Our guest author dissects the delicate art of sports streaming, unveiling its challenges and the steps required for flawless execution.
We’ve all been there, glued to our screens as a thrilling match plays out. And just when you were least expecting it, the feed freezes. By the time the glitch is fixed, you’ve lost precious moments of the game that we’ll never get back. Watching replays later is scant consolation.
The very beauty of sports is in its moments—every second of the action counts. One screen freeze or a little buffer, and the moment has gone forever. What is changing now is that, unlike the good old days of linear TV sports broadcasts, fans have multiple options to view their favourite sports.
Any interruption, glitch, or frustrating viewing experience, and you have a lost customer at hand, one that is likely never coming back. Besides, with millions of fans discussing the game on social media, a subpar streaming experience instantly gets unflattering publicity, eroding the platform’s brand reputation and affinity.
Consider ITV’s FIFA World Cup 2022 stream that inadvertently cut out a country’s national anthem during the match opening, among several other issues during the stream.
Social media comments were unforgiving. It’s important to note that you don’t just have a PR crisis at hand with streaming roadblocks. You lose not just customer revenue but potentially stand to lose ad and sponsorship revenue, too.
To prevent such UX and PR disasters, sports OTT platforms need to go the extra mile to ensure an uninterrupted and glitch-free streaming experience. This task, however, is easier said than done. Streaming services are inherently complex systems, serving a dynamic audience across multiple geographies.
Getting a live stream right requires preparation, where different aspects of the experience are fine-tuned proactively and systematically.
This preparation can broadly be classified into three areas.
1. Pre-stream preparation and testing
A large sporting event brings platforms a significant increase in traffic. Fans will often sign up just for the tournament, creating a sudden surge in concurrent viewership. While this brings in welcome additional revenue, sudden changes in scale can cause bottlenecks in unprepared systems. OTT platforms need to plan for big-ticket events well in advance.
To begin with, scale testing needs to be carried out to ensure that the stream stays smooth despite the additional load. As a rule of thumb, we recommend testing for double the estimated concurrency. In parallel, platform managers also need to scale-test other processes like DRM, payment gateways, signing up, and logging in.
Finally, the platform must take the precaution of partnering with multi-cloud infrastructure partners. This builds resiliency and acts as a fail-safe measure in the event of any issue.
2) Monitoring the in-stream user experience
The streaming platform also has to account for the diverse ecosystem of devices and networks that users are likely to be watching the stream on. This needs constant monitoring to ensure a viewer gets a consistent, uninterrupted streaming experience.
Technologies like Adaptive Bitrate Streaming do provide a stable user experience, but sometimes even this isn’t enough. A user’s Internet connection may be unstable, for example, leading to buffering or a poor-quality stream. Users, who may not be aware of this, often blame the streaming service for these issues.
To ensure the end-to-end integrity of the stream, the OTT platform needs to have a sophisticated monitoring system that detects last-mile errors in real-time and alerts users about them.
3) Managing latency
No live stream is actually live. For various reasons, there is always an element of delay, or latency, between when a camera captures an image and when it appears on an end user’s device. This delay was significant - almost two minutes – in the early days of streaming but is now down to around 15 seconds on most platforms.
Managing latency poses both challenges and opportunities for streaming platforms. The biggest challenge is that, while reduced, streaming’s latency still lags behind TV by approximately 12 to 14 seconds. This opens the possibility of spoilers marring the streaming experience – like the people next door cheering a home run on TV while the streaming viewer still hasn’t watched the pitch.
Real-time social media posts, too, can act as spoilers. But, if managed effectively, low latency opens up new avenues for platforms to monetise their content. Betting platforms, for example, need low latency to offer real-time betting, as latency issues would create an unequal playing field between linear TV and streaming viewers.
This is a big reason why many platforms close bets early. With low latency streaming, betting platforms can increase the number of bets placed and, consequently, rake in more revenues.
That said, low latency streaming is nascent and still has integration issues with features like DRM, watermarking, and server-side ad integration. It is also costly for most platforms, costing almost 10x more than regular streaming.
However, as with most technologies, costs are likely to come down, making low-latency streaming a standard in the coming years. By staying abreast of developments on this front, OTT platforms can seize opportunities to use low-latency streaming when appropriate and feasible.
A flawless live-streaming experience is crucial to acquiring and retaining fans
Live streaming of big-ticket sports events is what brings in viewers in droves. But in the age of digital-first conversations and real-time reviews, your reputation will precede you. So, the growth and sustainability of your sports OTT platform relies on how smooth and uninterrupted the streaming experience you offer is.
As you look to build your sports live-streaming property, be sure to keep the streaming experience at the top of your list of priorities. It could make or break your business.
(Our guest author is Manik Bambha, Co-Founder of ViewLift)