Michelob Ultra, which premieres on ESPN+ on May 7 at 10 p.m. ET, in partnership with tech and production company Unit 9, presents “McEnroe vs. McEnroe’, the world’s first tennis match in which a real person plays versus a virtual player – both are a version of the entertaining, confrontational tennis player, John McEnroe. In the match, the real McEnroe will face his ultimate opponent – his younger self. In this case a virtual player powered by AI
The 45-minute film shows how the competition came about using a combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, plus five virtual avatars of John McEnroe from pivotal points in his career. Machine learning is a subcategory of AI that allows a machine to automatically learn from past data without the need for manual programming or correction.
The Unit 9 team spent a day with John bringing the vision to life through full-body scanning, motion capture and Unreal Engine MetaHuman technology (a cloud-based app that creates photorealistic digital people). The avatar game system is projected on a hologram particle screen and is a simulation of gameplay with a system of ball throwers and ball return robots.
When McEnroe sends the ball over the net, the avatar reacts to the direction of the real ball. As the avatar swings, a new ball is fired from the balcony cannon and then flies through a smoke screen at a precise point in space to make it appear from the avatar’s racket position. From what is shown in the trailer, the hologram particle screen makes the virtual John McEnroe blurry and distorted. So we’ll have to see what this actually looks like on the big screen when the movie airs.
The Unit 9 team analyzed hours of footage from John’s matches throughout his career, recording hundreds of shots, punches and movements. In total, they recorded 308 shots with over 259 loops and blends to truly capture his footwork and well-known shot and volley skills.
The best part about this is that the team included numerous key phrases and statements so that McEnroe could talk to his virtual self (and maybe even smash a few rackets).
Michelob Ultra also enlisted John’s younger brother Patrick, who will lead the competition and provide real-time insight into John as a person over the years. Sports commentator Ashley Brewer and former professional tennis player James Blake will call the action and give fans a behind-the-scenes look at this unique match.
“McEnroe vs. McEnroe” is the latest spectacle in the Michelob brand’s “Joy is the Ultimate Trophy” campaign. The virtual game marks a major shift in the company’s strategy and follows the 2020 virtual fan experience titled “Michelob Ultra Courtside,” a partnership with the NBA and Microsoft that led to a 32% increase in sales.
Ricardo Marques, VP of Marketing, Michelob Ultra US & Global, told TechCrunch how they picked pivotal moments in the years of McEnroe’s career.
“He’s going to play his 1979 avatar when he got into the tennis circuit. Then we have ’81, when he reached the top for the first time in his career. 1982 was not a great year for John because he was having a bit of a rough time. He will then return in full in 1984, before retiring in 1992,” said Marques.
In 1979, McEnroe won his first Grand Slam title in men’s singles. While at the top of his game in 1981, he remained a controversial player, swearing at umpires and yelling at umpires. Despite this, he was the first male player since the 1920s to win three consecutive US Open singles titles, moving closer to No. 1 in the sport.
The tennis player would lose in the 1982 Wimbledon final and had an early exit at the 1983 US Open. The following year, he would be suspended for three weeks because his behavior was so bad, exceeding a $7,500 fine. He was also disqualified from the Wembley Indoor tournament due to his batting racket and harsh words. Though 1984 had its dark areas, McEnroe had his best season to date, holding a match record of 82-3, the highest percentage in a single season of the Open Era. His last year on tour was in 1992.
John McEnroe is now 63 years old and, according to Michelob, will be the first athlete to participate in this type of technology-based competition. The company approached John with this opportunity because they knew he was a fiery, intense competitor and would be ready for these kinds of challenges.
“Who wouldn’t want the chance to literally look back on where you started and celebrate how much you’ve grown and learned along the way?” said McEnroe. “I’ve had highs and lows, just like everyone else, and what I’ve learned over time is to appreciate the journey. Whatever happens, you need to find time to enjoy the experience and remember that it’s only worth it if you enjoy it.”
In addition to the virtual tennis match, the film will also allow John to reflect on his career and share stories and lessons learned over the years.
“This is exactly why John McEnroe is so meaningful for this project. Aside from being a Hall of Famer tennis legend, of course, he’s evolved as a human being… His outlook on life aligns beautifully with what we stand for,” Marques said. “So it is indeed a journey to look back on those moments when he was a very intense player on the pitch to where he is now.”
The idea of such a famous and short-tempered tennis player playing an AR version of himself is sure to attract attention and he could be a risky partner for the brewing company. For example, McEnroe once said that if she played in the men’s circuit, Serena Williams (who works with the brand) would become number 700.
The extreme contrast between Michelob Ultra’s happy-go-lucky slogan “It’s Only Worth It If You Enjoy It” and John’s combative attitude will be an interesting combination to say the least. The result will certainly be unique as “one of the most colorful personalities in the sport who learned to find joy later in his career,” according to the company. The film shows the audience how a competitive player has evolved over time.
“Ultimately, this is a message about joy and fun. Reminding people to make the most of every day and enjoy the ride,” said Marques.