Michelob Ultra Pits John McEnroe Against Virtual Avatars of Himself

ESPN+ will stream hybrid tennis match

Michelob Ultra cast John McEnroe as an ambassador of ... joy? You cannot be serious!

During his tempestuous career, tennis legend McEnroe—given to racket-bashing outbursts and berating officials as he volleyed his way to seven Grand Slam titles—always seemed to be battling his inner demons along with opponents across the net.

Now, thanks to artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotic ball-return technology, Johnny Mac will play against avatars of himself at five key stages of his career in Ultra's "McEnroe vs. McEnroe." ESPN2 and ESPN+ will broadcast the event on May 18 at 8 p.m.

This trailer offers a taste of the action:

McEnroe vs. McEnroe | Trailer

The 45-minute special, developed with FCB New York and emceed by John's brother Patrick (who enjoyed a notable pro career of his own), bears Ultra's "It's Only Worth It If You Enjoy It" banner. While John wasn't especially joyful in his playing days, the notion that he's grown as a human being and relishes his place in the pantheon of sports fits the brand narrative.

"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 says 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."

Indeed, he's rehabbed his image since retiring 30 years ago, insightfully calling matches for global TV networks, launching a voice-over career and appearing in commercials. But he's courted controversy, too, taking heat for comments about reigning U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu and GOAT Serena Williams.

For Ultra, he'll play against his younger selves from 1979, the year of his first Slam win; 1981, his first full year as world No. 1; 1982, when he struggled somewhat; 1984, his finest season; and 1992, when he retired ranked No. 20.

Note: These avatars look like classic Mac, but their athleticism, speed and style and of play are based on the current 63-year-old version of John, giving him a chance to win the matches.

Below, Ricardo Marques, Michelob's VP of marketing for U.S. and global operations, takes us through the activation:

Muse: When fans tune in, what exactly will they see?

Ricardo Marques: They're going to be treated to the world's first-ever real vs. virtual tennis match. One side of the court will feature tennis legend John McEnroe, and on the other, a custom avatar designed to look and play like John during five major moments in his career. The team at Unit 9 processed hours and hours of McEnroe's matches from 1979 to 1992 using artificial intelligence to machine-learn his play—how he served, the spin off his forehand shots, the style of his backhand, his drop shots and smashes. The computer then directed four Precision Motion robots, each armed with ball launchers embedded with that intelligence. During the matches, the avatar will respond in real time to John's game play with ball robotics.

None of this is live, correct? It was all filmed earlier?

All five matches were previously filmed in April. As fans watch, they will witness the live action that was captured between John and the technology, but the made-for-television special will also include introspective interviews with John as he takes time to reflect on his professional career and personal journey. Fans will be treated to five exciting and competitive matches, while also having the opportunity to hear from John himself, his brother Patrick, former tennis pro James Blake and sports commentator Ashley Brewer.

Can you explain how this makes sense for the Ultra brand?

This match delivers a message everyone can relate to: Don't forget to enjoy the journey. There is pressure every day in life to perform without missing a beat, and that is especially true in the world of sports. While very few people will know what it feels like to be ranked No. 1 in the world or to win Wimbledon, we can all relate to going through ups and downs and coming out better for it.

Why partner with Johnny Mac? Why him specifically?

Everybody who watched John throughout his career knows he was an extremely intense competitor. This first-of-its-kind event allows John to celebrate the major moments throughout his career, while reflecting on his personal journey as well. As he looks back, John delivers a message of joy and encourages those currently in younger shoes to enjoy the ride and have fun.

Can you talk a bit about the technical aspect?

The technology behind this is absolutely fascinating. The game system was developed in Unreal Engine to allow our avatars to respond in real-time to John's gameplay and to integrate with ball robotics. In addition to analyzing hours of match footage, John participated in a full motion-capture session with a team of innovation architects, product designers and software engineers to create avatars that look and play like him. Using motion capture, Unit 9 was able to authentically translate his specific body gestures to avatars that could be controlled without pre-programmed moves.


Client – ABI, Michelob ULTRA
Benoit Garbe - Chief Marketing Officer  
Ricardo Marques - Vice President, Marketing 
Azania Andrews - Vice President, Connections 
Talita Andrade - ​​Head of Marketing Communications 
Miles Ritenour - Director of Digital Marketing & E-comm 
Dylan Ruby - Director Sports Marketing and Partnerships
Alexis Unwalla - Director of Digital Marketing
Kerry Scalora - Brand Director
Jessica Thorpe - Director, Marketing Communications 
Lindsay Marzocca  - Senior Media Manager
Bridget Inglima - Media Manager
Chris Jones - Global Head of Marketing
Paige Dawes - Global Marketing Director

Gabriel Schmitt - Co-Chief Creative Officer
Michael Aimette - Co-Chief Creative Officer
Danilo Boer - Worldwide Creative Partner
Samira Ansari - Executive Creative Director
Sy-Jenq Cheng - Executive Creative Director Art & Design
Alexandre Abrantes - Creative Director
Jay Marsen - Creative Director
Lex Beltrone - Creative Director
Thomas Mori - Associate Creative Director/ Design
Simon Dolsten - Associate Creative Director
James Meiser - Associate Creative Director 

Adam Isidore - Director of Integrated Production
Pim Leeuwenkamp - Senior Integrated Producer
Marissa Lando  - Senior Integrated Producer
Janice Katz - Director of Business Affairs
Lizzy McGlynn - Archival Producer
Janet Merone - Senior Production Talent Manager
Mary Beth Parton - Traffic Manager, FCB Global

456 Studios/Lord + Thomas
Adam Nelson - Senior Content Creator 
Breithner Monteiro - Senior Editor and Animator
Chris Monteiro - Editor & Animator
Mitch Schreiber - Senior Editor
Liz Ludden - Studio Director
Doria Lacey - Integrated Producer

Megan Bundy - SVP, Group Account Director
Diana Gonzalez Cash - SVP, Group Account Director
Ashley Read - Account Director
Logan Butler - Account Supervisor 
Joe Labuz - Account Supervisor 
Abby Kiefer - Senior Project Manager
Jamie Rutherford - Strategy Director
Michael Schonfeld - Sr Strategist 

Peter Martin - Senior Vice President
Jackie Baez – Director 
Lemondria Hobbs - Senior Manager
Jake Spitz – Senior Associate 

Unit 9
Michelle Craig - Creative Partner
Mindy Lubert - Director of Production
Sarah Barson - Production Lead
Yifei Chai - Executive Creative Director
James Medcraft - Creative Director: 
Phil Erney - Executive Producer: 

Ryan Bucci: Creative Director + Co–Director
Davey Sherwinter: Technical Director + Co-Director
Matt Cohen: Executive Producer
Bernard Hunt: Director of Photography
Matias Letelier -  HOP & EP of Live-Action
Nikil Shyam Sunder: Production Manager
Kevin Murphy: 1st Assistant Director
Sean Smith: EOC of Live Switching
Shannon Peiper - Post Production Supervisor

Secret Guy
Bill Cramer/Secret Guy - Online Editor
Graham Holly - VFX Executive Producer
Colin Stackpole - VFX/Flame Artist
Matt Rosenblum - Colorist

JSM Music
Joel Simon - CEO/CCO
Jeff Fiorello - VP/Executive Producer
Norm Felker - Senior Producer
Andrew Manning - Senior Producer
Sharon Cha - Producer

Sonic Union
Julienne Guffain - Sound Designer/Mix Engineer
Patrick Sullivan - Head of Production 

Notan Studio: Animation

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