ESPN+ presents McEnroe vs. McEnroe, the first-ever tennis match between a real person and their virtual avatar.

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It will premiere on May 7 at 10 PM ET on ESPN+, Michelob Ultra, in collaboration with a technology and production company. Block 9, presents “McEnroe vs. McEnroe”, the world’s first tennis match in which a real person takes on a virtual player – both versions of the interesting and aggressive tennis player John McEnroe. In the match, the real McEnroe will fight with his main opponent – himself in his youth. In this case, the AI-based virtual player

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The 45-minute film will showcase how the match was created using a combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, as well as John McEnroe’s five virtual avatars from key moments 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 patching.

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The Unit 9 team spent a day with John to bring the idea to life with full body scans, motion capture and Unreal MetaHuman engine technology (a cloud-based application that creates photorealistic digital people). The avatar game system will be projected onto a hologram particle screen and will be a game experience simulation with a system of ball launchers 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 ball cannon, which then flies through the smoke screen at a certain point in space to emerge from the position of the avatar’s racket. 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 it actually looks like on the big screen when the movie airs.

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The Unit 9 team analyzed John’s many hours of match records throughout his career and recorded hundreds of punches, shots and moves. In total, they recorded 308 shots with over 259 loops and blends to really capture his footwork and well-known hitting and volleying skills.

The best part about this is that the team recorded a lot of key phrases and statements so that McEnroe could swear at his virtual self (and maybe even smash a couple of rackets).

Image credits: Michlob Ultra

Michelob Ultra has also enlisted the help of John’s younger brother Patrick, who will host the match and talk about John as a person in real time over the years. Sportscaster Ashley Brewer and former professional tennis player James Blake will take charge and give fans a behind-the-scenes look at this one-of-a-kind match.

“McEnroe vs. McEnroe” is the final performance of Michelob’s “Joy is the Ultimate Trophy” campaign. The virtual match represents a significant shift in the company’s strategy and follows on from the 2020 virtual fan experience titled “Michelob Ultra Courtside”, a partnership with the NBA and Microsoft that led to 32% increase on sale.

Ricardo Marquez, vice president of marketing for Michelob Ultra US & Global, told TechCrunch how they picked key moments from McEnroe’s decades-long career.

“He’s going to play his 1979 avatar – that’s when he got into tennis. Then we have 81 years when he reached the top for the first time in his career. 1982 was not the best year for John as he struggled a bit. He then returns to full strength in 1984 before retiring in 1992,” Marquez said.

AT 1979, McEnroe won his first career Grand Slam men’s singles title. Although he was at the top of his game in 1981, he remained a controversial player, berating the referees and yelling at the referees. Despite this, he was first male player since the 1920s win three consecutive US Open singles titles, coming close to being #1 in the sport.

The tennis player will lose 1982 Wimbledon Final and had an early exit during 1983 US Open. The next year he was suspended for three weeks because his behavior was so bad and exceeded the $7,500 fine limit.. He was also disqualified from the Wembley Indoor due to racket hits and harsh words. While 1984 had its dark areas, McEnroe did have his best season ever and had an 82-3 match record, the highest in a single season in the Open Era. His final year of touring was in 1992.

John McEnroe is now 63 and will be the first athlete to compete in this type of technology-based competition, according to Michelob. The company approached John with this opportunity because they knew he was a fiery, tenacious competitor and ready to take on this kind of challenge.

“Who wouldn’t want to be able to literally look back at where you started and note how much you’ve grown and learned along the way?” McEnroe said. “I had my ups and downs just like everyone else, and over time I learned to appreciate the journey. Whatever happens, you must take the time to enjoy the experience, and remember that it’s only worth it if you enjoy it.”

Along with a virtual tennis match, the film will also allow John to reflect on his career and share the stories and lessons he has learned over the years.

“That is why John McEnroe is so important to this project. In addition to being, of course, a tennis Hall of Fame legend, he has evolved as a person… His outlook on life fits perfectly with what we stand for,” said Marquez. “So it’s really a journey looking back from when he was a very intense player on the court to where he sits today.”

The thought of such a famous and short-tempered tennis player playing an AR version of himself will definitely appeal to some, and he could be a risky partner for a brewing company. For example, McEnroe once said Serena Williams (who is affiliated with the brand) would be ranked 700th if she played in men’s competition.

Image credits: Michlob Ultra

The extreme contrast between Michelob Ultra’s light-hearted “It’s only worth it if you like it” slogan and John’s combative stance would be an interesting pairing to say the least. The result will certainly be unique as “one of the most colorful personalities in the sport learned to find joy later in her career,” the company said in a statement. The film will allow viewers to see how a competitive player has evolved over time.

“At the end of the day, this is a message of joy and fun. Reminding people to make the most of every day and enjoy the ride,” Marquez added.

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