Amazon Brought a Whole Lot of AI to Thursday Night Football This Season


The company has been teaching its machine learning systems to understand how football works so it can help viewers understand it, too. But we’re still not getting 4K.

You will likely notice various new on-screen features if you watched a Thursday Night Football game on Amazon Prime Video this NFL season. When a team finds itself in a late-game drive with everything on the line, you might see a graphic guiding whether the team should go for it on fourth down. The broadcast may also automatically highlight the most open receivers down the field as the quarterback snaps the ball. While the team advances down the field, you might see lines displaying a kicker’s field goal range and the exact spot from which he has a greater than 50% chance of making the game-winning kick.

For its second season as Thursday Night Football’s official broadcast partner, Amazon heavily relies on AI tools and machine learning. Last year, their primary objective was to deliver a seamless broadcast experience — no buffering, subpar halftime shows, or awkward moments between the announcers. They largely succeeded, and even the audience numbers exceeded expectations for a streaming-only football broadcast. Now, armed with a year of experience and a confidence boost, the company is striving to go beyond merely showcasing the game.

According to Sam Schwartzstein, Amazon’s analytics expert for Thursday Night Football, the main feedback from viewers was their desire to feel more engaged with how teams play the game. Schwartzstein states, “Their favourite thing is not the big hits, not the athletic plays, it’s the strategy.” Amazon is still committed to highlighting big hits and athletic plays, but it also aims to immerse viewers in the intricacies of football.

One excellent example is the Defensive Alerts feature. Amazon trained a machine learning model using 35,000 plays from recent seasons to automatically identify whether a defender is likely to blitz on a given play. Details such as their positioning, pre-snap movements, and body language all matter, and these are aspects that quarterbacks and coaches extensively study in film analysis to anticipate on game day. When you watch a game, the Thursday Night Football stream may spotlight the player about to launch a blitz. Schwartzstein explains, “What [the broadcast] is doing is saying, now you can watch the defence like the quarterback does.”

AI plays a central role in many of Amazon’s innovative ideas. Schwartzstein mentions that the fourth-down metric originates from a model that comprehends which players are on the field, the coaching staff, the game situation, and more. When asked if the model would recommend going for it every time if you had the best 11 players in the world on a team, Schwartzstein suggests it would still be a risk. “But if you put a middle school team on the other side of the field, it would.” These models drive many aspects of the broadcasts, from replays to field-goal percentages.

This data will be available in Amazon’s “Prime Vision” stream of the game, tailored for data-hungry fans. This is clearly where the company is directing most of its efforts. However, streaming allows for multiple ways to watch a game, and Amazon’s default broadcast will remain a fairly straightforward football presentation. They also bring back the Dude Perfect team and the Uninterrupted crew for their broadcasts. Jared Stacy, Amazon’s director of live sports production, emphasises their goal is to adapt to fan preferences over time and serve fans in the best possible way.

Amazon’s increased presence is another significant development for this year’s Thursday Night Football. For the first-ever Black Friday game, Amazon plans to integrate shopping experiences in various ways, taking advantage of the synergy between football and other Amazon products.

Stacy says, “There’s an opportunity to establish a new tradition with the league. What can we do with music? What can we do with food? What can we do with shopping?” He clarifies that it’s just one game on one day and that commentator Al Michaels won’t start conversing with Alexa or providing shopping advice during games anytime soon. However, there is more integration to come.

Additionally, viewers will likely enjoy enhanced visuals as Amazon is streaming its games in HDR for the first time. Stacy comments, “It’s probably going to be the most widely distributed HDR feed,” noting that broadcast affiliates or set-top boxes won’t limit access. You can watch Thursday Night Football in HDR if your TV supports HDR. Unfortunately, 4K won’t be available. Stacy doesn’t provide a direct answer when asked about this, but he emphasises that HDR has the most significant impact on fans and is noticeable to most people.

Amazon streams more than just football, and many of the innovations introduced for Thursday Night Football will extend to other sports, including Premier League games. However, NFL football remains the most expensive and crucial content in the US for Amazon. In its second full season of broadcasting games, Amazon is determined to improve its performance and explore the full potential of its resources, from AI to Whole Foods to The Lord of The Rings. The journey ahead is long, and Amazon is only at the beginning.