See John McEnroe play against his younger self in Michelob Ultra's IRL-meets-virtual tennis match

Watch a preview of the competition airing Wednesday on ESPN+ and ESPN2. which pits the tennis legend against five virtual versions of himself from key moments in his professional career

Published On
May 17, 2022

Editor's Pick

Tomorrow, tennis legend John McEnroe will enter the competition of his lifetime—or should we say, lifetimes—in a match pitting him against five of his younger selves. 

“McEnroe vs. McEnroe” is an hour-long program from Michelob Ultra that will be running tomorrow night at 8pm ET on ESPN2 and ESPN+. The show will see the McEnroe of today facing off on the court against five virtual versions of himself, each representing pivotal moments in his tennis career, such as 1979, when he first emerged on the scene; 1981, when he become the top player in the world and 1984, when he scored the best singles record of the modern era of professional tennis. (See a sneak peek above.)

The campaign is the latest expression Michelob Ultra’s ongoing platform, “It’s only worth it if you enjoy it,” which has largely centered on athletes. Previous efforts include a push backing women in sports  and a controversial campaign highlighting the intense mental and social pressures professional athletes are forced to contend with. 

“McEnroe vs. McEnroe”  was created out of FCB New York, which was also previously behind another technologically sophisticated campaigns for Michelob Ultra, the award-winning “Courtside” campaign that brought NBA fans into real games in the Orlando Bubble during the pandemic, via Microsoft Teams technology.


As for how the campaign came to be, FCB New York Co-Chief Creative Officer Gabriel Schmitt said the idea emerged after the agency was exploring ways to extend the idea of “enjoyment” following “Courtside,” coming out of the pandemic. “We had the idea that if someone who was not perceived to have enjoyed their journey could have another chance, what would that look like?” he explained. “One thing led to another, and we came to the idea of John McEnroe facing himself.  He was a natural choice; a brilliant player, but not necessarily a joyful one. We thought it would be amazing for viewers to see him going through the experience, and a super effective way of conveying the brand’s distinct point of view.”

As with “Courtside,” it was yet another ambitious production idea that the team wasn’t sure would get off the ground, Schmitt said. “We honestly had no clue how we’d be able to bring this idea to life, but we just knew we had to.”  

Fortunately, AB InBev’s VP-marketing for Michelob Ultra U.S. and global  Ricardo Marques and his team “never once questioned whether we’d be able to pull it off, just that once we did, it would be an amazing brand effort,” Schmitt said. “We then did what we always do at FCB NY and reached out to the best, smartest, savviest production partners we could think of and went into work.” For this project, the agency worked with production company Unit9, which is known for imagining out-of-the-box, tech-driven experiences and ideas for brands

During tomorrow’s broadcast, McEnroe’s younger brother Patrick will serve as emcee and will also provide real-time insight into the pro from over the years. Former professional tennis player James Blake and sports commentator Ashley Brewer will also be providing commentary throughout. 

FCB’s Schmitt said that the idea was originally conceived as a TV or streaming show, but such ideas aren’t easy to pull off. The ESPN team “showed so much interest and we were reassured that we were onto something special.”

Not surprisingly, the project posed numerous hurdles throughout. For example, there was the challenge of merging the physical and digital worlds. “We were adamant that the real McEnroe should be able to see his avatar self across the court, and that they had to be able to rally and play a match with real tennis balls,” Schmitt said. 

In order to realize that vision, Unit9 had to bring together for the first time various technologies. Those included artificial intelligence that studied every match McEnroe has ever played, Unreal tech that scanned his expressions and body movements and robot arms that synced up to the avatars’ movements. To accommodate all the technologies involved, during the match McEnroe and his avatars are always serving from the same sides during the games. 

“It was a really cool experience to be able to interact with myself in a new way,”  McEnroe said in a statement. “Watching the finished product was quite a ride. There may be only one ‘real’ John McEnroe, but I think everyone is going to have a whole lot of fun watching me get as close as possible to playing my double.”

"Celebrating an icon like John McEnroe in the world's first real vs virtual tennis match is a powerful way to dramatize Michelob Ultra's brand point of view," added Marques. "Through this epic experience, John McEnroe reflects on his legendary career to inspire everybody pursuing their passions to have fun and enjoy the journey."  

The program marks a "return" for McEnroe to the career that made him famous. More recently, he's been exploring other pursuits, such as voiceover work, highighted in a campaign last year from Squarespace