In any industry, people who disparage technology’s worth are labelled Luddites and told to accept their new place in the world, but should we consign the people who are tasked with finding the football stars of the future to this same fate? We consider whether data or human instinct will lead us to the next star of the beautiful game

Every professional football club is looking to find the next Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi; players who make the beautiful game look stupidly simple and bewilderingly complex at the same time.  Where clubs differ, though, is in the methods they use in their search for the sport’s next megastar. Some clubs rely on a data heavy approach – seemingly inspired by Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which described how, by meticulously choosing stats the baseball establishment had previously ignored, the Oakland Athletics baseball team were able to compete with wealthier teams. Other clubs, however, prefer the old-school approach of sending a flat-cap sporting scout to watch new recruits kicking a ball around so they can judge them with their own two eyes.

Neither method is beyond reproach, but does one have a distinct advantage over the other? Critics of Moneyball – or what generally passes for Moneyball in football – would cite the case of Aston Villa, who former manager Ron Atkinson described as: “The club that has suffered more in the pursuit of Moneyball than any other in recent times.”

Villa relied heavily on statistical analysis to scout players and seemingly didn’t place much value in having people on the ground looking at players. To give you some idea of how Aston Villa’s scouting department worked, the club’s head European scout, whose main focus was players in the German Bundesliga, allegedly emigrated to Australia and continued to do his job. This approach to identifying player talent didn’t work for Villa (who would’ve guessed) and the club was relegated from the Premier League with the third worst points tally in the competition’s history.

On the other hand, the more traditional way of scouting players also has a number of criticisms levelled against it, many of which essentially come back to the same point: how reliable are a scout’s own subjective, open-to-interpretation conclusions if they aren’t supported by data?

Speaking at the Wearable Technology Show 2017, Peter Tierney, sports scientist and former scout who now works as head of operations for Axsys Performance, described how the coach’s eye led to the existence of a kind of size bias in children’s football. “One of the key tools that has been used over the years is the coach’s eye. It’s good, but it also can also be bad because if in doubt what we ended up doing was going with the biggest all the time,” said Tierney.

Can you spot intelligence?

The accusation that scouts favour physical attributes over characteristics like intelligence, creativity and drive – difficult things to spot during a Saturday morning match – has plagued scouts for years, and has led some to call for young footballers to be organised according to their physical maturity rather than their age, in a technique called ‘bio-banding’.

Previously, Tierney was involved in a talent acquisition for rugby rather than a football and found that, for obvious reasons, rugby scouts are even more susceptible to size bias. In one programme he ran, 85.7% of the intake of future rugby players were born in the first half of the academic year. It’s understandable that scouts would be drawn towards children who already demonstrate skills which will be useful when they reach professional level, so older children, with their physical advantages, will be favoured over children born later in the year, who will always be playing catch up, unless techniques like bio-banding are adopted more widely.

Legendary footballer Andrés Iniesta playing for Spain against Chile. Image courtesy of Clément Bucco-Lechat

Having made the switch to football, Tierney points out that the same problems exist there too. “Children that were born in the first half of the year tended to be more successful in being identified than those born later in the year,” he said. “It depends where you are in the world because different parts of the world have different ways of grouping [children]. In the UK, for example, we group the children from September to August, and when they enter primary school they’re instantly put into those year groups.

“What we’ve found is that children who are born between September and December, they’re the ones that are predominantly playing football at a higher level than those that are born later in the year.”

One club that doesn’t appear to have scouts who pick players based on their physicality is also arguably the best side in world football: FC Barcelona. Raul Pelaez, head of sports technology at FC Barcelona, explains the criteria it uses to choose players by highlighting the example set by one of its most successful graduates from its famed La Masia academy, Andrés Iniesta.

“Iniesta is not endurance, he’s not a speeder, he doesn’t score goals. Iniesta only now hopes to play,” says Pelaez. “For us it’s not important if the player is thin, is fat, t’is speed and endurance. We need that he’s intelligent, and maybe the difference between FC Barcelona players and the rest is that he understands a little bit better the play, what happens in the play, what happens in the direction of the match.”

