Of bots and professional Esports teams – how AI is changing the game

Rebecca Anastasi - 8th August 2019

Artificial Intelligence has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, upending traditional approaches to healthcare and more, but what impact has it had on the growing world of Esports?

On a warm spring day in mid-April this year, in the hilly city of San Francisco, artificial intelligence (AI) played a competitive video game against the best Esports professional team in the world. And won. The event, organised by OpenAI, a research company aiming to ensure artificial general intelligence “benefits all of humanity” (according to their website), saw their machine learning-driven bot beat the reigning Dota 2 champions, in a nail-biting show which proved how technology could surpass the capabilities of humans.

It might be a scary prospect for some, but what happened in California is just the most recent culmination of years of research and development, which started when IBM’s Deep Blue beat the famed chess champion Garry Kasparov at chess in the 1990s, with an algorithm which is considered primitive by today’s standards. And, with the global Esports industry growing year-on-year – Reuters recently quoted data from gaming analytics firm Newzoo stating that global Esports revenues will hit €980 million in 2019 – the use of cutting-edge technology is expected to draw in more interest, viewers and profits.

Ivan Filletti

Ivan Filletti, COO at Gaming Malta Foundation / Photo by Alan Carville

“In this growing sector, enhancements to technology translate to more players and spectators, so it was only a matter of time until tech and Esports converge,” says Ivan Filletti, HCOO at Gaming Malta Foundation. “And, from a strictly AI perspective, Esports is the perfect playground for these technology companies to develop and train their systems and test their approaches.”

Mr Filletti underlines the myriad ways AI is being utilised in the arena of Esports, including in the prediction of game outcomes, through the use of “AI-driven prediction algorithms to predict the result of the next game”; the take-up of training bots as sparring partners; and the adoption of AI technology to identify “irregular playing behaviour” and prevent cheating. “All successful sport disciplines move forward. And, since Esports is a growing market – and since it is already based on technology – progress can be implemented even faster than at regular sports events,” he says.

Locally, the fast-changing technology is expected to be implemented in Malta’s “bustling ecosystem”, Mr Filletti explains. “We want to harness that power and potential to ensure that Malta is put on the global Esports stage very much in line with our Home of Gaming Excellence credentials,” he notes.

Eman Pulis

Eman Pulis, Group CEO at SiGMA

Eman Pulis, Group CEO of SiGMA, Malta’s yearly iGaming summit, and the Malta AI & Blockchain Summit, a biannual event dedicated to emerging tech, also sees the island’s investment in new sectors as indicative of the success it can garner in the use of AI in Esports. “If Malta’s track record for attracting and nurturing new and upcoming industries is anything to go by, then I would say the future is bright for anything we set our mind to. There’s a real energy and passion for innovation, and that’s always great motivation to get the ball rolling,” he states.

Indeed, he sees AI as key to the increased profitability and attractiveness of Esports, saying that the involvement of this technology “and its convergence with other tech, such as IoT and Big Data, has led to an increase in players and spectators.” The ability of AI and machine-learning to handle and process ever-increasing tracts of data lies at the heart of any advances. “Its ability to discover and predict behaviour has produced invaluable lifestyle data which has been a contributing factor to increased engagement from Esports audiences,” he underlines, specifying that deep-learning tech is also being used to make Esports viewing more of an interactive experience.

Mark O Sullivan - KPMG

Mark O'Sullivan, Gaming Advisor at KPMG

Mark O’Sullivan, KPMG’s Gaming Advisor – and Esports specialist – highlights the way Malta’s willingness to embrace technology can lead to the proliferation, and growth, of new industries in 2019. “Malta has a history of firmly establishing itself as a global hub for particular technological economic niches. It had successfully done so with iGaming over the last couple of decades, and in recent years, this has been the case with the video games and DLT sectors.

AI is an integral part of this growth since every edge counts in Esports, according to Mr O’Sullivan. Indeed, AI technology can raise the bar, giving players “the training competition they need to improve and master their skill,” as well as introducing AIpowered analysis and prediction mechanisms, which can help to identify ways to improve the player’s own strategies.

However, he is at pains to emphasise that game-events involving bots – such as OpenAI’s Dota 2 and Google’s AlphaStar – are not being created in order to develop the world’s best player – beyond that of human limits – but to develop the world’s best human-like player, thus increasing engagement.

Alexei de Bono

Alexei De Bono, Director of Idea Intelligence at Idea Group

Alexei De Bono, Director of Idea Intelligence at Idea Group, echoes these thoughts, but sees the potential for AI to transform Esports as part of its power to revolutionise all sectors. Within the game, however, models harnessing the power of AI can be used to discover future superstar players in a game, the Director says. This is especially the case today, since “potential players are able to stream their games to thousands of people. To take this a step further, AI methods can be used to predict the best player out of a list of potential candidates who would best fit the team. This does not simply come down to basic skill assessments, but identifies a gap in the team’s features that can be occupied by the new addition.”

Moreover, AI has the capability of helping Esports teams strategise, “by analysing previous game footage from a team and their opponents, and identifying critical moments”; identify the trends of game popularity over time and thus be able to predict the features of the next best game to produce; and even, on a practical level, “find and book the best possible travel and accommodation packages for international players and team staff.”

This is an excerpt of an interview which featured in the June edition of Blockchain Island.

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Of bots and professional Esports teams – how AI is changing the game