The world of sport has long been progressing towards a more tech-driven world with video replays, fitness trackers and stat driven scouting databases just an example of the impact technology can have.

That’s how we can rank the best quarterbacks in history, as explains here and also it increases the safety of the athletes.

Here though, we’re looking specifically at the NFL’s digital athlete, which is the latest development in the sport meets tech world.

What is the NFL’s digital athlete?

In simple terms, the NFL’s Digital Athlete is the result of a collaboration between the NFL and Amazon, which was first floated in August. The actual output is an Artificial Intelligence program known as the ‘Digital Athlete’ that is intended to assist with fitness improvements and injury prevention. We know that all sounds extremely simple. It is not.

How does Artificial Intelligence work?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is part of many walks of life nowadays but still very few people are aware of what it actually means; that’s likely the case for many who follow NFL. The key principle that underpins AI is the extensive repetition of action – or as is more often the case multiple actions – with minor alterations made each time to correct errors or enhance the response.

One of the more well-known uses of AI has been in driverless cars. You can imagine how the process of ‘training’ works with this as the computer system processes thousands of hours of driving with factors like tyre tread, road surface and weather fed in and altered to gauge the best response for the conditions in question. It’s this same process the NFL digital athlete will be going through.

How does it work for American Football? 

The NFL’s Digital Athlete is essentially a computerised athlete; you can see that it is very much a person playing American Football. More specifically than that, it’s a computerised representation of someone going through American Football plays. This allows users to interpret exactly when, how and why certain things occur – predominantly injuries.

One half of the Digital Athlete is the technology, which belongs to the Web Services arm of Amazon. It can break any piece of footage down into microsecond slices to identify exactly where a moment of impact or stress occurs whilst giving visibility from every possible angle. The second and equally important element of the Digital Athlete is the data; this is being provided in vast quantities by the NFL.

The Digital Athlete is not only about identifying when and how an injury occurs though. The next step of this collaboration is to prevent injuries. How exactly is that possible we hear you ask? Well, it’s all about input variables. When we mentioned driverless cars earlier we had not lost the plot; we touched on things like tyre tread and weather conditions. These are variables.

Within the NFL there are countless variables to tweak within the AI program. Would a different helmet prevent or lessen a blow? Would the result be different if different footwear was in place? Can the risk be reduced by playing on an alternative surface?

So, it’s all about changing gear?

No, it’s not all about switching one pair of cleats for another. That’s far too simple. Helmets, footwear and playing surfaces are just a few examples of very clear things you can feed into the AI system as variables.

Longer-term, it’s expected that the Digital Athlete will facilitate tailored training programs for players, aid recovery and even lead to rule changes in the game. How long will these things take to make their way to the top, who knows? What we do know is that it won’t change anything ahead of Super Bowl LVI.


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