Writing Sports: Man Vs. Machine
The invasion has come—ready your tin foil hats.
Last month, the North Carolina company StatSheet released upon the Internet its “Robot Army,” a massive system of websites designed to track each and every NCAA Division I men’s basketball team and write up game summaries, previews, and histories bolstered with an impressive amount of statistics and graphs.
Does the advent of the StatSheet Network represent the death of the common (human) sportswriter?
Its impressive automated number-crunching abilities are certainly something to gander at.
Each website dedicated to a school provides a thorough breakdown of every game, including the matchup’s progression, a detailed analysis of the major players’ contributions, and an algorithm predicting how well the team will do this season relative to last year.
Furthermore, the Network compiles all of this data for 345 NCAA Division I teams in every conference in the country (ever hear of the Horizon Conference? StatSheet did).
Despite its features and prospective, though, it’s not yet time for the bell to toll.
One could make any number of criticisms of the Robot Army. The lack of compelling quotes, bias in favor of the home team, and annoying typos provide just a few. Note, however, that these jeers might be made concerning just about any sports publication.
In a New York Times article published Sunday, Randall Stross takes a different approach, critiquing the website for its lack of complexity. Stross indicates the system, although compelling in some of its vernacular, is ultimately limited by a finite number of phrases, structures and statistical comparisons.
Even acknowledging this argument, I’m still not convinced that we’ve exposed the Army’s greatest weakness.
Let’s say that the sports nerd-computer geek hybrids over at StatSheet perfect their code to create sentence structures as sophisticated as the numerous graphs sprawled across the screen. Let’s also say that typos became as uncommon as kegs at the Harvard-Yale tailgate and the Network learns to cherry-pick quotes from other publications. What then?
We must keep in mind that even with standard game recaps and previews, a certain human element ultimately brings the story to life. There is immense value to witnessing the game, soaking in the atmosphere, understanding the crowd, and seeing the coach’s expression in the post-game press conference as he or she speaks about the other team.
Veteran sportswriter John Lowe pointed out this sort of limitation when asked for his opinion. Although Lowe “has nothing against it,” he noted the restrictive nature of the materials StatSheet draws upon to generate its articles.
“[The Network]’s just taking what’s on the box [score] and play-by-play and turning it into sentences and paragraphs,” Lowe said. “But really the increasing point of sports journalism is you’ve got to go beyond what’s in the box score and play-by-play, because everyone has decent access to those things.”
Lowe’s been covering baseball for the Detroit Free Press since 1986 and knows how a play simply recorded as a “fly-out to center” in the box score was actually the crucial moment in a World Series (i.e., “The Catch,” in 1954).
“That’s why we like sports,” Lowe said. “It’s played by real human beings and by teams we care about.”
A plethora of stats cannot tell the larger story of a game or team—its struggle through injuries, the triumphant upsets and the emotional losses experienced beyond the court. A computer can tell you that two years ago Jeremy Lin ‘10 was the only NCAA player to place among the top ten competitors in ten major statistical categories, but it cannot articulate why else we find him interesting.
Although fascinating, StatSheet’s creation is ultimately less of an army than it is a fast food chain in the sports publication world. It might represent a satisfying quick-fix to get some fans through the day, but the rational reader will recognize the absence of more important components.
—Staff writer Emmett Kistler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.