With new edtech, MLB’s youngest manager is getting aspiring young athletes in the game.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
A first-of-its-kind platform utilizes conversational video AI to create a unique interactive experience between its users and some of the biggest names in professional sports. It’s called VS (pronounced versus), and it’s a new sports edtech platform for any young aspiring athlete, founded by MLB’s youngest manager. MLB St. Louis Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol founded VS to help learners gain access to pro-athletes like Adam Wainwright, Albert Pujols, and Fernando Tatis Jr. Through interactive sessions, users benefit from elite mentorship and skills training for on and off the field use. Oliver, or Oli for short, provided exclusive locker room access for EdTech Digest to give us some practical and inspiring pointers, as a pro coach can do, on how VS will positively disrupt learning for young aspiring athletes looking to gain lessons in sports—and skills for life.
There’s a lot you could have done – what prompted you to get into edtech and launch VS?
Oli: It all boils down to access. Growing up, I was a beneficiary of great mentorship and luckily, it didn’t stop at sports. My teachers, peers, coaches, and colleagues provided me with a way of learning that would’ve been impossible from merely watching a lecture or hearing an interview.
‘It all boils down to access. Growing up, I was a beneficiary of great mentorship and luckily, it didn’t stop at sports.’
I had direct access to these mentors – hearing their success stories and learning best practices when it came to facing specific challenges. Most importantly, I had access to asking questions: not only about, “how to throw a ball?” — but also about how to overcome failure and adversity. Hearing insights from a mentor is one thing, but the actual learning takes place when we are allowed to ask questions.
I was able to personalize my learning journey by asking questions about challenges that I personally was facing, and receive guidance that was catered to me.
When my wife and I came up with the concept of Versus, we wanted to replicate this access to the masses. The edtech market at the time — coupled with social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram – was only providing a ticket to see the finished product of its instructors.
Specifically for athletes, consumers were only given a glance of the reward at the end of the journey. Versus has taken it a step further by lifting the curtain on failure — showing there is no such thing as an overnight success — and providing a way for aspiring athletes to learn exactly how to move forward when they encounter failure, both mentally and technically.
What are some technology elements that will really knock it out of the park for VS users?
The key to Versus is our conversational AI. Versus combines world-class athletes and conversational video A.I. powered by StoryFile to bring exclusive video content covering vital skills and lessons for aspiring athletes to apply on and off the field. Our users have the ability to ask questions and receive responses in real-time from the brand’s roster of expert athletes that so far include professional athletes across baseball, softball, and soccer, like Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright, Kelley O’Hara, Ashlyn Harris, Jennie Finch, and Tyler Adams, to name a few.
Our expanding library of exclusive content offers courses on athletic-related techniques and life lessons. If you have ever wondered best practices when it comes to penalty kicks from USMNT’s Tyler Adams, or how two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion Kelley O’Hara managed to make a name for herself in a male dominated industry and how she dealt with the pressure, Versus provides insights to both using conversational AI.
On the backend, our conversational AI provides a real time feedback loop to understand exactly what our users are interested in, their passions, and their likes and dislikes. Through the types of questions that our users are asking we can identify trends and cater our forthcoming content to these interests.
‘…our conversational AI provides a real time feedback loop to understand exactly what our users are interested in, their passions, and their likes and dislikes.’
For example, if we notice there has been an uptick in questions around the pre-season, we can work with our athletes to create courses specifically addressing the most highly asked questions in detail and provide further direction on any residual questions that they still might have after taking the course.
Our data collection is a major differentiator as it allows us to hone in on specific content that our users aren’t finding elsewhere, but ultimately our AI simply allows them to have a conversation with their favorite athlete.
And how fun would it be to have the ability to ask Albert Pujols, “What was the first thing you did after scoring your 700th home run?”
Have you modeled this on MasterClass but for sports, or is there some other platform you looked to in creating it?
The idea for Versus was one we dreamed of and believed in for years, and while there is a lot to learn from market leaders like MasterClass, we noticed a lot of these platforms were catering their content to hobbyists. The landscape was filled with a number of platforms that were providing useful knowledge from professionals across all types of industries, but what was lacking was the element of personalized feedback.
If an aspiring athlete had a question regarding aspects that weren’t being discussed in the lesson, they had no way of being able to attain that information. It’s one thing to hear testimonials from the role models users look up to, but it’s another to have access to them and receive mentorship. We modeled Versus with the intent of focusing on the athletes who not only wanted to learn, but improve.
By using conversational AI, our users are able to dig deeper into the lives of these athletes to learn more holistically – gaining insight on their entire journey outside of the game.
‘The landscape was filled with a number of platforms that were providing useful knowledge from professionals across all types of industries, but what was lacking was the element of personalized feedback.’
