When staffers at Portland design agency AKQA first set out to create a sport with artificial intelligence, they intended the endeavor to be a fun side project for Portland Design Week.
Fast-forward several months and Speedgate, the quirky game their neural network created based on data from more than 400 sports, is in high demand among recreational enthusiasts worldwide, according to AKQA creative director Whitney Jenkins.
So far, 10 universities have committed to hosting intramural leagues, including the University of Maryland, the University of Idaho and Brigham Young University. The agency has fielded inquiries from hobbyists, recreational organizers and colleges in at least 40 countries who are also interested in hosting their own competitions, according to Jenkins. The sport has even earned an official designation from the Oregon Sports Authority.
“This morning, I actually had to answer a Russian email that was disputing out-of-bounds penalties if the out-of-bounds was intentional,” he said.
While the sport is best described as a cross between rugby, ultimate frisbee and soccer, Jenkins said the process that created it was a lot more complex than a simple combination of various game elements. The gameplay involves two teams of six—three forwards and three defenders on each team—passing and kicking a ball through giant field-goal-like gates at either end of a field over the course of seven-minute periods.
Of course, the AI didn’t supply a feasible human sport right off the bat. Many of the network’s thousands of initial suggestions were absurd and physically impossible: underwater parkour, a sport where contestants rode small ponies and used giant leaves as racquets or another tennis-like game that took place on a rope suspended between two hot air balloons. But in the course of the 10-week project, the creative team iterated with the AI to arrive on the final result as well as an AI-generated logo and name.
“AI was a member of our creative team. We didn’t just feed it in data and then wait for it to pop out of the oven,” Jenkins said. “AI made us laugh; AI made us think; AI made us completely reevaluate the nature of sport.”
Kathryn Webb, AI practice lead at AKQA, said the process was illustrative of how AI can play an important supplemental role in the human creative process rather replacing the actual work of staffers. The agency sees generative AI networks like the one that created Speedgate as an increasingly important design tool for its projects going forward.
“Part of it, too, is just a different perspective on the information,” Webb said. “We’re coming with this existing human view and biases, whereas AI is taking all the data at face value and really hoping to distill it down into new things.”
Jenkins is excited by the sport’s modest-but-growing fan base and has ambitious plans to build its popularity to the point where it might become a staple of college campuses. To that end, AKQA has already set up a website with a downloadable PDF field guide and instructions for starting a local team.
“We’re excited about the growth of it,” Jenkins said. “For us, our goal is to sit side-by-side with ultimate frisbee and some of the other globally widely accepted intramural sports in the next three to five years so we have pretty high aspirations of getting this thing out into the world and getting people playing.”