Covering the World Cup 2018 with AI and automation

Fox Sports, The Times, and Le Figaro have tapped into AI, voice AI, and automation for their World Cup reporting.

The World Cup 2018 is all over. Germany was kicked out in the group stages, Brazil was beaten by Belgium, football didn’t come home to England, Croatia with its population of four million people reached the final for the first time ever, only to lose to France in the end.

Beyond being glued to our screens to watch the action on pitch, we’ve been looking at what newsrooms are doing off-pitch to cover the competition… with automation and artificial intelligence. Fox Sports (US) teamed up with IBM Watson to make AI-powered highlight videos, French publication Le Figaro created automated visual summaries, and The Times (UK) launched its very own World Cup Alexa Skill.

Fox Sports: The AI highlight machine

The US didn’t qualify for the World Cup this year, but that didn’t stop Fox Sports from airing all 64 matches and teaming up with IBM Watson to create the World Cup highlight machine. Using Watson artificial intelligence, the highlight machine lets the user create on-demand clips from every World Cup as far back as 1958 (the year Brazil received its first star). The machine is available through the Fox Sports app and on FoxSports.com.

Fox Sport’s highlight machine

Scanning thousands of hours of video material in seconds

According to Engadget, there are 300 archived World Cup matches that Watson’s AI technology is capable of analysing. More specifically, the IBM Watson Video Enrichment, a programmatic metadata tool, analyses the footage to create metadata that identifies what is happening in a scene at any given moment with an associated timestamp.

‘In essence, Watson Video Enrichment acts as an automatic metadata generator that is trained to use clues, such as facial characteristics, the presence of a red card, crowd noise, what’s being said by announcers and other characteristics, to create metadata that makes the massive amount of soccer video searchable’, wrote Phil Kurz on TVTechnology.

Fox Sport’s highlight machine via Engadget

Users can create their highlight video filtering out by year, team, player, game, or play type, such as penalties or goals. To give an example, you can ask the machine to give you a highlight video of Ronaldo’s goals in all World Cups he’s ever played in. (The machine comes up with thirteen highlights and the video last about three minutes in case you were wondering.) The clip is generated in just a few seconds, which is impressive seeing as an enormous amount of video needs to be scanned and analysed in order to create it.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, gathering such data would normally be done manually, but considering the scope of the World Cup, that would be almost impossible: Mowrey, told the publication that the World Cup 2014 alone added up to roughly 98,000 hours of video content.

Le Figaro: Automatically generated visual game summaries

No human can work that fast!

The French publication created a tool to automatically generate visual summaries of every World Cup match within five seconds of the full-time whistle. ‘No human can work that fast!’ said Valentin Paquot, Mobile CTO & Innovation lead — New Media at Le Figaro. The summaries, called Mondial Stories, are made up of five different cards or screens providing information about ball possession, yellow cards, shot precision, and the least influential players on the pitch. In short, all the info you need in order to pretend to have seen the game in full.

Examples of Mondial Stories cards designed by Le Figaro internal graphics team, led by art director Nicolas Chapon.

Push notifications

The target audience were all mobile users from the Figaro app and the Sport24 app (Le Figaro’s sport section), Paquot told us. For the knockout stages, they only sent the Stories via push notifications to those that subscribed to the service. From the quarter finals onwards, push notifications about the Stories were sent to the entire sports fan base. (According to Paquot, 90% of Figaro app users have opted in to receive alerts related to sports.) The reaction from readers was overwhelmingly positive: the publication saw no additional opt outs, suggesting that the push notifications were ‘deemed pleasant and not troublesome’, said Paquot. ‘Push pressure is a very sensitive matter’.

Automation: no extra costs, no team bias

  • The summaries are fully automated, meaning that no extra money is spent creating each story. The maintenance rate is also low.
  • The tool is neutral. There is no preference for any team (even the French team), which makes it objective: It’s about the data above anything else.
  • Seeing as the project was a very last minute effort, the team didn’t have much time to look at the business side of things, but they’re hoping to update it for the UEFA Champions League and the French Ligue 1 (French men’s pro football league). For this, they’re hoping to secure sponsorship by a big brand. ‘I can’t tell you which, but we have a very strong lead’, said Paquot.