Increasing the talent pool

For a long time clubs like Aston Villa got scouting very wrong. Its aversion to sending scouts to do the hard yards and actually watch players, while marking them against a criteria which promotes intelligence and seeks to avoid physical bias, like FC Barcelona does, was clearly an incorrect approach. But there are examples of clubs who successfully use data and tech to identify some of the best players in the world.

It’s our core business to find the best players at an early stage

Like many modern elite football teams, Portugal’s SL Benfica analyses every aspect of its players’ lives, whether they’re working or at home relaxing. The club looks at its players’ eating and sleeping habits, how fast they run, tire and recover and their mental health. No stone is left unturned in the pursuit of making Benfica’s players better. All this data collecting has a point, though, because Benfica considers itself an elite club, but even finishing atop Portugal’s Primeira Liga doesn’t give you the resources needed to compete much wealthier football clubs like Manchester United or Real Madrid. So Benfica has taken its data-driven approach to talent acquisition and improvement and come up with a new revenue stream.

“It’s our core business to find the best players at an early stage,” Benfica chief executive Domingos Oliveira said in an interview with The National. “We try to anticipate the player’s future at the early stage of their development.

“We’ll not buy a player at 26 or 27, but 18 or 19,” adds Oliveira.

Benfica are by no means the only club using data to talent spot, but they are certainly one of the most successful. Already this summer Benfica have sold two players to the Premier League, for a combined total of almost £75m. Add that to previous year’s sales and Benfica have made well over £300m in the last seven years.

Tierney himself is a fan of using data as a method of increasing the size of the talent pool available to clubs. “The benefits of using all this technology now that’s readily available and using things such as your mobile devices is it will increase the size of the talent pool, which has been ever decreasing,” said Tierney. “It allows for earlier identification of potential talent, will help with a more qualitative analysis and it will give clarity because there is not so much scout reliance.

The people who matter

If being relegated as one of the worst teams ever to compete in a competition doesn’t alert you to the fact that something is drastically wrong in your organisation then nothing will, so because of its disastrous season Aston Villa has been forced to take drastic steps to improve the way it identifies talent. Sensibly, the club has gone back to sending scouts out to watch football games and allowing them to spot football’s next superstar. Rather than relying on data and statistics, or results thrown up by using the Moneyball method, these things are now used to back up the opinion of scouts rather than supplanting them.

“We’ve brought in real football people and we’ll mix that with one or two of the guys that have the analytical, Moneyball data that you hear about,” said Steve Round, Aston Villa’s new director of football in an interview with Aston Villa’s supporters club.

“The Moneyball thing came about because of baseball and that’s very statistically developed – like cricket. But football is always in a state of chaos. On any given day, football is a random, human, fluid game, so data and analytics only back up the instinct of the people looking for the talent,” said Round.

“I think football has gone away from that. They’ve gone too analytical and too data-minded, and a lot of people are paying the price for it. You’ve got to get back to the real people who matter. Scouts identify the talent and data backs that up. Villa is a massive club with high expectations, our scouts with a massive knowledge on football need to know that a particular player is capable of thriving at our club.”

In truth, the idea that there was ever another way to identify talented players was a bit of a fallacy. That’s not to discredit data analysis: as US soccer’s high performance director, James Bunce, points out, a player taken on by an academy at eight-years old has a 200-to-1 chance of making the first team, so it’s right that he best clubs collect as much data as possible so that they can make informed choices about which players will be able to survive as professional footballers. That being said, it’s also important we don’t forget the flat-cap sporting scout who has been to watch a million children, playing in hundreds of parks, on a thousand cold Saturday mornings. They have a wealth of knowledge, and football clubs would be foolish to ignore it.

In just a matter of years, drone racing has gone from an underground affair held in back streets and car parks to an internationally televised sport with standardised kit and professional competitors. We spoke Nicholas Horbaczewski, CEO of the Drone Racing League, about the sport’s meteoric rise

In the history of the world, there can’t be many sports that have gone from inception to 70 million viewers in half a decade, but drone racing has done just that.

