Just as Serena Williams announced this week that she's "evolving" away from tennis, and that the U.S. Open would be her final tournament, Nike unveiled a project that shows how her game has developed over her career—by pitting her against herself.
The new eight-and-a-half-minute film, "Never Done Evolving," leveraged A.I. to create a match-up between Williams from her first Grand Slam at the 1999 US Open and her most recent at the 2017 Australian Open.
The campaign, part of Nike's 50th anniversary celebrations, saw the two Williams playing each other for 130,000 games and 5,000 matches, according to AKQA's description of the process. The final game was broadcast to the public as a YouTube livestream on Aug. 11, with social media posts promoting the broadcast across Nike’s Instagram and Twitter channels.
Nike worked with AKQA studios in Melbourne, Portland and São Paulo to create the campaign. AKQA leveraged machine learning to model Williams' playing style from each era, factoring in her decision-making, shot selection, reactivity, recovery and agility, based on archival footage. Nike then brought the two models of Williams to life by re-rendering the players from each generation into an entirely new scene and having them appear to be playing and responding to each other.
The idea is strikingly similar to Michelob Ultra's campaign from May that saw John McEnroe of today playing against five virtual versions of his younger self. That campaign, from FCB, earned Gold for Digital Craft at Cannes and differed in that today's McEnroe competed in the flesh against his avatars. It also aired as an hour-long program on ESPN channels.
When Ad Age reached out to Nike earlier this week on its plans around Williams' retirement, the organization provided the following statement:
"Serena Williams redefined what it means to be a true champion. Her legacy transcends sport and has inspired generations. We look forward to continuing our long-standing partnership with her. And, we thank her for all she has done and will do in the future."