Eli Manning and the power of AI in ESPN fantasy football

By | 3 minute read | September 20, 2022

Eli Manning

Eli Manning was the obvious choice. For the last six years, IBM has been working with ESPN to infuse AI-generated insights into their fantasy football platform. But we needed someone who could help us tell the story; someone who could grab the attention of fantasy football enthusiasts, introduce them to the artificial intelligence of Watson, and encourage them to embrace the era of data-driven decision making. (check out Eli’s visit to IBM Research here)

Why Eli? No, it’s not because I’ve been a New York Giants fan my whole life. And no, it’s not because the Giants and IBM are both nicknamed “Big Blue.” While neither of those things hurt, we ultimately chose Eli because he has so much in common with IBM.

Let me explain. Back in 2016, IBM formed a partnership with ESPN. In this relationship, we use IBM’s advanced analytics and AI capabilities to analyze the massive amount of data produced by fantasy football. We then serve up insights that help guide the roster decisions of ESPN’s fantasy football users. Today, those insights take the form of two features:

  • Trade Analyzer with Watson, which uses AI to analyze player statistics and media commentary to help team managers understand the value of a potential trade.
  • Player Insights with IBM Watson, which helps fantasy managers estimate the potential upside and downside of a matchup, analyze boom or bust chances, and assess injuries.

Why is IBM in the fantasy football business? Great question. Two reasons: First, we’re solving a very real business problem for a valued partner. ESPN’s Fantasy Football may look like fun and games, but it’s also serious business. More than 11 million people play on ESPN’s fantasy platform. And it’s a critical form of digital engagement for ESPN, one that also drives consumption of related football content, both digital and broadcast. Just like IBM’s other clients, ESPN is operating in a highly competitive market, and requires constant innovation to improve the customer experience. Using AI to produce insight at scale addresses a critical need for ESPN, just as it does for IBM clients in other industries.

The second reason is more self-serving. Simply put, ESPN Fantasy Football offers IBM a powerful platform to demonstrate our capabilities to millions of people. Both Trade Analyzer and Player Insights are produced by transforming vast quantities of data into insights that inform decision making. We’re analyzing the performance statistics of all 1,900 players in the league. But the numbers don’t always tell the whole story. So we’re also using the natural language processing capability of Watson Discovery to mine insights from millions of blogs, articles and podcasts produced by media experts (see here to learn more). Last year alone Watson served up more 34 billion AI-powered insights to ESPN fantasy players.

Which brings me back to Eli. When Eli Manning joined the New York Giants back in 2004 as the number one pick in the draft, many Giants fans thought he would be the second coming of Joe Namath: a big star in the big city. But Eli was more subtle than that, more Ordinary Joe than Broadway Joe. There were no flashy fur coats and movie star girlfriends. Just an understated, workman-like grit that resulted in two championships. An understated assassin who let his actions on the field speak do all the talking.

How is this similar to IBM? Well, it’s been 17 years since IBM sold its ThinkPad business to Lenovo. That was the last time our iconic “eight-bar” logo appeared on a consumer-facing device. But despite this lack of visibility, our work has never been more consequential than it is today. It’s not flashy, but our technology and expertise support the operation of the most mission-critical systems on the planet: electrical grids, airlines, telecommunications networks, banks, government services, and many others.

Technologies like hybrid cloud and AI are powerful, complex, and often difficult for people to comprehend. They operate behind the scenes, in data centers and back offices. But they are critically important to our clients. That’s why we showcase the work of IBM Consulting through partnerships like the Masters, the US Open, and ESPN’s Fantasy Football. And that is why Eli Manning is helping us tell our story.