While it started off with a group of enthusiasts racing home-made kit in empty public spaces, now, thanks to the Drone Racing League, it’s a glossy, highly regulated event, broadcast in 75 countries around the world on major channels such as ESPN in the US and Sky Sports in the UK.

“The Drone Racing League is a global circuit of professional drone racers, so we take the very best pilots in the world and we stage large-scale events with complex three-dimensional racecourses in interesting spaces,” explains Nicholas Horbaczewski, CEO of the Drone Racing League (DRL).

“People call drone racing the real-life video game; it has elements of e-sports and it has elements of real-life racing and I think we can adapt the best of those worlds and continue to grow what we are doing. Our goal is to build a major global sport and that’s what we are setting out to do.”

Drone racing: from amateur to professional

While the neon-lit world of the DRL is taking the sport to epic places, drone racing began as a humble affair run by enthusiasts.

Images courtesy of the Drone Racing League

“The sport of drone racing actually emerged about five years ago,” says Horbaczewski. “It cropped up in places like Australia and France first, and it really spread around the globe.

“I first encountered drone racing in early 2015 and by then it was a global community of folks who were drone racing in underground races; they’d meet up in fields and parking lots and race home-made drones.”

With the sport ready with a strong, underground following, Horbaczewski set about turning it into something that could be enjoyed by the masses.

“What the DRL has come in and done is professionalised it,” he says. “We developed professional equipment to enable the racing, so we developed all our own technology in both the drones and the radio systems, and then we built the professional global circuit, found content distribution for it through top-tier broadcasters and brought it to a mainstream audience.”

Making drone racing a sport

The early form of drone racing was certainly competitive and entertaining, but it didn’t have the standardised qualities required for it to be recognised as, or to function as, a televised sport.

“The reality is that when we started DRL, which was just about two years ago now, the real challenge was that the technology to do this didn’t exist,” explains Horbaczewski.

“While there was casual, amateur drone racing going on, there was no professional-level equipment that would allow you to do the event with the level of reliability that you need for a spectator sport, and frankly for it to be really considered sport at all.”

As a result, the DRL was initially a technology company, developing its own custom racing drones and radio systems to meet the needs of the fast-paced sport.

“We spent our first year in stealth developing technology, patenting innovations around drones, around radio systems and so that was really the major challenge,” he says.

“Once we had developed the technology we started doing the races, and we discovered that it’s very challenging to film the racing, because you have drones the size of dinner plates going 120km an hour through a hallway, and so we had to develop new systems to film them.”

However, once the DRL had developed the systems, they didn’t find it hard to get major broadcasters onboard.

“Once we had both those pieces and we showed it to the ESPN and Sky, they got very excited and got behind us right away,” he adds. “So the real challenge wasn’t convincing them, it was being able to actually do it and show it to them and have them understand potential of drone racing.”

The F1 of drones

Consumer and professional drones have seen an explosion in recent years, with rapid advancements in technology and capabilities, however they’re cumbersome, slow-moving lumps compared to the racing drones of the DRL.

“Racing drones are very different from the kind of camera drones you’d go out and buy on the high street; these are very specialised craft,” says Horbaczewski. “I would say camera drones that people buy are sort of like lorries: they’re a functional craft with a very specific purpose. These racing drones are like Formula 1 cars: they’re built for speed, performance and sport.”

And like Formula 1 cars, the racing drones are constantly being improved and updated.

“The technology in the drone space broadly is moving so quickly. The one we race in the 2017 season is called the Racer 3, although that name is misleading; it’s one of many, many iterations of the drone,” he explains.

Racing drones are like Formula 1 cars: they’re built for speed, performance and sport

“The reality is between every one of our events we’ll make a change or improvement of the drone. So even during the course of the season we’re updating the drone. We did a massive overhaul between 2016 and 2017, and likely will do the same thing between 2017 and 2018.

