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How AWS is helping boost rugby fans’ engagement in the Guinness Six Nations championship

With the Six Nations rugby championship about to kick off, we find out how Amazon Web Services is helping to enhance the viewing experience for fans in 170 countries

Enhancing the viewing experience for people at home is a core aim of the technology partnership that Amazon Web Services (AWS) has in place with the Guinness Six Nations rugby championship.

The technology tie-up between the pair kicked off in 2019, with an emphasis on providing deeper, more immersive data-driven insights into how the game is being played on the pitch to enrich the viewing experience for fans watching in their living rooms.  

By drawing on Amazon’s portfolio of cloud-based machine learning and data analytics tools, broadcasters in 170 countries provided viewers with real-time data pertaining to seven in-game events, including scrum analyses, play patterns, try origins and team trends.

The Six Nations digital team created these capabilities using the AWS managed machine learning service, Amazon SageMaker, to build, train and deploy the models. 

2020 vision on rugby stats

The 2020 Six Nations will see the cloud services giant provide fans with an expanded range of real-time, in-game rugby statistics as they follow all the action from the tournament, which starts on Saturday 1 February with the first game between Wales and Italy.

Viewers will be given access to statistics relating to the number of balls won, the frequencies with which impactful tackles occur, and real-time predictions about the likelihood of a kicker scoring a penalty.

The latter feature, called Kick Predictor, relies on Amazon’s machine learning and real-time data analysis tools to crunch data during the game relating to a variety of in-game metrics that typically determine whether a kick is likely to be successful.

For instance, where in the field the kick is taking place, when during the game it is occurring, whether the team is playing at home or away, and what the current score is.

This data is combined with historical information about the player’s past successes in scoring from penalties to provide viewers at home with a prediction of how likely that player is to score.

AWS’s technology interventions will also give viewers information about where on the pitch the most possession of the ball is occurring during rucks, which is typically a difficult part of the game for people at home to get much insight into during play.

To achieve this, heat maps will be generated so viewers can see which team is dominating the ball in closer detail than ever before and get a feel for what the team’s overall attacking strategy is during the game.

Another metric that AWS’s technology will track is the number of times a team enters the opposition’s 22-metre area, and how many penalties and drop goals this has garnered them.

Speaking to Computer Weekly at the official launch event for the Guinness Six Nations championship at London’s Tobacco Docks, former England rugby captain Will Carling said that having access to this level of insight will benefit both newcomers and avid fans of the game.

“This depth [of insights] is not something they [fans] have had before, which will enable new fans to understand the crucial parts of the game more easily, and provide the avid fans with a little bit more insight into the game,” he said.

“We have had tackle count before, but now you will have tackles and dominant tackles, and dominant tackles are the ones that actually make a difference to a game, because they stop momentum. 

“Also, they can understand why team X has been dominating the game because they’ve been more clinical in the 22.”

Former England captain Will Carling

The real-time insights that can be gleaned from tracking player or participant data, and the way this can be used to alter the outcome of a sport event, is a notion that many sports – from football to Formula One – are buying into these days, and with great success.

Rugby is no different in that respect, said Carling, although the use of data in this way tends to be a little less prevalent at club level compared with the international game, but seeing the level of insights that can be derived could change all that.

“I think it probably will alert teams [that are] lower down how important data is, and what insights it can give you,” he said. “It could show them that these are the building blocks of rugby and from these building blocks, we can work out why teams are doing well and why certain teams are not doing quite so well.”

In some instances, such as football, there has been a degree of pushback from fans following the introduction of video assistant referee (VAR) technology to help referees make accurate decisions on game-changing incidents, such as goals and red cards.

A recurring complaint about the technology is that referring an incident to VAR and waiting for its verdict disrupts the flow of the game, and – depending on what it concludes – can alter the final outcome of the match.

But what AWS is doing with the match data generated during the Six Nations is a world away from VAR, said Carling. And, on the whole, rugby fans are very accepting of technology and its ability to bring a different dimension to how they view the game, he added.

“These insights from data and stats don’t impact on your viewing time of the game or hold the game up,” said Carling. “They are adding information, and insight, which is why I think fans will love them.

“You have to be careful when it comes to technology where we’re basically taking another three minutes to analyse this or that, and that’s when people start getting a little bit frustrated.”

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Given that AWS is still only two years into its partnership with the Six Nations, Carling said both organisations are still only “scratching the surface” of what data can do to enhance people’s enjoyment of the game.

“I look at my younger kids and they’re data obsessed,” he said. “They want to know who’s the best player at the end of the Six Nations, who ran the most yards, and beat the most, and all that sort of stuff.

“That’s the sort of thing that they love to know, and will go and talk about with their mates. Data makes heroes these days, because it makes it clearer to fans who is playing really well.”

However, one area where Carling thinks data and insights could really make a difference is the women’s game, which is one of the fastest-growing sports in the UK, by helping educate people about the nuances within its gameplay.

“Anything that can help the women’s game is brilliant,” he said. “And anything that helps [people] build an understanding of why the women’s game is different from the men’s game, and what areas are crucial to the women’s game that might not be to the men’s game.

“Educating people on that point, so they appreciate what are the great bits of this game compared to the great bits in that game – that’s part of an education that hopefully will come with time.”

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