“The sheer amount of information that we can collect at any given game is mind-blowing,” – FIFA, Fan Engagement + Technology – What is really missing and the opportunity?

FIFA, fan engagement and technology


Nicholas Evans, Head of Football Research and Standards, FIFA


The explosive growth of data capture in the 15 years since ISC began can be summed up in a single statistic: since 2008, the number of smartphone cameras in use worldwide has risen by 4,000%, up from around 40 million to over 1.5 billion.


That was the opening message from Nicholas Evans, head of football research and standards at FIFA, in his presentation on day two of ISC 2024. Data generation is still a gathering force, and its development should change how the sports industry thinks about the stories it can tell.


“The sheer amount of information that we can collect at any given game is mind-blowing,” said Evans, who charted the evolution of sports performance data in football from body-worn GPS vests to optical and skeletal tracking.


Volumetric tracking, which captures performance data by creating a mesh frame recreation of each player, is the next iteration of that process. Where GPS tracking produces 600,000 data points per game, volumetric tracking delivers 60 billion.


That exponential increase in data is consistent on and off the pitch: 500 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute, while the digitisation of real-world experiences means there are oceans of information collected through audio recordings, fan movements at events, and social media. With evolutionary cycles in tech typically around 12 to 18 months, it is almost impossible for an industry like sport to keep pace.


For Evans, there are two ways to address this. The first is to understand what is coming next, as computing moves from information processing to true artificial intelligence –essential to making sense of these vast quantities of data. The potential of these systems will lead to new and different questions about how sport operates – Evans gave the example of coaches learning when to trust AI in assessing the development of young athletes.


The other approach is to reconsider how performance data progresses into fan engagement tools. Many data-led products in elite sport – such as officiating solutions – are meeting an immediate demand to solve difficult problems.


Fan engagement products, on the other hand, are often “pull-based” – created to entice fans to take part in something alongside the in-game action. Moreover, Evans added, they have use cases that are not aligned with data production at the elite end of the sport.


Because of the complexity of those performance datasets, products like fantasy sports, live broadcast overlays and fantasy games are typically built using smaller, cheaper datasets. The next challenge for the industry as Evans sees it is to forge links between performance data and fan products.


This will be expensive and technically challenging but the results, particularly when allied to AI, could be transformative. Evans suggested that existing data around player profiles and possession models could evolve more analytical and predictive capabilities in the age of AI.


While coaches might use AI-powered tools to suggest tactical changes or substitutions, fans might use services connected to consumer generative AI products that offer more personalised experiences. Automated commentary, Evans suggested, might provide tactical insights or even update fans on the performance of their fantasy team or the viability of their in-game bets.


As Evans sees it, the importance of engineering these “win-wins” is only rising. Data storage is expensive and environmentally impactful and the more that is produced, the more difficult decisions organisations face about what to keep.


“True big data is coming,” Evans said, and its power can be harnessed for players and fans alike. The question for the sports industry is how it can lead the way forward.