Are you fed up with that 20-plus second delay between your online stream and live TV? Here's why latency happens and what's being done to fix it.

By Jacob Feldman
October 25, 2018

Welcome back to SCREENSHOTS, a weekly report from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet.


Let's start this week with a "So Very 2018" story.

To celebrate the start of the NBA season, Bill Simmons and The Ringer staff streamed 24 hours of programming during the 2018 NBA Previewpalooza Watch Along, culminating in a watch party for the opening night Sixers-Celtics game.

Fourteen minutes in, Simmons is discussing his son’s questionable “Fortnite trainer” during a commercial break. As editorial director Chris Ryan begins to ask for fan questions on Twitter—and staffer Jason Concepcion tries to sush office dog Milton—a voice off-screen interrupts to say that someone just hit a home run for the Red Sox. “What?” Simmons responds. “I’m watching on my iPad…. Am I on like the latest delay ever?”

The YouTube chat begins filling up with comments—"bill is about to lose it” and “grand slam mofo”—before, amidst a Spurs discussion 30 seconds later, Simmons lets out a wide-eyed, “Oh man.” Jackie Bradley Jr.’s dinger isn’t fully addressed on-screen until 80 seconds after it’s first mentioned.

Two minutes later, responding to a string of requests in the live chat, Chris Ryan spoke again. “Just so people know, if they are watching along or if they are trying to sync their stream up, we’re at 1:10 left in the first quarter,” he said. “It’s 21-17 Boston. Ben Simmons just scored.”

Bill Simmons was at Fenway Park on Wednesday night for Game 2 (and on Instagram, as it were), free from anyone spoiling the action. The rest of us, meanwhile, are left to calibrate our group texts, manage our social media check-in policy, and cross our fingers that a roar from the bar down the street doesn’t forewarn of the next grand slam.

Ten years after online streaming was introduced to much of the sports world at the Beijing Olympics, the experience has improved immensely. More content is available via the internet—Fox Sports has now streamed five World Series—and it’s increasingly accessible in more places, most notably with the NFL relaxing its mobile viewing restrictions this season. In many cases, the pricing has become more fan-friendly too, as the NBA and Turner Sports have introduced single-game purchase options. The offerings are of higher quality and significantly more stable than they used to be as well, sometimes offering a superior experience compared to what you could get with a cable or antenna. And yet! In the year 2018, there remains one way in which our streams are still stuck in the past—literally.

For the most part, online presentations of games run 15 seconds to a minute behind the traditional television broadcasts, which themselves air several seconds after live action. Simple data can be transferred near instantaneously these days, allowing apps like Draftkings Sportsbook to offer pitch-by-pitch odds during the World Series that come in ahead of the play on broadcast television. But in the company’s daily fantasy product, scoring updates are intentionally delayed by 10 seconds to prevent fans from having a touchdown spoiled while checking on their score. Even still, Draftkings Sportsbook product lead Dan Hannigan-Daley says he does his best to avoid checking his roster during the action. Based in Toronto and watching NFL RedZone on DAZN, the stream is simply too far behind reality to take the risk.

DraftKings CEO Jason Robins recently said he’d like to one day offer integrated game streams alongside bets in the app. But right now, syncing a high-quality game presentation with a companion live data feed simply isn’t an option. Just ask Twitter.

Beyond limiting viewing experiences, the streaming delay also has a psychological impact. Though I haven’t found the perfect study illustrating this scientifically (if it’s out there, let me know!), it’s widely believed that watching a game after it airs doesn’t generate the same emotional buzz. One explanation for that: You know that you likely would have already heard about any truly incredible moments that could have transpired. Today, that’s true even if you are just a minute behind. Either your phone is buzzing uncontrollably and the sense of shock is curbed, or the phone is silent, and nothing magical is on the way. Utter surprise or delight is impossible regardless.

“At the end of the day it still comes down to physics,” fuboTV CTO Geir Magnusson Jr. says, explaining why latency persists. As connected as our world seems, the video still has miles to cover between the glass of a stadium camera and the screen of your viewing device, as well as a series of technical steps that get it there. After being captured, videos are transformed a few seconds at a time into a file format that can be sent across the internet. Then, that video is replicated several times at different qualities, so it can be viewed smoothly with different internet connections. All of those copies are then deployed across a sequence of servers around the country. Individual devices then request the series of files, each a few seconds long, to load and play.

