The looming issue of AI commentary in sports

Can artificial intelligence replicate the emotion of a human sports broadcaster?

Robot wearing a headset
Some sporting events have begun experimenting with AI-generated commentary
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It seems that artificial intelligence has begun creeping into every sector of the workforce, with AI becoming an almost ubiquitous part of some industries. One area in which AI has been steadily advancing is the sports world. Specifically, AI commentators are providing coverage of the games in favor of humans.

Earlier this year, the European Athletics Team Championships used a cloned AI voice to "replicate the content of European Athletics' live blog" for 24-hour coverage. The U.K.'s iconic tennis championship, Wimbledon, partnered with software company IBM to produce AI commentary for their matches. There are also plans to use the technology at the upcoming U.S. Open. And this type of commentary is available on the Masters golf app, with IBM stating its AI "provides detailed golf narration for more than 20,000 video clips" of the tournament. The company added that its AI generation was "applied to produce narration with varied sentence structure and vocabulary, avoiding redundant play-by-play iterations to make the clips informative and engaging."

So is there a point to using artificial intelligence in sports? Are computers capable of replicating the complex emotions needed to call a live sporting event? Or is it better to leave the voices — and jobs — of sports commentary to the humans who have been doing it for decades?

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AI mirrors current human personalities

While AI sports commentary may seem awkward, the job of a sports commentator has become "anodyne and hopelessly watered down" in the 21st century, Will Leitch argued for The Atlantic. This is partially due to the influence of corporate sports since "beloved older announcers, as they have retired or died, have been replaced by bland, safe, mostly personality-free talking heads hired specifically to be noticed as little as possible."

Given that commentators are "incentivized not to stand out … why not just take the next step and employ bots?" Leitch added. AI is particularly useful with something like Wimbledon, described by Letich as a "famously stuffy event that is notoriously controlling of its image."

AI commentary can also simulate some environmental aspects like humans and "analyzes gestures such as fist pumps, crowd noise and game analytics to identify highlight-worthy moments," Amal Jos Chacko wrote for Interesting Engineering. This can add an "exciting new dimension to the tournament, giving enthusiasts a deeper understanding of the competitive landscape and the level of advantage or disadvantage for each player and the projected difficulty for each match."

AI can't do what people do

Leitch adds a caveat for AI commentary, noting that having a human in the broadcast booth "provides a connection to the sport that every fan craves." This continues to be the main issue with AI commentary, because "the human element is missing," Kirk Miller argued for InsideHook.

The biggest issue is "obviously accuracy — can [AI] truly determine what's going on during a match?" Miller asked. He added that while some AI voices are cloned from real-life commentators, such as those during the European Championships, it makes the game "lose a bit more of what makes sports so engrossing: the humanity of it all."

Whether it's sports commentary or another type of job, "having an original idea, expression or epiphany — having an experience that no one taught you to have — is a deeply human act and also impossible for AI," Chris White opined for the Chicago Tribune. Be it a painting, a poem or calling the last out of the World Series, the output of AI "will never actually express the existential sensation of living in the world."

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Justin Klawans

Justin Klawans is a staff writer at The Week. Based in Chicago, he was previously a breaking news reporter for Newsweek, writing breaking news and features for verticals including politics, U.S. and global affairs, business, crime, sports, and more. His reporting has been cited on many online platforms, in addition to CBS' The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

He is also passionate about entertainment and sports news, and has covered film, television, and casting news as a freelancer for outlets like Collider and United Press International, as well as Chicago sports news for Fansided.