For the last three years, IBM has worked with two-time champion Eli Manning to help spread the word about our partnership with ESPN. The nature of that partnership is pretty technical, involving powerful AI models—built with watsonx—that analyze massive data sets to generate insights that help ESPN Fantasy Football team owners manage their teams. Eli has not only helped us promote awareness of these insights, but also to unpack the technology behind them, making it understandable and accessible to millions.

We’ve done this by producing videos and a variety of other social content that combine celebrity, humor, and technology. As you might imagine, we’ve gotten to know each other in the process and had some fun along the way. Which is why I get a lot of questions from friends and colleagues about Eli. What’s he like? (super down to Earth) Is he funny in real life? (sneaky smart, very funny) Does he actually play fantasy football? (yup) And, of course, how much does he really know about technology, IBM, and watsonx? Rather than trying to answer this last question on Eli’s behalf, I thought it would be better to go straight to the source.

Noah Syken: What would you say is your level of sophistication when it comes to technology?

Eli Manning: I would give myself a solid 8 out of 10. Data has always been a big part of the game of football. And that’s especially true for quarterbacks. When I was playing, I sought out statistical data. Anything I could get my hands on. Anything to better understand an opponent. Anything to give our team an edge. What’s changed is the way we collect that data, the way we analyze it and the way we put it to use. This might surprise people to hear, but professional football teams are very technologically advanced. Behind the scenes, these teams are investing heavily in technology. And a lot of that technology is designed to turn data into insight for coaches and players.

NS: What do you know about AI? Did you use it when you were a quarterback?

EM: Not really. There were some guys in the organization who were playing around with it when I retired. But it was early days. I didn’t really learn about AI until I started working with IBM. I spent a whole day at IBM Research last year, learning all about hybrid cloud, cybersecurity, AI and quantum computing from Dr. [Talia] Gershon. I only understood a fraction of what she was talking about, but that’s still probably more than most people know.

NS: From what you know about it, how do you think AI will change the game of football?

EM: Teams will get smarter and faster. When I was playing, we spent a ton of time in the film room, studying “tape.” Play. Rewind. Play. Rewind. Studying opponents. Seeing the way plays develop. And that’s always going to be a part of the game. But with AI, video is data. An entire game can be broken down and analyzed instantly. Even in real time. AI can read through injury reports. It can distill expert opinions from millions of articles. When you put those AI-powered insights together with the expert analysis from coaches and players, that’s pretty powerful stuff.

NS: It is powerful. And we’re starting to bring video analytics into our work in the world of tennis. So lots of opportunity there. What would you say you’ve learned from playing ESPN Fantasy Football with the AI-generated insights from IBM?

EM: Well, I learned that I’m a lot better at playing actual football than fantasy football. That was a hard lesson. I mean, like to think I’m a pretty good judge of talent…but there are a ton of decisions you have to make in fantasy football every week. So I’ve come to rely a lot on IBM’s AI-generated insights in the app. I’ve seen what can happen when you put a ton of quality data together with a powerful AI. And it’s amazing. Finding the perfect player for your team from the hundreds of guys available on the waiver wire. Or predicting whether a player is going to over-achieve or under-achieve on any given Sunday. It’s not hard to imagine how that’s going to change the way real football teams are managed or coached. It’s even easier to imagine how it’s going to change the way we live and work. So, yeah, I learned a lot from hanging out with IBMers. Do you think they learned anything from me?

NS: Sure they did. Talia learned how to throw a tight spiral.

EM: Yeah. I’m sure that’ll come in handy in the lab.  

Learn how IBM helps ESPN deliver AI-generated insights in fantasy football
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