In itself, the process can be completed rapidly. The delay largely comes from computers at those steps waiting to have two (or more) chunks before passing one on to ensure the final product appears as a consistent stream rather than being regularly interrupted by a buffering bar. If a chunk is six seconds long and it makes four stops on the journey, that’s 24 seconds of lag right there. But industry research suggests viewers prefer that delay to the possibility of a feed cutting out momentarily due to a failure somewhere in the chain.

Two additional factors contribute to the complexity.

First, each streaming service has adopted a slightly different method for delivering video, and each device—from iPhone to Android to laptop—demands a different format. That partially explains why the delay can differ from device to device or service to service. fuboTV, for instance, delivers the shortest delay on average according to FOMOPOP’s testing. Magnusson attributed that to the company’s custom-built player, which will get more aggressive on better internet connections, as well as the service’s fine-tuning of which servers it uses in different geographic areas. But every decision in this space comes with a trade-off, and FOMOPOP’s report found fubo’s reliability to be “below average.”

Second, ads. Verizon Digital Media Services builds solutions for big-name companies like ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as in-house brands like Yahoo Sports. VDMS president Ralf Jacob says his company has gone from 60 seconds of delay in a basic case at the start of this year to 30 seconds now. A bulk of the remaining delay is built in for the sake of advertisers. One of the big reasons for media companies to offer streams is the ability to individually target advertisements, unlike on traditional TV. But that process takes time and involves a separate server workflow—and it takes even more time if you want to be safe and make sure a program cuts to and back from ad breaks smoothly. Still, Jacob says, having recently met with his team to lay out the 2019 roadmap, he hopes to offer 15 seconds of latency by this time next year, including the ad insertion elements. That would bring streams in line with cable.

“When we start getting into forms of more interactive gaming [the delay] is going to be everything,” Yahoo Sports general manager Geoff Reiss says. “Right now it’s early and I think there is a slightly greater degree of consumer tolerance for it than there will be over time.”

Progress comes via a pair of interrelated processes. Just like any other tech spec, the method for transferring video continues to improve, with new acronyms like CMAF and HEVC representing advancements that will make the movement of clips even faster and smoother. And as that happens, companies can be more aggressive about the length of the clip size they are sending. Peter Chave, who helps build OTT solutions for customers at Akamai, a cloud delivery network, says most are now using two-second chunks. That alone can cut latency by two-thirds but is only useful if the process is stable enough to execute each step reliably within the given timeframe.

Jacob says VDMS has also found time-savings by cutting out some precautious redundancies, implemented when the internet was less stable. As companies continue to own more of the process (think Comcast controlling the network as well as the content via NBC), even more streamlining is possible. Overall, Chave chalks up the improvement to distributors “starting to treat OTT as a first-class citizen rather than add-on.” Connected devices still represent less than 10% of most sports audiences at any time, but that number is growing.

All of that said, we’ve been here before. In 2017, executive media and technology advisor John Bishop said, “I think this year will be the year of latency, where internet latency becomes less than what cable latency is.” Having spent two decades in the industry, Bishop has seen the internet catch up to television on a number of fronts and pass it on several, too. But online delivery still demands balancing quality, cost, and latency, he says. The only thing that will get companies to prioritize the delay is consumer demand.

One day, viewers could have a choice between a nearly live presentation with limited features and a more luxury viewing experience that is slightly delayed, says Carlo De Marchis, the chief product and marketing officer at Deltatre, which works with organizations like the NFL and ATP. If you’re watching a national sporting event, being caught up with everyone else is more important than when you’re enjoying a niche competition.

Right now though, the bigger challenge is the constantly increasing quality of streams. Each time the offering goes from standard definition to high definition to 4k, latency increases and the engineers are forced to rethink the process. So, even during a wave of enthusiasm about the end of delays, it’s prudent to maintain a hesitant mindset. That’s ok though, right? Streamers, after all, are used to a wait-and-see approach.

AROUND THE HORN EMBRACES AUGMENTED REALITY

From a new studio to new music to a whole new interactive experience, it’s clear that ESPN’s Around the Horn is getting a serious brand refresh—and that’s before discussing its augmented reality play.

ESPN senior director of original content Alex Tyner said the re-imagining began two years ago and gained momentum when the company opened a new studio in lower Manhattan. The changes will be unveiled as Around the Horn celebrates its 16th birthday on Nov. 5. The show has lasted this long by highlighting the relationship between a rotating cast of four columnists and host Tony Reali.

