Verdict MMA: Inside PFL’s newest partner, the app tackling the issue of mixed martial arts judging

Alex Pattle
·7-min read
Verdict MMA has begun a partnership with the PFL (PFL)
Verdict MMA has begun a partnership with the PFL (PFL)

On 16 November 2013, Georges St-Pierre retained his UFC middleweight title with a split decision victory over Johny Hendricks.

As beloved as GSP has always been among fans of MMA, the reaction to the result was largely one of incredulity, given St-Pierre came away from the bout looking more like he’d been in a car accident than a contest.

Among that sizeable section of disbelieving fans were Mandeep Singh, Sanjay Thakur and David Chung. And while the result of UFC 167’s main event led Canadian St-Pierre to step away from MMA, it caused his compatriot Singh to step up with an original idea – an idea that grew into the Verdict MMA app.

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“When GSP fought Johny Hendricks, of course me and everybody in my room wanted GSP to win,” Singh, who at one point attended four straight St-Pierre fights, tells The Independent. “But at the end of the fight, me and everybody around me thought: ‘Johny Hendricks won that fight. It was a super controversial decision.’

“On the following Monday I was listening to [journalist] Ariel Helwani on the MMA Hour, and this guy from Vancouver called in. He’d watched the fight in a bar, and said: ‘When GSP won, everyone went crazy. We all thought he won.’ I’m like: ‘Hold on, that’s crazy to me – there’s actually people out there that think GSP won that fight?’ Then an idea popped into my head: There can be an app that does something for this.”

That app, five years in the making, saw its hard launch in October 2018 – in time for UFC 229 and Conor McGregor’s lightweight title fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov, a bout several years in the making. Verdict allows fans to judge MMA fights in real time, submitting their scores for each round at its conclusion. An average is then taken from the scores submitted by the app’s 77,337 users (a figure accurate as of the lead-up to UFC 259: Blachowicz vs Adesanya on 6 March).

“This goes back to Aristotle’s theory of the ‘wisdom of the crowd’,” says Singh – a sentence the cynical observer would not expect to hear from an MMA fan. “If you look at the average answer of a collective group of people, you’re likely to get the most accurate results.

“We’ve shown that increasing the number of judges and taking the average increases transparency. We show you how close or how dominant a round has been; we break these numbers down to decimal points. We give you a granular look. If you look at our global scorecard without having watched the fight, you’ll be able to tell which rounds were close and which were not. You can’t do that by looking at the scores of the cageside judges.

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“Of course, there’s a lot that would come with increasing the number of judges – how many, who’s paying for this, where are these guys sitting? Those are all things that need to be figured out, but why can’t they be figured out? It’s 2021. There’s technology. We can have them sat in a back room with a bunch of camera angles and no commentary to influence them.”

Singh – who had recently completed an honours degree in law and society when he first had the idea for Verdict – teamed up with his high school friends Thakur and Chung to bring the app to life in the years between GSP’s controversial title defence against Hendricks and Khabib’s more straightforward win over McGregor. The pair’s software engineering experience was put into practice in the hours outside of their 9-5s, and the expertise they developed in that time has led Thakur to a position at Class Pass – the first company of the decade with a $1billion valuation – while Chung is principal engineer at FantasyPros, a sports site that curates advice for players of fantasy sports apps.

Singh, Thakur and Chung’s Verdict project has grown alongside the sport of MMA, with their tens of thousands of users having submitted 3,846,340 total rounds since the app’s inception.

There have also been 5,031,282 total fight predictions, emphasising the appeal in Verdict’s other key feature: Users can earn XP by accurately predicting the winner of a fight, as well as the means of victory and round in which it will occur. That XP, as well as the XP accumulated from submitting scores on fight nights, can in turn be waged on further predictions as users look to climb a global leaderboard.

Verdict MMA
Verdict MMA
Verdict global scorecard from Blachowicz (left) vs AdesanyaVerdict MMA
Verdict global scorecard from Blachowicz (left) vs AdesanyaVerdict MMA

This fan engagement is the lifeblood of Verdict, though Singh stresses that fan scorecards are not the solution to judging issues in combat sports.

“There’s actually judges that judge a lot of UFC fights that get upset with us, saying: ‘You can’t have fans determining results,’” Singh tells The Independent. “Of course that wouldn’t make any sense. As soon as fans get to impact actual results, that’s when s*** will get crazy. That’s when people will start messing around, and affecting betting... But this system of having more judges and taking the average, that is something that can absolutely work.”

Verdict’s growth, focus on innovation, and appeal among the MMA community attracted the interest of the Professional Fighters League (PFL), with the promotion signing a deal to work together with Verdict. That deal was announced today, and will see Verdict’s global scorecard data used on PFL broadcasts, which air on ESPN and TSN among other channels worldwide.

“They’re big on innovation, they’re big on data, they’re big on fan engagement,” Singh says. “They reached out to us and said: ‘There’s some synergy here.’ To see our global scorecard data on ESPN, the four biggest letters in sports – and TSN, the biggest sports network here in Canada – is a huge accomplishment for us.”

There are certainly similarities in the forward-thinking approaches of the PFL and Verdict, with Singh, Thakur and Chung constantly thinking of new elements to add to the fan-focused experience they have created with their app.

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Boxing, which sees controversial judging calls more frequently than MMA, is on the agenda. “We have the infrastructure built in for that, and that’s something we definitely want to dive into in the future. But we feel like we haven’t even scratched the surface of what we want to do with MMA,” Singh says.

What about a means of evaluating the timeliness of a referee’s decision to stop a fight? “More often than not, the stoppages are good,” Singh says. “So, when are we gonna ask that question? Are we gonna ask it every time? If it’s an obvious answer, why even ask the question?”

Other potential features, however, include allowing fans to vote for their ‘fight of the night’ and ‘performance of the night’, something the UFC decides itself after each card.

Wherever Verdict extends itself, its community will always be the focus of updates and alterations.

“We had a couple of events where we had server issues, like during Jorge Masvidal vs Nate Diaz, and we were getting constant emails during the fight – the biggest fight of the year. It’s crazy how passionate people are about this. It’s a movement,” Singh says. “The fans make this, at the end of the day; all of our growth has been organic, and it’s been because of the community.”

That community and the sport of MMA on the whole are represented in the tech world by Verdict alone, Singh says.

“If you look at big tech and sports tech platforms, there’s nothing else for MMA. We feel like we’re carrying MMA on our back.”

Download Verdict MMA on the Apple and Google Play app stores.

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