With Rising Consumer Appetite and Expectations, Live-Streaming Sports Outlets Take on New Challenges

As media-consumption habits change and video-streaming technology advances, sports fans have begun to expect the same quality and reliability from a live-streamed sports event as from a live television broadcast. As a result, sports-streaming outlets are under more pressure than ever to come up with redundant live encoding and delivery workflows to ensure a reliable and seamless streaming experience for viewers.

“The tolerance for poor quality is just so low today,” said Ivan Yang, senior director, technology and engineering, Vevo, during a panel at Streaming Media East in New York City last week. “When you turn on your television, you don’t expect to see tones and bars. That same level of expectation is now transferred over to the digital world. If I am watching a live event streaming, I am not going to hang around if there is rebuffering or slow start time. The data overwhelmingly shows that.”

The Shift From Mobile to Connected TV
According to Yang, over the past year and a half, Vevo has experienced a shift in video-viewing numbers from heavy mobile video consumption to more consumption on connected-TV devices. Consumer expectations can vary widely for viewing on a less reliable cellular network versus a high-speed-Internet connection feeding an OTT streaming device. With more people than ever streaming directly to their television, the pressure to deliver a broadcast-level experience is increasingly intense.

“I think the consumer pressure for broadcast-level experience is actually making it more difficult,” said Eric Black, VP, technology, NBC Sports Group. “When we have more redundant systems than we have ever had in the past, the consumer expectations are that much higher.”

NBC Sports Live Extra Continues To Expand
The Peacock’s live-streaming platform, NBC Sports Live Extra, has driven much of the innovation in live-streaming technology over the past six years, thanks to large-scale events like Super Bowls and the London and Sochi Olympics. With several of the largest streaming audiences in history tuning in Live Extra for such events, NBC has built out a robust infrastructure and continues to expand to new platforms — most recently, to Roku and Apple TV. However, that doesn’t mean the business of live streaming is easier.

“I’m not sure it’s gotten easier. I think it might have actually gotten more complex,” says Black. “For the end user, it’s a fantastic experience: you are seeing bitrates go up across the board and engagement time year-to-year go way up. But there is always risk. You can double and triple up on redundancy, but there is always going to be risk when it comes to live.”

March Madness Live: Higher Quality, More Minutes and $$$
This year, Turner Sports’ March Madness Live notched 80.7 million live video streams and 17.8 million hours of live-video consumption during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament (up 17% and 19%, respectively, over last year). In addition, the National Championship alone delivered 3.4 million live video streams and 1 million hours of live-video consumption.

It is a massive undertaking, and, unlike with most multiweek large-scale sports events (for example, the Olympics and World Cup), Turner Sports must deal with peak traffic in the opening days of the tournament, when most fans are unable to watch on television and, therefore, stream at their desks and on mobile devices. Although managing millions of concurrent streams is no easy task, Turner’s focus remains on delivering the highest-quality experience possible in an effort to increase fan engagement time.

“We know that a higher-quality experience means people watch longer; the data proves that over the last five to six years. If we deliver high quality, we get more minutes; more minutes is more money. And, in the end, it’s a business,” said Troy Causey, director, product technology, March Madness, Turner Sports. “There is a shift right now in terms of quality. Fans are more and more intolerant of poor experiences. Their ability to stick around is [declining]. So we have to constantly stay on top of these things, and, in real time, we need to be able to react.”

Big-Event One-Offs vs. 24/7/365 Streaming
While NBC Sports Live Extra and March Madness Live must deal with massive spikes in traffic, Major League Gaming’s MLG.TV faces a challenge on the opposite side of the spectrum: consistent 24/7/365 live streaming.

As a free-to-watch, ad-supported e-sports–streaming platform, MLG.TV is tasked with delivering high-quality video to the ever-growing live gaming market all day every day. To do so, MLG conducts quality-of-service monitoring for the different CDNs to see how they are performing in each region and then manually allocate streams to each CDN depending on those conditions.

“To be honest, it’s much easier for us, because having the one-shot event is very stressful,” said Allen De la Cruz, SVP, engineering, Major League Gaming. “You are constantly adding features to your platform or site, and it’s hard to prepare for the load of millions of viewers all viewing your player at once. Now that we have 24/7 streaming platform on our site, we can identify some of these bottlenecks that are happening, and it makes things a lot less stressful.”

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