Michelob Ultra and ESPN have decided to use AI to answer one enduring question: what would happen if tennis legend John McEnroe played against himself? An upcoming ESPN + special program called “McEnroe vs. McEnroe” will include the 63-year-old star, who withdrew from the singles competition in 1992, playing against a complex, AI-trained version of himself.
According to TechCrunch, the process for the actual game is quite busy. After the real McEnroe sent a ball over the net, the AI avatar reacted to his direction and “swings” – at this point, a new ball is fired from a ball that is covered by a smokescreen. The positioning of the ball and the smoke screen are designed so that the ball looks as if it comes out of the avatar’s rocket. The avatar itself is projected on a screen with holographic particles. This teaser below shows a temptingly small amount of footage.
As for how it all came together, the real McEnroe spent a day with the production company Unit 9, which used full-body motion imaging and scanning combined with Unreal Engine’s MetaHuman Creator technology. Adwick says that McEnroe’s avatar and his 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 final year as a professional in 1992.
In addition to working with the real 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 already 63, he will play against a much younger version of himself – whether this means that AI will have an advantage, of course, remains to be seen. If this slightly strange match has piqued your interest, TechCrunch says the special will be broadcast tonight, May 7, on ESPN + at 22:00 ET.
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