The electric feeling of a live sports event is infectious. The exhilaration of a hard-fought victory, or the anguish of defeat all stream through. As such broadcasting sporting events capitalize on that excitement so trying to replicate an in-stadium experience for fans streaming from home is a really lucrative opportunity.
How we consume sports content has evolved, from passively watching broadcasts with long delays to real-time interactive streaming. When done right, streaming live sports can elevate fans from simple spectators to fully involved participants. However, everything needs to flow naturally in order for that to work.
Let’s examine the recent history of internet-based live sports streaming and where it is going.
In the early days of the internet, the only way to deliver video was through plug-ins like RealPlayer, QuickTime or Windows Media Player. The problem is they had to be run outside of the browser or in some browsers with a very branded experience that lacked customization. The players themselves were also quite large as they were trying to support a wide array of codecs and features. Another issue was the fact that playing the video required downloading the file first which was especially painful given the slow bandwidth speeds of the early internet.
The Adobe Flash Player running a version of RTMP addressed many of these issues and enabled the earliest version of what we would recognize today as internet streaming video. The technology would further evolve with the addition of the video tag in HTML. Flash would encourage the spread of streaming video and the eventual creation of YouTube.
As a commercial application, the Adobe Media Server (originally called Flash Communication Server) was quite expensive at around $50,000 per CPU so an alternative was developed by reverse engineering RTMP. The resulting product was Red5, the open-source predecessor to Red5 Pro.
Despite RTMP (Real-Time Messaging Protocol) supporting low latency, Flash would eventually be phased out due to evolving industry trends including a shift away from burdensome plugins and the need for more mobile friendly formats. Of course, the infamous Steve Jobs “Thoughts on Flash” letter disparaging Adobe Flash certainly contributed to Flash falling out of favor. Other streaming protocols emerged such as HLS, MPEG-DASH, and CMAF. We have covered those in previous posts so we won’t get into them here.
Furthermore, one of the biggest issues with these protocols is the latency produced: 2-3 seconds on the low end and 30+ seconds on the high end. They offered a big advantage in terms of scalability, but the tradeoff was latency. High latency may not have been a very big issue when creating experiences that basically simulated TV. However, as modern expectations have fueled the growth of more interactive experiences for live sports streaming, the software used to build them must feature sub 500 milliseconds of real-time latency. However, you still needed to stream out to large audiences so needing to choose between latency and scalability is a problem.
Modern Day Streaming and the Demand for Interactive Live Streaming
The demand for interactive live streaming was already on the rise. The disruption of a global pandemic that shut down stadiums and locked people into their homes further promoted the need for it. You can’t pile together with your friends on bar stools or a couch to watch the game, let alone go to the stadium.
Thus, there are efforts underway to make virtual experiences as realistic as possible.
One such approach is hosting social media watch parties such as those held by Fox Sports during the 2020 U.S. College Football Championship. Users watching the game on TV or via OTT streaming watched the second-screen commentary on a Twitter stream that was augmented by real-time overlays displaying the scoreboard, social media posts, stat comparisons and much else.
Another development is the creation of fan walls where panels of screens show the audience members that are watching the event. Essentially this establishes a gigantic two-way stream between all the audience members and the athletes. The fans get to cheer–or jeer–as they normally would and the athletes experience the full energy of a live audience.
Sports betting is another time-sensitive aspect that live sports streaming software must address. The bets need to be accurate and registered correctly in the betting system. For the person placing a bet, they want the ability to change it at the last minute if they learn something new. For gambling organizations, they want to ensure that everything is fair. If anything is deemed to be unfair, consumers won’t want to continue betting and organizations could get in legal trouble. The change in US regulations around sports betting has only increased the demand for this feature with all the major sports leagues looking into it.
It goes without saying that these real-time experiences require real-time latency. Any sort of delay results in a stuttered, and unnatural experience lacking the flow of natural in-person interactions. Real-time latency also ensures that all the data stays synchronized. This applies to sports betting as well as watching a live stream as there is other data that must remain up to date such as the score and player statistics. Also of consideration is making sure that different devices and platforms are easily accessible preferably without a plugin.
