Last year, Amazon announced that it had an average audience of 12.5 million viewers for its Thursday Night Football streams. Viewership is a critical measure of success for major sports streaming, but it should be a wake-up call for streaming service providers that more viewers watching means more critical eyes on the quality of the streams.
Sporting events—both traditional and esports—are some of the most-watched live-streaming media. They also have some of the most passionate and critical viewers. Poor video quality can ruin the entire viewing experience. According to Conviva's State of Streaming report, 75% of viewers said they would stop watching a service within four minutes if the viewing experience was poor.
Five Challenges For Sports Stream Quality
Today's media supply chains have numerous challenges delivering streams—especially sports programming. There are points of failure along almost every junction from creation to consumption.
This post will look at five challenges in sports live streaming and solutions that ensure your viewers are focused on the game and not on issues with the stream.1. Lack of visibility on the viewer experience
Live video workflows can be complex and include multiple stages on different tech stacks. Each of these stacks and stages use proprietary measurements and data, so streaming service providers don't have a unifying view or analytics to tell how well they perform regarding the perceptual video quality. Without a cross-workflow correlated metric, it's nearly impossible to gauge your video performance or identify where a video quality issue is occurring in the workflow.
More benchmarking is also needed to gauge viewer experience across delivery channels and content types. Read our blog post "Where Does YouTube TV Rank For Live Sports Video Quality? Part 1" to see how we benchmark the live sports streaming viewer experience.2. Complex distribution systems
Another significant challenge impacting viewer experience is the complexity of the content delivery supply chain. Today's media supply chains often contain multiple content processing, encoding, transmission, delivery, and format conversion stages. This number of potential failure points can make them prone to a wide range of issues impacting the viewer experience.
Learn more about the challenges in sports live streaming in our latest paper.
3. More manual than automated processes
Understanding where quality deteriorates along the media supply chain can be the difference between delivering the quality your sports subscribers demand and being the service whose subscription they cancel. But streaming workflows and quality assurance (QA) processes are often still being created, managed, and run manually. This can lead to both inefficient processes and increased costs.
One of the clearest examples of this challenge is quality-checking different sources, encoder settings, and ABR ladders. Media supply chains are often "hand-optimized" and use heuristics that work better for some content types and formats than others. Manual processes are expensive, selective, and prone to errors. Changes made to improve performance, such as encoding configurations, are often manually tested in a lab environment without the complete testing necessary to provide a consistent quality viewer experience.
4. Testing with Blindspots
While we're on the topic of testing, we know that encoders are tested in the labs of PayTV and streaming providers alike. However, this testing is limited, with just a few pieces of content being used. Sports content is some of the most varied, from swimming, motorsports, and basketball, to the NFL. Take the complexity of capturing the puck in hockey games as an example. Each sport’s content provides a different set of challenges for encoders. Sports like soccer (football) use a variety of camera angles, from wide panning shots to close-ups at the net. If the encoder settings are geared towards saving bits, you may deliver content that fails to include the action your viewers are tuning in for.
5. Garbage in, garbage out
Sports streaming services typically choose from at least two different source feeds for each game. Having the ability to measure which source has better video quality is crucial. As content goes through the various stages of the Live Workflow, there are more opportunities for it to degrade or worsen as it is processed. If only one source is available, it becomes even more critical to ensure that what YouTube TV is receiving from the live broadcasters does not have video quality issues that would deteriorate the quality even further.
Solving Sports Streaming Challenges
Trying to prevent and resolve quality issues with manual processes is more than inefficient—it is costly. Automating tools and processes can bring clarity and transparency across the media supply chain.
As content and viewership increase, automation can enable providers to scale operations and allow existing video operation teams to focus more on higher-value tasks.
Here are four areas where automation can help improve the sports streaming viewing experience and create operational efficiencies.
1. Benchmarking performance
SSIMPLUS® Live Monitor provides a simple and easy dashboard view where issues are detected and alerted before impacting the viewer experience. Operators can gain visibility into where and when the quality is affected and can provide proactive defect resolution that improves customer satisfaction and reduces churn.
2. Evaluating at each stage of the workflow
SSIMPLUS Live Monitor can assess performance across all the various stages of a workflow - from source to playout. This enables providers to have clear visibility of the quality of a stream as it's handed off along the workflow.
3. Practice makes perfect
Content encoding for delivery needs to be carefully crafted and adapted according to the encoding standard and implementation, delivery constraints, and targeted display devices. Automation can help identify sub-optimal encoding performance that often leads to subpar video quality for content with high temporal and spatial complexity, like live sporting events.
4. Defend Against Latency and Lip Sync
Live workflows based on adaptive bitrate technologies can suffer from high latency, but sports viewers expect low latency—especially for major events like Premier League Football or the World Series. SSIMWAVE Live Monitor measures latency in real-time to help optimize for lower latency while achieving the right video experience that can scale across wherever your viewers are catching the game. Lip Sync is another frustrating issue which Live Monitor detects and guards your live streams against.
On February 12th we measured the perceptual video quality of the Big Football Game for half a dozen streaming and broadcast providers. See our latest benchmarking results from the 2023 Big Game.