Executive producer Erik Rydholm didn’t want to sacrifice those moments of connection for modern gimmickry, but the development team eventually convinced him that some new gadgets could actually enhance the bonds. Reali will be able to send every other panelist away to have a one-on-one conversation, for instance, or bring two together for a debate. In total his new “control center” includes a catalog of over 30 moves and effects, many of which will give the show a fresh, fun look by—for example—covering a speaker with a pile of math symbols if he or she gets too numbers-heavy. It sounds like Reali is as excited about the new features as anyone. In total, I’d peg the new design as somewhere between the now-defunct SportsNation and HQ Trivia.

What excites me most is the similarities with that latter product. While it won’t be launched with the new studio, Around the Horn will release a second-screen experience for the show, giving fans access to behind-the-scenes footage and—potentially—the ability to pick their own winner. And if fans could take a stab at Reali’s job, why not let them play the panelist role as well (we’re deep in speculation mode at this point, to be clear).

Seeing the new setup, it’s not hard to imagine a fan or celebrity popping up alongside the pros in an orange or purple box, or maybe a fan-vs.-fan version emerging as a mobile experience. Around the Horn’s studiomate First Take has already experimented with interactive engagement, earning nearly 200,000 followers on its First Take Your Take Facebook page. Something along those lines could keep ATH en vogue for another 16 years.

THE OTHER L.A. TEAM PLAYING FOR A WORLD TITLE

It might not be Dodgers-Red Sox, but Chris Hopper still has as good of a matchup as he could ask for in Sunday’s League of Legends World Championships semifinal. LA-based Cloud9 will be the first North American team to play for a spot in the finals since 2011, and they’ll battle a European opponent, Berlin-based Fnatic. As the head of esports in North America for LoL developer Riot Games, Hopper will be watching closely, but he’s also already set his sights on the 2019 North American season.

This year was a big one for League of Legends in the U.S. Cloud9 was one of ten teams granted franchise status as the league switched from a relegation model to a more typical American structure in order to induce investment and create longterm sponsorship opportunities. In September, LoL announced its first ever global sponsor, Mastercard. Worlds is being carried on ESPN+.

Meanwhile, Riot has become more aggressive marketing the competition outside of traditional esports circles. “This is our first time getting involved in print advertising, TV advertising, and multi-channel media,” Hopper said. There was even a League of Legends ad featuring Gordon Hayward shown during the opening game of the NBA season. “I don’t think we are explicitly going after traditional sports fans,” Hopper said. “It’s more anyone who would consider themselves a gamer. Anyone under the age of 35 or 40 probably grew up with a console in their home, so gaming is a more ubiquitous form of entertainment.” Riot, which runs the leagues and controls the game, has traditionally viewed the competitions as ways to retain players—to keep them interested and get them playing more. But it’s recently shifted its strategy to also view the tournament as a way to bring new players into the fold. Having a first world champion from America would only help those efforts, no?

“It’s definitely a plus,” Hopper said. “In the long term, we need the region to be viewed as competitively viable…. I’m working with the owners to develop a league that’s going to be around for decades. I’m not as specifically concerned with whether or not we’re successful in 2018. We’re set up to be competitively viable for 20 years.”

NFL NETWORK’S UPCOMING EXPERIMENT

“The four-man booth hasn’t been attempted for a good reason,” Rich Eisen said Tuesday. When the NFL Gameday Morning host was offered a chance to call Eagles-Jaguars in London, he was excited to return to a football booth. “But,” he said, “my initial thought was, ‘What a bummer it’s going to be in a four-man booth.’” However, he added, following a pair of rehearsals with Michael Irvin, Steve Mariucci and Kurt Warner, he’s feeling bullish about how Sunday will go. “I was extremely surprised with how smooth and well it went in our rehearsals,” he said.

You can hear more from Eisen on the SI Media Podcast.

Producer Mark Teitelman said the game—which starts at 9:30 a.m. eastern—will visually look like a typical Sunday broadcast, but I’d expect the commentary to have a more laid back vibe than a standard call if the group’s pregame shows are anything to go by. That’s something NBA presentations have played with via Players Only games.

SIGHTLINES

News and notes from across the sports media landscape

• The Clippers have launched a new augmented reality streaming option. Here’s a relevant line: "At launch, the augmented reality experience happens on a two-minute delay to complete the computer processing, which compares to a delay of about 30 seconds in the traditional TV broadcast. Ultimately, Second Spectrum plans to narrow that gap to single-digits.”

• The Wall Street Journal reported that Russia-linked Twitter accounts inflamed the NFL’s anthem controversy

• NBC Sports’ new ‘Snow Pass’ includes 700 hours of live winter sports for $70.

THANK YOU, INTERNET…

...for letting Darius Miles tell the Darius Miles story.

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