“I do think the analogy to car racing is a good one in that way in that we are really pushing the boundaries of speed and performance in drones, and I think those advancements will find an opportunity to be out in the broader commercial world in drones as time moves on.”

However, it’s not just the drones that the DRL had to develop. Each drone requires two different radio systems: one that broadcasts the video feed to the pilot’s FPV headset so they can see where the drone is going, and one that provides an uplink from the pilot’s controller so that they can operate the drone. And developing systems that could effectively meet these needs was not an easy challenge.

“The video transmission has to be ultralow latency; it has to have less than 16 milliseconds of latency so the pilot will be able to fly, and the control system has to be completely uninterrupted.

“We race indoors in complex spaces that weave through buildings, where the drones at times will be a kilometre or more away from the pilot, separated by many feet of walls in concrete and reinforced steel,” explains Horbaczewski.

“A radio system that allows the drone to operate under those tight parameters in these complex and dense space simply just didn’t exist, so we had to create it; we have a number of patents on radio systems and radio design that emerged from our work to develop a radio system that would facilitate this kind of racing.”

Pro drone racers

Away from the kit, drone racing also presents significant demands on the pilots. You might have had a spin on a quadcopter, but that’s nothing compared to the challenge of controlling an unassisted racing drone.

“It is extremely hard to race drones; these are fully manual drones, so there’s no stabilisation, there’s no computer-assistance in flying, so they’re truly controlling power to the four different motors and controlling all the dimensions of flight that way,” he says. “Learning to fly a racing drone is challenging, to reach the professional levels you really have to be very exceptional at flying drones.”

However, while you might think the DRL pilots are all seasoned drone pilots, they actually come from a variety of different backgrounds.

“Some of them are people who were very into RC aeroplanes and helicopters, so have that remote control flying experience; some of them are people who are very into speed sports, so a number of our pilots come from either motorcycle racing or car racing, and then some of them are just gamers; they’re people who are very good at video games and can translate that skill to racing drones,” explains Horbaczewski.

“In fact, one of the pilots in the league this year qualified for his spot by winning a video game tournament. We have a simulator that teaches you how to fly a racing drone without having to join a lot of physical drones, and so we did a contest where people compete on the simulator and he won that, earned his spot in the league. He actually did very well this season.”

What makes a good drone racing course?

The missing piece of the drone racing puzzle is, of course, the courses. And thanks to the three-dimensional nature of the sport, the DRL can host its races in some fairly unorthodox locations.

“We’ve raced in everything from an NFL stadium to an abandoned mall to Alexandra Palace in London,” he says. “We try to take full advantage of the fact that our sport has that wonderful unique element, and so we race in very diverse spaces.”

However, this doesn’t mean that every space is suitable for drone racing.

“You need certain things to make a space work for drone racing: it’s got to be big enough, so we need quite a bit of space because the drones are going very, very fast and it needs to be complex enough to create interesting lines for them to race through,” Horbaczewski says.

“But we try to get as creative as we possibly can with the venues we bring in, and we look at a lot of different spaces. Alexandra Palace is the perfect example of the kind of unique space which is perfectly suited for drone racing, but would not have hosted any other kind of racing sport in the past.”

Onwards and upwards

With the DRL’s second season already airing, Horbaczewski has big plans for the sport’s growth.

“It’s sort of onward and upward for us. We went from five events in 2016 to six events in 2017, and we did our first races outside of the United States, we did a race in Munich and a race in London, so we are expanding our geographic footprint,” he says. “The 2017 season will be broadcast on TV in over 75 countries, and we were on about 40 in 2016, so we’re almost doubling the number of countries that we’ll be reaching with our content.”

In time, drone racing could even become as popular as F1.

“People call drone racing the real-life video game; it has elements of e-sports and it has elements of real-life racing, and I think we can adapt the best of those worlds and continue to grow what we are doing,” he says. “Our goal is to build a major global sport and that’s what we are setting out to do.”