…But messy data and time constraints

  • Le Figaro worked with Opta Sports to obtain the data and it was a challenge to ensure that they received all the correct data on time. Sometimes they had to aggregate data to find the right information.
  • Seeing as the team didn’t have much time, they dropped the idea of making the animations native (swift/kotlin) and instead made them in HTML5. They hadn’t done this before, so an entire new animation library had to be built. According to Paquot, making sure that this worked well performance and display wise on all devices was a huge challenge. ‘We tested on 25 different devices we have in the office and various simulators and felt satisfied’, he added.
  • If they had wanted to make something more ‘engaging’, they would have needed many more resources to ‘deep-etch’ all players from the World Cup and use their real pictures in the stories. ‘This would have needed tremendous effort from our Graphics team and we would have needed to buy the rights to the pictures of all players, meaning a huge cost for small gain’, said Paquot. For the Champions league edition, Le Figaro is negotiating with UEFA and Paquot hopes that they will be able to provide picture packages.
  • Another challenge is that Le Figaro has access to live stats, but not the history. This means that they could not make comparisons, such as ‘He ran 34km in this game, and on average he runs 27.3km’. For this, Le Figaro would have needed to build its own database, which would have taken a lot of time to feed into, Paquot told us.

The Times: Hey Alexa!

While the English haven’t raised the trophy since 1966, this year brought a glimmer of hope: England reached the semi final for the first time since 1990, forward Harry Kane was the top scorer of the entire competition, and there was a nationwide 35% increase in waistcoat sales, thanks to manager (and apparently style icon) Gareth Southgate.

Voice AI for experimentation

At The Times, some of the action took place on voice interfaces. The publication looked towards voice AI, using The Times Sport Alexa skill to complement its extensive reporting on the competition.

‘Alexa, launch Times Sport’, was all listeners had to say in order to get a taster of the day’s World Cup headlines and an interesting fact about the competition. Those who made it to the end of the briefing were prompted to listen to The Times’ World Cup podcast hosted by presenter Natalie Sawyer.

The Times’ content is firmly locked behind a paywall, so the Alexa skill served as more of a sampling tool, according to Sam Joiner, interactive news editor at The Times and The Sunday Times. ‘It offers users the opportunity to listen to our journalism without registering or subscribing, which you have to do with our core products, such as the website or the app. It is off-platform, and in that sense our partnership with Amazon was about experimentation and discovery: can we successfully launch a quality, voice-based product, and is there an audience out there for it?’

Presentation of the skill on Amazon

Reaching new audiences to drive subscriptions

According to Joiner, Alexa provides the possibility of reaching a new audience. He told us that this has two benefits: you can increase brand awareness, reaching people who may never buy or subscribe to The Times, potentially leading to subscriptions in the future. The second is short term, listeners are given a taster of what The Times has to offer and are then tempted to the website or pick up a paper to discover more.

While it is hard to tell how the audience reacted to the skill given that there is no direct feedback route unlike comments on an article or a tweet, Joiner tells us that they have clear evidence of repeat listens, suggesting that people were returning to the briefing.

‘Can we successfully launch a quality, voice-based product, and is there an audience out there for it? The answer would be yes. From a development and production perspective launching a quality, voice-based product was an undoubted success, and our numbers show there is an audience for it’, said Joiner.

The limitations: speed

With Alexa, you run the risk of being out of date quickly. ‘We had to carefully plan our content strategy to make sure our stories were relevant and engaging right up until the recording of the next briefing’, said Joiner. According to him, this meant focusing on more in-depth, exclusive lines with a longer shelf life, rather than team news or match statistics. An example of this would be an article The Times ran about how how hockey and basketball inspired England’s set piece routines and run to the quarter-finals. ‘Thankfully this ties in with our wider editorial strategy of providing original, complete reporting rather than rushed dispatches’.

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