2023 was another brilliant year for Stats Perform’s data editorial (aka research) team, who delighted more fans on social media, in more countries, and were awarded ‘Social Media of the Year’ for OptaJoe by the Football Supporters Association in December.
What’s more, it was the 14th year in operation for OptaJoe and so 2024 marks the 15th birthday of one of sport’s most original and entertaining storytellers.
Our data editorial team’s Opta facts and insights are published within seconds of events happening on the pitch, and are liked and shared all over the world, by media and fans alike. They frequently spark stories that capture mainstream attention and at the very least provide eyeball-popping material for chats between fans, that bring them closer to the game.
But how exactly do facts like OptaJoe’s get created? How does the Data Editorial team find magic in the detail to turn an ordinary stat into an enthralling story? To commemorate OptaJoe turning 15, Jonathan Cooper, one of the longstanding members of the group, dives deep to explain some of the secrets.
Number. Fact. End-word.
This has been the format of OptaJoe’s tweets since the account was created on Twitter (now X) back in 2009. To show how long ago it was, here is the first tweet, referencing achievements by Emile Heskey, Frank Lampard and Nicolas Anelka in the previous season.
OptaJoe has evolved tremendously in the 14-and-a-half years since then (Twitter character limits going from 140 to 280 helped), but that format remains fundamental to someone scrolling the app, spotting it, and recognising it instantaneously. A bit like Matt Groening making The Simpsons yellow, helping them stand out to someone flicking through the TV channels.
In 2024, as in 2009, there is no dedicated social media team running the account (nor is it just one person called Joe – in fact, none of us are called Joe); OptaJoe is run by the members of the UK Opta Insights or Data Editorial team at Stats Perform.We are the ones who will tell you the last player to score in seven consecutive away Premier League appearances, which player is outperforming his xG by the biggest total and when the last time was Manchester United had such a poor start to a season. Together with our colleagues in multiple countries who do the same for other sports and leagues, we are the storytellers. In the UK Opta team, think Charles Dickens meets football data, only with more expected goals and less expected gruel. Ouch.
We start with the story. We add the context to the facts and make them interesting; we get as much thrill from seeing a new metric grow and becoming mainstream (think xG), as we do tweeting about the great footballers of the 1990s (Quinn, Yeboah, Cantona). A fact that introduces a new metric is just as important to us as a fact that you can quote to your friends down the pub on a Saturday night after the game – that remains the essence of OptaJoe, making it memorable and generating a feeling, like all the best stories do
So, just how do we find those stories and stats that make OptaJoe what it is today?
It really is true that the magic is in the detail. Take this recent fact – OptaJoe’s biggest in terms of numbers in 2023 with over 16m impressions:
A fact on its own would be, simply, that Spurs have gone 1-0 up in their last five Premier League games and failed to win. That’s interesting, because it’s not a very good record, you’d be within your rights to say. But for us, that is not enough. We look further into the detail. We want to know when the last time a side did that in the Premier League and, thanks to the richness of historical data we have in our Opta database, we were able to say that Spurs were the very first to achieve this!
(It’s always a thrill to look something up and find that it’s the first of anything).
But then we found that not only were they the first to break one record; someone spotted it was similarly bad at home: another record. Throw in the end word that plays on Spurs’ ability to be close to success, only to lose it, and you’ve got the essence of the perfect OptaJoe tweet. It was liked 21,000 times and has been seen over 16,000,000 times on X since posting.
Finding the data for that and the many other tweets we produce for every game comes from our enormous real-time Opta content engine of detailed match statistics, metrics and reports – and having the expertise,knowledge and ability to write the queries to discover the gems, and start with the story. It’s also all in the preparation and detail for every eventuality. Often, we’ll look something up ready for that story to happen in a match, without it then occurring that day. A colleague of Charlie Chaplin once described him as “having a mind like an attic”, storing ideas away that he didn’t use on one film to use in another years later. Our brains work in similar ways – no stat or story is ever really wasted. It stays in the mind, usually without us realising.
While we can prepare as diligently as possible pre-game, the beauty of football is you never know what is going to happen in a match. The other element of our job is being reactive and spotting amazing feats and stories within games, and then looking for the stats and data to bring that story to life. Below is a good example of that – one of us working that afternoon spotted that Thiago’s passing stats were unusually high for a sub in that game and then used the mighty, enormous Opta database to say it was a record.
That’s where the unique magic in the detail comes in – without the thousands of other games and players analysed by Opta in that time, we couldn’t have possibly placed it into such a historical context. This tweet remains OptaJoe’s most-liked tweet of all-time, with 38,000 likes – and is also included on Thiago’s Wikipedia page in the Liverpool section, which is a nice example of how meaningful the detail can often be to fans.
As for my own personal favourite OptaJoe tweet, it is difficult to pick just one, but the one that always stands out is one from October 2019, in reference to the infamous ‘Wagatha Christie’ dispute between Colleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy. We reacted quickly to the rampant media coverage of the spat between the footballers’ wives and posted this on the same morning, becoming one of our most liked tweets of the entire year, showing how OptaJoe can have a sense of humour.
The phrase ‘stick to football’ has entered its way into lexicon in the last couple of years but we are only human and do (when occasionally not watching football) keep track of the news. After Liz Truss resigned as UK Prime Minister, we spotted she’d only served 44 days, the same as Brian Clough famously lasted at Leeds in 1974. We couldn’t resist getting involved – ‘damned’ in relation to the book and film The Damned United about Clough’s time at Leeds.
We also love to interact with footballers and pundits on OptaJoe as it reminds us that they too enjoy our stories. Many players (and even the odd Hollywood film star) have either replied or quote retweeted us, and we are always pleased when they like one of our facts, or when we’re able to answer one of their queries.
As metrics have evolved, so have the tools at Stats Perform and so has the quality of graphical output we can produce and use on OptaJoe. Whereas in previous years we could only tell people about a stat, we can now do that and show them visually with a wide range of graphics available to us – touch maps, shot maps, xG maps, pass maps, match momentum and everything in between… before the game, after the game and also during it.
While OptaJoe and its UK football coverage was the first Opta account, our other talented insights and data editorial teams across the globe also have accounts to tweet some of their interesting and entertaining facts. If you like Spanish football, give @OptaJose a follow. For French insights, look at @OptaJean. @OptaFranz in Germany, @OptaSTATS for US sports, @OptaAce for tennis and so on. They all follow the same hallmarks of OptaJoe and what I have described here: dedicated and passionate sports experts with access to a gigantic sports content engine.If you’re a sports statistician, it’s the stuff dreams are made of! Here are a handful of my favourite story-driven facts from our global teams in recent times:
2023 was another enormously fun and rewarding year for our team and we’re proud to be continuing to drive the OptaJoe story forward, into more corners of the planet, 15 years after it was conceived by some of our industry’s most pioneering brains. The Stats Perform data editorial and research teams will continue to find the magic in the detail to tell stories with statistics and make them as captivating and innovative as we possibly can. Bring on the next 15 years.