Although the market leaders in the space provided a guide from an edtech perspective, we more so looked at them from a strategic point of view to get a better understanding of course length, the amount of content, and marketing. However, none were used as a benchmark as we have heavily leaned on our own UX and UI designers when creating Versus. Coming from a fantasy background, they helped shape the platform to provide the most optimal user experience.
How big do you hope to be, what are your goals in the next year or two?
The edtech marketplace has grown by over 20% per year and we believe that we’ll outpace that. From a business perspective, we have our eyes set on about 200,000 subscriptions and have invested in a partnership strategy to help achieve this. Our current partnerships with youth sports leagues have done wonders but there is also an opportunity to partner with major sports leagues that will have an obvious impact to ideally reach 200,000 subscribers and much more.
From a content standpoint, expansion is a big focus. Since launching the platform in August 2022, we’ve expanded our course selection for verticals including baseball, softball, and soccer in both the women’s and men’s leagues. Not only are we looking to add on more sports verticals like Football, but we are also aiming to provide specialty content on the Olympic mindset and sports psychology like nutrition, sleep, parental advice, and college recruiting to name a few. Staying true to the Versus mission of providing resources to build out the whole athlete, we find it important to close this loop and provide content that will help our users understand the best practices outside of the field.
This past MLB season, Albert Pujols scored his record setting 700th home run. While users will be curious how he achieved this from a technical standpoint, imagine being able to ask him how he dealt with any failures knowing he was only a few home runs away? What did he do to bounce back to keep his mental state in the game and stay focused during his outstanding season? These insights are just as – if not more – important as the techniques he uses when hitting a ball in order to grow as an athlete, and Versus is aiming to have these verticals fleshed out.
What about learning sports is essential for students, especially in such a format?
Life’s lessons are taught in a magnified way when it comes to learning sports. Part of it is related to understanding how to overcome adversity, working with others, team building, proper preparation, time balance, and rest and recovery. All these factors are key to being a great athlete and a great student athlete – especially in a society where sports and education are so highly emphasized. The ability to properly spend time on each aspect and become a specialist is not something that can be achieved alone.
Versus is trying to provide this first class content in a manner that is easily digestible. We’re determining what is the content that athletes really want and need, and taking it a step further from the video format and pairing it with conversational AI to cater to each individual so they can overcome challenges that are specific to them.
‘We’re determining what is the content that athletes really want and need, and taking it a step further from the video format and pairing it with conversational AI to cater to each individual so they can overcome challenges that are specific to them.’
For example, on the Versus platform you can watch a video on how to throw a curveball like Adam Wainwright. The differentiator of Versus is that the platform also allows users to learn about who he is, what affects his mental and physical game, and how he overcomes those mental and physical hurdles. Humanizing these famous athletes and showing that what they have accomplished is truly achievable, can serve as a constant reminder that the same goes for our users. Our conversational AI format adds to the magic equation for what we’ve created.
The future of learning—and learning sports—is rapidly changing; your comments, perspective on this?
In youth sports there’s been a shift in focus. Aspiring athletes used to take on multiple sports and try to divide their time across all of them, but now it’s more common for a young athlete to hone in on one and aim to be the best. From a market trends perspective, consumer spending on youth sports has increased significantly because parents are investing heavily in their children’s sports future. People are looking for tools to help them grow outside of coaching and various leagues.
There is so much access to information out there, but both parents and young athletes are looking for a trusted source where you can find not only good content, but accurate content. People can view hundreds of playbacks and interviews on YouTube, but in none of them are they asking or hearing directly from the athletes. There will be a spike in tools like Versus, which provides subscribers with access to the world’s best from what made them tick to what their own childhood was like. This will pave the way for a lot of young athletes moving forward.
Anything else, any message you care to add or emphasize about edtech, sports, or what you are embarking on that you’d like leaders in education and technology to know?
As the edtech market continues to grow, it’s really important to curate accurate and engaging content which is why we believe Versus is so innovatively different. We’ve created a first-class production process with the best athletes in the world like Kelley O’Hara and Albert Pujols and fused it with trusted, solid content. In the early stages of creating the platform, one strong piece of feedback we received from our focus groups was that while there is a media overload when it comes to sports, Versus was a platform that they could truly trust since the content came from viable and credible sources.
In terms of the edtech space in general, the compound annual growth rate over the last couple of years has been over 20%. At Versus, we don’t see that slowing down largely because people are not only seeking information, but information that is properly curated and trusted content. As we saw with the pandemic, the work from home movement became the new norm coupled with elements of school from home. Remote learning is not only anticipated, but expected and we believe that the best is yet to come considering Versus has created a platform that uses conversational AI in a way that hasn’t been seen specifically in the sports edtech space. We see this as an opportunity to pave the way for other edtech players in the market to invest in this technology and provide content personalized to the user at hand.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org