HAMBURG, Germany -- South Korea surprised many soccer fans when it ousted Germany, the sport's defending champion, out of the last soccer World Cup tournament in 2018.
These days, a South Korean startup called bepro11 is finding many German soccer teams eager to learn if it can give them a competitive edge.
Bepro11's artificial intelligence-powered video system allows clubs such as Germany's FC Cologne to compile footage and data on specific situations or events, such as a player's shots on goal or a goalkeeper's saves, add comments and drawings, and then share the annotated sequences with players.
Its 546 clients include a mix of high-level professional clubs, including Italy's Bologna FC and, via its training academy, Spain's Real Madrid, plus amateur teams around Europe, the U.S., South Korea, Japan and Thailand. According to the company, 86% of players on South Korea's under-20 national squad and nearly a third of the country's professional players have trained using its system.
Bepro11 has raised about 10 million euros ($11.1 million) across three funding rounds from investors including internet company Naver and telecommunications operator KT, both from South Korea, as well as U.S. venture capital fund Altos Ventures and Japan's SoftBank Group.
Luis Kang Hyun-wook, 27, founded the company in 2015 while he was a university student in South Korea learning computer programming as a sideline.
"As a young amateur player back in Korea, I always wanted to show my goals to friends and family and that is how the whole idea came along," he told the Nikkei Asian Review.
Kang sought feedback about his creation from South Korean coaches who found the tools appealing. Following further development, he dropped out of university and moved in 2017 with nine colleagues to Germany, he said, "because it is the soccer heartland and because my colleague and I knew a German players' agent who introduced us to some local amateur clubs."
"I thought I could learn more by doing in the real world instead of sitting down in a classroom," he said, adding that one of his team members, now the company's chief technology officer, was originally his programming instructor. Bepro11's workforce has since grown to 64.
Its system films videos using three cameras installed around each field. Its object detection and tracking system and video stitching technology then generates a PlayStation-like take which a coach can share via the company's app.
While Kang declined to disclose revenues, subscription fees range from around 40,000 euros a year for a full service package for a professional club to a basic package of 3,000 euros for a local amateur team. He himself now plays for and coaches with the local amateur team FC Hamburger Berg.
Bepro11 is competing in a crowded market, with Germany alone home to some 300 soccer analytics companies such as Exerlights.
"It is a growing market, as reflected by co-trainers increasingly taking on the role of data analysts," said Daniel Memmert, head of the Institute for Training Science and Sports Computer Science at German Sport University Cologne. "But software that cuts goals automatically into a video would represent a major technological step to the benefit of amateur clubs. Even clubs in the lower leagues would likely be able to shoulder the relevant fees if they tap their sponsors."
Bepro11's AI-powered system also represents an advance over rivals that depend on identifying players wearing GPS transmitters. These can be inconvenient for players to wear. Stadium pillars and other structures also often interfere with the signals.
Still, for many cash-strapped amateur teams in Germany, bepro11's pricing is out of reach. Coach Markus Rittmann said TuS Dangastermoor, his club based in a small town near Bremen, cannot even afford a team bus.
"Our monthly membership fee for adult players is only 18.50 euros and we compete with the children's hospice nearby for sponsorship," said Kevin Lindemann, a youth trainer with rival TuS Varel 09. He still uses a blackboard and chalk to coach players. "There is no way of paying for any digital training technology," he said.