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McEnroe vs. McEnroe: A Matchup for the Ages

At his height, no one could beat John McEnroe. But in 2022, it’s a different story. Michelob Ultra explores whether McEnroe has finally met his match… in John McEnroe.

Sports? They’re quite simply the best. They bring us together, create memories, and teach us true joy. The highs of victory wouldn’t exist without the miseries of defeat. This goes for anyone playing organized sports at an amateur level or following a professional league, and I know you’re in agreement or you wouldn’t be reading this right now.

Because it’s so fun for us to follow from afar, we must remember that athletes play sports to feed their families. Their livelihoods depend on their performance. They don’t experience that same joy we may feel when we play for low stakes or watch on TV and it can be difficult to actually enjoy your job after a while.

John McEnroe, one of the greatest tennis players of all-time and perhaps the biggest character ever to play the sport, knows this better than anyone. As he was reaching the top of the ATP rankings and winning grand slams, he noticed that the game started to feel like a job.

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“I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I could have at the time,” he told Boardroom. “It’s not easy at times, because you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself and your expectations are high. I felt like something was missing.”

That’s why, when Michelob Ultra approached McEnroe with a wild idea to celebrate his career, he was all in. The idea was to have the tennis legend play former versions of himself in something of a mini-movie dubbed McEnroe vs. McEnroe.

For once, McEnroe would look back and not forward.

“You know that song by [Bruce] Springsteen, Glory Days?” he said at the McEnroe vs. McEnroe premiere. “You just sort of reminisce about the past and live in the past. I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to move ahead in the future, so I didn’t really do that. I wanted to keep advancing as a human being a little bit.”

https://youtu.be/I4Ihcie9AMs

In theory, this was a great idea. It fit right in with Michelob Ultra’s new motto, “It’s only worth it if you enjoy it.” Now that the dust has settled for some 20 years, McEnroe could finally enjoy what he was able to accomplish on a tennis court and reflect on the different stages of his career. He could try to take a game off of the 1979, 1981, 1982, 1984, and 1992 versions of himself.

Gabriel Schmitt, the Chief Creative Officer at FCB New York came to Ricardo Marques, the VP of Marketing for Michelob Ultra, with the idea about a year ago.

“I was personally very interested in how it would deliver the powerful point of view that we have as a brand in a groundbreaking way,” Marques told Boardroom. “I said to Gabriel, ‘We’re gonna do this.'”

So… how? How would McEnroe play against a version of himself that existed 30 years ago? Well, without time travel, Michelob Ultra would have to re-create McEnroe as a video game character. Then, they’d have to teach the character to play tennis. Finally, they’d have to actually have said character play tennis. It seemed like quite the undertaking.

First came the creation of “Virtual McEnroe.” The process followed that of many sports video games. The team brought McEnroe in for a motion capture session and recorded his movements so the virtual player could mimic the real McEnroe. From tapping on his shoes to his unique serve, they were able to accurately present the former world No. 1 with all the mannerisms that set him apart. They also had McEnroe voice some quips to make the presentation that much more authentic. These would be presented on a video game character that was even dressed like McEnroe.

Next came the gameplay. Using the Unreal Engine, which is used in video games and feature films, the team would create a video game in just three short months. Digging up YouTube clips of McEnroe, they were able to understand McEnroe’s tendencies, like from where he would serve or when he would get aggressive and come in for a volley.

Creating a video game character that looked, acted, and played like John McEnroe was hard enough work, but then came the presentation. In order to have McEnroe play the virtual opponent, they’d need to project him somewhere. The only issue was that the virtual opponent was also going to need to spit tennis balls back out at McEnroe, so some sort of a projection screen or wall wasn’t going to work.

The winning idea was a faux screen of smoke and mist. This “wall” would be positioned just beyond the net and display the virtual McEnroe. Behind the smoke and mist sat four ball machines equipped with solenoids which would actually spin the balls in different ways to replicate how McEnroe played points. The video game that the team was able to create would work together with the ball machines to simulate a tennis match, and on a given point there would be anywhere from eight to 32 return options to spit a ball back out at the real McEnroe.

The end result was pretty special. Michelob Ultra had a real tennis court constructed indoors on a movie set in Los Angeles, where Boardroom was able to catch some of the taping. On one side, McEnroe watched his virtual self run side to side on the court to chase down his shots and hit them back. There were some triumphant moments for McEnroe, who was able to hit a forehand down the line and finish with a volley at the net just as he did in his prime. There were also some moments where his virtual opponent got the best of him, hitting drop shots that the 63-year-old couldn’t quite chase down. The legend joked that those droppers — which had him gasping for air with every step — were another authentic part of the experience.

“If the young me was rubbing it in, that’s exactly what he’d do,” he said. “If you’re over 50, you can’t drop shot me. You’ll have to beat me without doing that. I felt like I should have said that to my younger selves.”

“If the young me was rubbing it in, that’s exactly what he’d do. If you’re over 50, you can’t drop shot me. You’ll have to beat me without doing that. I felt like I should have said that to my younger selves.”

John Mcenroe

As is the case with anything involving McEnroe, there was a heavy comedic element. His virtual self would taunt the real McEnroe with a big “Let’s Go!” before points. Present-day McEnroe would clap back after winning a point against 1992 McEnroe — the year he wound up playing his last tennis match — calling that version of himself “over the hill.”

There was even a moment where the virtual McEnroe fired a ball at the real McEnroe’s head at the net, at which point he called the video game character “a jerk.” The exchanges were easily the best part of the presentation, and even commentators Ashley Brewers and James Blake were on the receiving end of some barking from McEnroe, who complained that they were talking during his serve.

The taping will culminate in an ESPN special that will air at a later date. It will celebrate all the versions of McEnroe laid out above; 1979, when he broke into the top five, 1981, when he finally reached No. 1 in the world, 1982, when he played a memorable Wimbledon final against Jimmy Connors, 1984, when he went a record 82-3, and 1992, when he retired from the pro circuit. McEnroe played a game against each one, and was able to stand across the court and look into the past.

“Seeing ’79 reminded me just of that youthful exuberance. That was fun, and this event is supposed to be fun,” McEnroe said. “That was maybe the most fun year of my career just because I was climbing up the ladder and finishing that year two, three in the world.”

So, while we will all enjoy watching John McEnroe on our screens as he takes the court in this Michelob Ultra McEnroe vs. McEnroe special, we can rest assured that McEnroe is enjoying himself, too. Using groundbreaking technology, we’ll be able to see a virtual tennis player actually spit balls back out at a real tennis player, picking up on shots and finding realistic return angles, winning points, and talking trash. It’s an unfathomable concept that somehow became real.

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