Fantasy sports are trivial in the grand scheme of things, but can be a ton of fun and offer a enjoyable source of trash talking and bragging rights among friends. (I’m going to take this moment to politely remind Zak how terrible his team is.)
Yahoo Sports has found a way to make our beloved fantasy teams seem even more important. It’s turned to a tech company in North Carolina to auto-generate personalized articles about the thousands of fantasy football teams in its leagues. For the third year Yahoo has had weekly recaps for each of the thousands of matchups in its leagues. It’s the kind of effort that would be impossible if Yahoo relied on human writers.
In 2013 the Durham-based start-up with about 30 employees published 300 million articles via its content-generating platform, Wordsmith. This year Automated Insights expects to auto-generate more than 1 billion articles for clients ranging from Yahoo Sports to Edmunds.com and the Associated Press.
“We started with sports, but we quickly realized the notion of automating content applies to more than just sports. We quickly branched out into finance, real estate and sales reporting,” Automated Insights founder Robbie Allen told me.
Last fall Yahoo Sports expanded its computer-generated stories to offering automated draft report cards for every player’s team. (And yes, I’ll admit to be pretty happy to get a B+ this fall. Let’s not talk about last year.)
When creating an article about the second-quarter financial reports of some Fortune 500 company, Automated Insights writes in a straightforward manner. But when Yahoo asked it before this season to dial up the snark and humor, the company tweaked its algorithm to end up with sentences such as this — “Does Montee Ball enjoy fajitas? Because his total yardage figures are sizzling.”
“Sports is about having fun and marrying that with your passion, and wanting to win. To us having that tone is an important part of the success,” said Ken Fuchs, the vice president and group lead of Yahoo Sports. “When I get my recap and it tells me unfortunately my game tape is not going to be broken down in any coaching clinics, it gives me a little smile and allows the guy who I lost to to shoot me a note quoting his recap and talking a little smack.”
This is also another opportunity for Yahoo — to provide more effective advertising.
Like many Internet users, I’ve trained my eyes to neglect banner advertisements, including the ones that run in my Yahoo league. I’m more likely to look at the writeup about my team. Two straight weeks I’ve been told, “Yes, your team could have been better. But if you haven’t gotten behind the wheel of the bold new Camry yet, that’s your real missed opportunity.”
The writing isn’t Shakespeare, but for stories about fantasy football teams that will be read by a tiny audience, they’re good enough. It’s not especially obvious that they were generated by a computer.
Allen’s staff includes data scientists with a strong grasp of writing, such as people who majored in statistics in college and worked at the school newspaper.
“If you mention Aaron Rodgers in the first sentence, you don’t want to continue to repeat Aaron Rodgers,” Allen said. “There’s lots of little nuances we’ve had to program into the system to make it sound like it was written by a person as opposed to something that was obviously written by a computer.”
He declined to discuss if Automated Insights is currently profitable, but said the business is growing rapidly. You might see their work next in automated write-ups for smartphone fitness apps.