The NBA Hackathon: Building the Game of the Future

On the heels of preseason Training Camps opening across all teams this week, (plus media days galore), the league held its first ever NBA Hackathon. Two hundred young engineering students representing 53 schools came from all over the US and Canada to have a chance at building the next wave of innovation in basketball analytics. With almost no hints as to the problem they’d be solving before the event, they were handed three prompts spanning defensive performance, timeout effectiveness, and shot outcome prediction models.

Jordan Terminal 23 at Cafe Rouge // Photo Credit: Melissa Sulewski
Jordan Terminal 23 at Cafe Rouge // Photo Credit: Melissa Sulewski

The event took place on Saturday, September 24th at the Jordan/Carmelo Anthony branded venue Terminal 23 in New York City. For the grand finale, the league had assembled an all-star group of judges. The panel was comprised of Mike Zarren, Asst. GM & Team Counsel for the Boston Celtics, Zach Bradshaw, Manager of Basketball Analytics for the Detroit Pistons, Hao Meng, ‎Assoc. Director, Basketball Strategy/Global Strategy at the League Office, Mark Broadie, Professor at Columbia Business School, and Zach Lowe of ESPN.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver was there to get the day’s activities started as he explained that analytics had increasingly become an important part of basketball. He offered encouragement to the young developers listening excitedly across the black and red court that had been refashioned into a perfectly basketball-themed coding hall.

Hackathons, of course, have been an integral part of the tech world, and their popularity has exploded in recent years. Companies such as Foursquare and Google are famous for the events, and features like Facebook’s “Like” button, Timeline, and Chat have been born out of hackathons. The desire for firms to crowdsource innovation and gain insight into brilliant potential future recruits is also a compelling reason to host these events.

The NBA in particular has seen a notable shift to the way it runs its business in recent years. A data-driven approach has become integral to how the game is played, while streaming video and subscription services are changing where fans tune in to see their favorite teams. The need to quantify audience engagement and viewership on a global scale while gauging player performance on a team level has never been greater or more relevant. Former NBA All-Star and current league exec Kiki Vandeweghe weighed in Saturday:

“We’ve always used data. Whether we like it or not, that’s always been a big part of the game. Analytics [are] used back in formulas to change the way the game is played to make it more efficient. It really mirrors the business of basketball. The rules of business are changing, how we consume our game, how the game is distributed to our fans. Everyone’s got a [smartphone]… The globalization of our game and the expansion of our game is really fantastic; that’s where the growth is. Everything is data-driven in business, and our business as well. When you think about it: where is the future of sports, and what is the future of sports? I’m here to tell you it’s right here in this room.”

NBA Hackathon, 9/24/16 // Photo Credit: Melissa Sulewski
NBA Hackathon, 9/24/16 // Photo Credit: Melissa Sulewski

Evan Wasche, Senior VP Basketball Strategy and Analytics says the NBA’s focus on data has resulted in a league analytics team that focuses on “protecting the integrity and competitive fairness of the game, promoting health and wellness, and ultimately driving fan engagement.” Specifically, he cited that their research has led to innovation in areas like game schedules, the draft lottery, and referee performance.

With that in mind, the young developers worked to come up with solutions for final presentations that would ultimately come about ten hours later. Five finalists were cut down to three winners. The winners were judged on criteria that included originality, analytical rigor, elegance & visualization, and thoroughness in analyzing data. Runners up included Team Nylon, who assessed defensive ability, and Prime Suspects who analyzed defensive court positioning. The first place winning team was most appropriately named Team 1 – Hero Ball, and analyzed the case against passing in the NBA Finals.

With the hackathon behind it, the league is now free to focus on the upcoming season. Meanwhile, we’ll undoubtedly continue to witness how technology is impacting everything from injury prevention to multi-platform game distribution. As Kiki Vandeweghe proclaimed, “The game’s always changing. It’s always getting better.”

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