth won’t be sustainable unless the AI stays interesting.

Once watching AI compete becomes common, we’ll need to find new ways to keep viewers involved. In order to achieve this, it’s critical that we diversify our AI. People don’t want to watch the same thing over and over again. As previously mentioned, one of the motivators for watching sport is entertainment which comes from the chance factor of not knowing who will walk out victorious on any given day. In order to achieve this, the agents must be capable of making various high-level, non-straightforward plays (which we’ve already seen with Dota 2 and Go, to name a few).

In fact, there’s a common misconception that watching AI is a boring experience as they unintelligently copy humans or follow pre-described rulesets. Certainly that was true of machines of the past, but for many years now we’ve had AI that can act in creative and all-together astonishing ways.

One of the most interesting parts about Google’s AlphaGo was its creativity and ways it played that game that were unexpected by humans. Along the same line, in the world of chess, when human players make moves that vary from the standard procedure, referees start to suspect players of using artificial intelligence systems as assistants. Put another way, in the game of chess, creativity is no longer the mark of a human, but that of a machine. It’s the same in Go and as time passes, it will become true in other sports, too.

During the AlphaStar training, the Deepmind team observed that the bots adopted various good strategies. One might expect that the bots followed a specific strategy and got better and better at it in time. In fact, the bots could be clumped into various groups and each group had a different way to play the game (e.g. aggressive start, focus on a certain type of units, etc.). In a way, each bot had its own player personality. These personalities, with varied play-styles will keep AI sports both interesting and entertaining for human viewers.

More on Games, AI and Deep LearningHow AI Teach Themselves Through Deep Reinforcement Learning


4. Advanced Robotics

Once AI agents have become a regular part of our sporting experience, advancements in robotics will catch up, allowing them to play all of the games we usually play, not just for us, but with us. Soccer players will be able to practice against full teams of AI bots that are set to challenge them and help them grow. They’ll also be able to compete in human-robot leagues.

While human biology is relatively fixed, robotics will continue to advance. This means that sports can continue to evolve too. Imagine a game of soccer played at double the pace with a magnetic ball and speeds matching that of tennis? Sounds pretty exciting to me. 

Finally, new games can be created that only AI can perfect. As previously mentioned, escape and aesthetic are two of the motivators for sports fans. Watching an AI empowered machine conquer and handle complex games will create a feeling of escape we’ve never experienced before.

Robots Don’t Get CovidI Was President of StubHub When Covid Tanked Our Industry


What Do AI Sports Mean for the Future of Games?

If the above story comes to be, there would naturally be significant impacts on sports and entertainment.

  • Better AI: The rate of approach to the impending (and inevitable) AI revolution will be propelled by the economic incentives provided by sporting competitions. Currently there are a few major well-funded organizations such as those within Google and Elon Musk’s OpenAI but the more competition, the faster the growth we can see.
  • On-Demand: Since you don’t need to worry about pesky biological needs, games can be played on-demand. Fans can also pick their own teams and see exactly how the games would have played out. This takes fantasy soccer or fantasy football to a whole new level. Similarly, the world of sports betting and the economic motivations discussed above will be heavily influenced by on-demand games played by AI.
  • VR: Filming a live match between humans for fully-immersive VR will always be difficult. It’s impossible to get a large camera rig moving throughout the field of play. However, with digital sports, it will be a matter of simulation allowing for as many digital cameras to be created, giving an enhanced viewer experience.
  • Collaboration: Right now a sports team might have 11 players who have all the glory. Behind the scenes there are various members including a physician, a psychologist and a dietician who all help the player perform, but the match day performance is down to the athletes. For AI agents, it’s more common that many different team members work on parts responsible for making it a success. Human programmers and engineers will collaborate, meaning becoming a “top athlete” will be a dream far more achievable for the average person — and mean something totally different.
  • Economic Incentives for Non-Athletes: Instead of massive salaries going to the players, money could be spread out to programmers and their organizations. Good AI is made from teams of people, so AI sports may lead to a more diversified top ranking and a more equal distribution of funds.
  • No Retirees: Since players will only get better in time, you’ll be able to follow your favorite players indefinitely. Of course, the designers or coaches will still have their limitations, but personified bots can stay around . .  forever.
  • Decreasing Costs: There will be lower costs since AI play games with cheaper components (or online). This can counter the trend of lessening attendance or Covid shutdowns that have plagued the sports and entertainment industries.

Sports organizations and related companies should start preparing for these changes before it’s too late. For the rest of us, likely not much will change. We can’t hope to imitate Cristiano Ronaldo’s beautiful strikes or Federer’s impossible serves and I won’t be able to match the feats of our robotic future athletes. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see how sports evolve in the wake of AI development. So for now, I’ll sit back, pick a side and enjoy the game with my friends. 

Expert Contributors

Built In’s expert contributor network publishes thoughtful, solutions-oriented stories written by innovative tech professionals. It is the tech industry’s definitive destination for sharing compelling, first-person accounts of problem-solving on the road to innovation.

Learn More

Great Companies Need Great People. That's Where We Come In.

Recruit With Us