By Webb Wright, NY Reporter

May 5, 2022 | 3 min read

Michelob Ultra will leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) for a competition between tennis legend John McEnroe and virtual avatars designed to look and play like five versions of his younger self.

Michelob Ultra has teamed up with tennis legend John McEnroe for what the brand describes as “the first real v virtual tennis match.” News of the event, which will pit the flesh-and-blood McEnroe against virtual avatars representing his past selves, arrives at a time when a growing number of beer brands have been leveraging emerging technology to stand out from the competition.

McEnroe, now aged 63, is arguably most well-known for his emotional outburst during the 1981 Wimbledon Championships. Disagreeing with a line call, he famously declared: “You cannot be serious!” The upcoming match between physical McEnroe and the virtual McEnroes appears to be aiming toward adding a little levity to McEnroe’s somewhat confrontational reputation, while also positioning Michelob Ultra as “the beer brand that always reminds us to prioritize joy.”

The company will use AI and ML to virtually construct five avatars of McEnroe, each carefully designed to resemble and mimic McEnroe at different stages of his career.

“Celebrating the legendary career of John McEnroe – one of the most legendary athletes on the planet – is [a] powerful way to deliver Michelob Ultra’s ethos as a brand,” said Ricardo Marques, vice-president of marketing at Michelob Ultra US and global. “The goal was to create something that looked and felt like a real tennis match between tennis legend John McEnroe ... and John McEnroe. Using cutting-edge technology, Michelob Ultra has challenged John to a match against five different avatars of himself that have been programmed and designed to play and look similarly to how John did throughout his career. With so many memorable moments over the course of his career, we collaborated with John to select ones that felt the most personal to him: 1979, 1981, 1982, 1984 and 1992 — his final year on tour.”

The brand says that it intends to give viewers “a unique, action-packed match between past and present,” while simultaneously celebrating “the personal story of a tennis legend” – what the brand is also describing as McEnroe’s “journey to joy.”

“Who wouldn’t want an opportunity to literally be able to look back at where you started and celebrate how much you’ve grown and learned along the way?” McEnroe said in a statement. “I’ve had highs and lows just like everybody else, and what I’ve learned over time is to appreciate the journey. No matter what happens, you have to find time to savor the experience and remember it’s only worth it if you enjoy it.”

A number of leading beer brands in recent months have been experimenting with new ways for incorporating cutting-edge technology into their marketing strategies. While Michelob’s new campaign leverages AI and ML, some other brands have been investing more heavily in the metaverse. Budweiser, for example – another beer owned by Michelob’s parent company Anheuser-Busch – is building the ‘Budverse,’ a branded campaign in the metaverse.

The "McEnroe v McEnroe" match will debut on ESPN2 and ESPN+ on Wednesday, May 18th at 8pm ET.

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