All of these factors have led to the adoption of the web-standards based WebRTC protocol. Though WebRTC has been around for a while, its peer to peer nature led many people to think it was mostly just for point-to-point communication or a replacement to Skype. However, as calls for low latency increased, it was discovered that WebRTC is definitely scalable with the right back-end configuration. With sub 500 milliseconds of latency, plugin-free browser support, and encrypted connections, WebRTC is fully capable of handling the modern demands of live sports streaming.
The Future of True Real-Time Streaming
The next step in creating better experiences through live sports streaming software is making it more viable in terms of bandwidth consumption and costs.
Better live streaming experiences such as 360-degree viewing and personalized offerings will involve sending more data. Just because a user has unlimited data, doesn’t mean the mobile network will be able to handle it. Of course, a good number of consumers have increased access to fast and consistent internet. That still causes an issue for companies as they will have to pay for the transmission of all that data.
High data costs are a result of the common dependence on CDNs to deliver video content. As we have covered before, CDNs are not well suited for real-time live streaming applications. They mostly rely on slower HTTP-based protocols rather than WebRTC. Furthermore, they are designed for uni-directional streaming sending content out to viewers but struggle to send viewer data back to the broadcaster. These factors make interactivity rather difficult.
The solution is to rethink the model entirely. Caching of content across edges in traditional data centers no longer works. We’ve come up with a new and better alternative to CDNs for live video streaming called XDN or Experience Delivery Network. Instead of being limited to uni-directional high latency video streams the XDN supports multi-direction real-time video at huge scale.
The XDN can be deployed on cloud infrastructure to become more flexible and performant than physical data centers. Flexibility comes from the fact that server clusters can be spun up in different geographic locations. Furthermore, new cloud instances can be created in order to increase the number of users. Before a large event, there could be a large number of servers spun up to deal with the large numbers of viewers. If turnout is lower than expected, any extra servers can be spun down to avoid paying for unnecessary server instances.
It should be noted that a viable option for decreasing data consumption is increasing the amount of compression a video goes through as it is transported over the internet. Sending smaller packets of data will obviously decrease the rate of data consumption. However, there is currently a balancing act between increasing compression and increasing latency. Right now, with the exception of LCEVC, increasing compression also means increasing the amount of processing the data has to go through which delays how fast the data packet can be transmitted.
As these efforts to increase data availability continue, the market will continue innovating. Better live sports streaming software means more features and personalized content. Synchronized metadata unlocks the ability to create personalized experiences with unique content on their favorite team. This could include things like custom camera angles focusing on specific players. Additionally, increased personalization also means more focused and effective micro-targeted advertising.
This high degree of personalization is possible through WebRTC since the live broadcast is coming through a peer connection to that client from a single virtual machine rather than distributed across different servers like with an HLS based delivery model.
Some companies like Singular.live have seized on this technology to create customizable, graphic overlays like tickers and scores that will update in real-time. Skreens is another great example of a full feature video studio in the cloud. Such technology increases the potential for more interactive graphics displays for more personalized experiences. By replacing the traditional in-studio kind of graphics packages with a cloud-based offering, it also increases flexibility since video engineers don’t need to physically be in an event location.
When it comes to watching sports, ensuring that the live stream remains in real-time is important. Though Netflix has made watching TV and movies a little more individualistic, sports have remained a shared experience. The roar of the crowd, the chants, and exclamations of dismay are just as much a part of the game as the athletes. Replicating that experience to fans who can’t be at the game whether due to a pandemic or another reason, will increase the enjoyment of those watching and allow more to watch. Bringing fans together in small viewing sessions or inserting them directly into the stadium crowd with VR encourages not just interactivity but collaboration. Sports is about creating connections between fans both from the hometown and opposing sides. The joy of sport is what brings them together.
To find out more about how Red5 Pro is helping propel the future of live sports streaming, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or schedule a call.