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The University of Southampton

When fantasy becomes reality

It’s like the ultimate Fantasy Football, only this time it’s not fantasy – it’s real.

13 January 2021

Southampton Spotlight shines a light on the impact our University is having across the world, through the achievements of the individuals that make up our community.

Ryan Beal (BSc Computer Science, 2017; PhD AI in Team Sports, final year) has devised a portal containing algorithms to remove the guesswork from building the dream football team – and it’s poised to revolutionise the sports industry.

Ryan, whose postgraduate research is focused on artificial intelligence (AI) in team sports, has set up a start-up company and is already winning business from some of football’s big players in both England and across Europe. Working with Gopal Ramchurn, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Director of the Centre for Machine Intelligence , and former Southampton PhD student Tim Matthews, Ryan officially launched his company – Sentient Sports – this year.

Sentient Sports is working closely with another company, Ai Abacus, which offers football teams a portal that can help improve the decision-making and scouting process when buying and selling players. The portal was launched in November 2020.

Football, like other sports, has huge amounts of data associated with it. We buy data from a football data provider and enter it into our algorithms.

Ryan Beal - Founder of Sentient Sports

Ryan has developed a number of algorithms that feed the portal. There is a teamwork algorithm that looks at how pairs and groups of players work together on the pitch and assesses ‘player chemistry’; an algorithm that predicts the number of goals/assists a player will achieve; another that evaluates the suitability of a player in the style of play of a new team; and a final algorithm that looks at the cost benefit of players. These algorithms are used to predict how a player would perform if they were to play in a specific different team.

Ryan Beal
Ryan Beal is building the dream football team through his new start up

Research to be passionate about

AI in football has been Ryan’s passion since he was a computer science undergraduate at Southampton.

“In my third year, I did a project on Fantasy Football, but then after I graduated I left academia to work as a data science consultant,” he said. “After a year, though, I was drawn back to research and started my PhD. I’m now in my final year.”

Ryan, a lifelong supporter of Southampton Football Club, added: “When it was clear I wasn’t going to become a professional footballer, I wanted to find a way to combine my degree with my passion!” The first algorithm he developed was focused on teamwork.

He explained: “The algorithm looks at players passing to each other on the pitch, and how often they are involved in positive or negative passes of play – those that end up as goals or those that go out, for example. And looking at how each of those passes contributes to the overall outcome of the game.

“From there we started predicting which players that don’t currently play together would play best together – we can predict how they would play together, to influence future transfers.”

The impact of COVID-19

Ryan said 2020 has seen his work skyrocket, which he puts down to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We’ve had a lot of luck in 2020. Big opportunities began to open up for us back in March at the start of the first lockdown, when football managers could no longer scout properly for players. It accelerated quickly from there.

Ryan Beal - Founder of Sentient Sports

Ryan, Gopal and Tim were introduced to Ramanan Mylvaganam, who is well connected in the football industry through his position as founder of a successful sports analytics company called Prozone. Following this introduction, they were well connected enough to launch Sentient Sports.

Ryan said: “The impact of COVID really helped us to get this off the ground, but in the longer term it will be the smaller clubs that can benefit the most – the clubs that don’t have data analytics departments. This will be really important in the post-COVID world.”

Ryan also believes there is huge potential for the expertise to be employed in other areas. “The approach we use could be extended into other domains where teamwork between humans is important, such as emergency response or in security,” he added.

For more research stories, read the University of Southampton’s research magazine, Re:action .

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