The Challenges of Live Sports Streaming

This blog post is based on the webinar of the same name, recorded on November 19th, 2020. The webinar featured Glenn Goldstein (Lumen), Alain Pellen (Harmonic), and Nikolai Keychenko (Verimatrix). It was moderated by Streaming Video Alliance Executive Director, Jason Thibeault.


Live sports streaming is online video’s current big battleground. Rights holders are both scrambling to license their content to OTT providers and have even set up their own streaming offerings. Some leagues, like the NBA and the NHL, have been streaming for years so this is nothing new. But a lot of other leagues around the globe, both small and large, are waking up to the draw of live streaming sports. With that in mind, it is important to understand the challenges facing streaming platforms and technology vendors who are offering this kind of content to their viewers.


Challenge #1: Scalabilty Across the Workflow

One of the key technical challenges, and probably the most important, is scalability. Although there are a host of other challenges, like low latency and fast startup time, scalability is the primary problem to solve. Because live events are happening in real time, they will often draw far more crowds than traditional content. And when there is a big event during a game or match, that can draw even more people from around the world. Being unable to address this kind of scalability can result in a poor viewing experience as resources become taxed. But scalability doesn’t just apply to the ability to serve high-quality content to a lot of users, it also applies to other services within the workflow, like entitlement. For example, Verimatrix is working on a technique called Upfront Provisioning which will pre-load a license at the start of the event so that content authorization doesn’t impact startup time. Thankfully, there are technologies and techniques available to ensure scalability. Peer-to-peer is proving to be a legitimate way to improve scalability for live sporting events. Common Media Application Format (CMAF) also shows a lot of promise as it can greatly improve cache efficiency, although the lack of device support right now impedes its adoption and usage.


Challenge #2: Low Latency Throughout the Network

Another challenge, which gets a lot of media attention, is low latency. And although this is important, it really depends upon the use case. For example, what’s “good enough” latency for general live sporting events? The consensus is two to four seconds, which is the same latency where most cable TV broadcasts operate today, and is readily achievable with HLS or DASH. But part of the problem with latency isn’t just delivery, it’s throughout the workflow. There are many steps in between content acquisition and delivery, such as encoding, transcoding, and packaging that can add latency to the overall experience. And, of course, the access network can add latency as well, depending upon how the network operator has optimized their traffic flow.


Challenge #3: Adapting Security Measures for Live Streaming

But network challenges, like scalability and low latency, aren’t the only issues streaming providers need to address. Security is still a major problem. From credential sharing to content theft, streaming providers must assure the security of their investment, as live sports rights can often cost millions of dollars just for a single geographic region! One of the more recent trends are copycat apps on mobile platforms. Users download the app which accesses the same stream as the real app, but all the revenue for watching the stream goes to the pirates responsible for the copycat app. Part of the problem in addressing this challenge is that a lot of the tools developed to secure VOD aren’t applicable to live streaming. There is a lot of innovation happening in this space, but theft is still happening. Up and coming technologies, like Blockchain, may be applicable down the road. For example, Blockchain might be used to block copycat apps from accessing a stream. But streaming providers such as Lumen are also working with more conventional approaches, like unique manifests for each user, to help curb piracy of live streaming content.


Other Live Streaming Considerations

As streaming operators think about how to improve the viewing experience for their live sports events, one thing that is important to consider is segment duration. Harmonic, for example, proposes using a four second segment size, although it ultimately depends upon the use case and the customer. The ultimate issue with segment duration is the player buffer and the network. A lower segment size can reduce latency, but there is little in the player buffer in the event of a network disconnection, meaning that the viewer stops seeing any content while the connection is re-established, where if the segment size is larger, and there’s more in the buffer, the viewer can keep watching out of the buffer while a connection is re-established. For low latency, two second segment duration is generally seen as the lowest feasible option without causing other complications.


Even as streaming operators are struggling with these technical challenges, they are looking forward as well, exploring how to change the nature of the viewing experience for live sporting content. VR, AR, and XR are all being tested. ViacomCBS has done a lot here but we aren’t yet at the inflection point. There is a lot of technology out there and price points have dropped, but people still aren’t using it for live sports. Some streaming operators have begun to include multiple camera angles and integrated chat, but there isn’t yet widespread demand. It’s going to take more time before some of the experiences promised by Microsoft Hololens and MagicLeap, allowing the viewer to have multiple screens up in the environment, reach a massive audience to make them viable. The challenge of adoption always weighs upon the narrow profit margins of live sports licensing.


Bringing Live Sports Streaming Into the Mainstream

What will we see through 2021? Probably much of the same: dealing with pandemic driven behaviors such as flash crowds, when a large group of viewers suddenly connect to the same stream, and consistently large online audiences. People are going to continue to watch content from home, especially as they are working outside the office now, and streaming operators will launch features, like co-viewing, to support this new normal. Live sports streaming providers, whether incumbent OTT operators or hyper-focused services like DAZN and Fubo, will continue to try to optimize the experience to support scalability and resilience. If the industry wants these streaming services to be a replacement for incumbent broadcasting, then they must operate as people expect and be able to address sudden spikes, in a secure manner, without failing.


You can tune in to the full webinar on demand here.


Executive Director at | Website

Jason is the Executive Director of the Streaming Video Technology Alliance, the international technical association for streaming video which brings companies from across the streaming ecosystem together to collaborate on technical solutions to delivering high-quality video at scale. In this role, he runs day-to-day operations, finances, member recruitment, strategy, and evangelizes the organization at events around the world. He is also the co-founder of a big data startup, Jason is a contributing editor at Streaming Media Magazine and has written several books.