Big-Time Sports Streaming: How MLBAM, WWE Take on Large-Scale Live Events

The age of live-streaming high-profile events remains in its infancy, but one thing is clear: sports content is leading the way. Whether it’s the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the World Cup, or WrestleMania, fans now expect much more than just a linear telecast for big-time live sports events; they expect a top-tier streaming experience that isn’t plagued by constant buffering or a complicated authentication process. Providing a high-quality viewing experience for massive events is no easy task, but content owners are rapidly finding new ways to grapple with a multitude of technical hurdles, including endless formats and devices, large-scale encoding and transcoding, and reliable multiplatform distribution and authorization.

“The rubber meets the road when you talk about concurrency, so that is the right unit of measurement. How many people are actually simultaneously consuming that stream?” said MLBAM CTO/SVP of Content Technology Joe Inzerillo during a Streaming Media East panel earlier this month in New York City. “That is the biggest challenge from a scaling standpoint. Any time you get above 750,000 into the million range, that is when you have a really large-scale event. Between us and our clients, we will do those maybe a dozen times per year, and they are very different [from] our [average day-to-day streaming operations].”

WWE Network’s First Big Test: WrestleMania
In January, WWE launched its own digital network, a long-expected but nonetheless shocking move that made the company’s highest-profile pay-per-view events, including WrestleMania, available to stream for $10/month. In just seven months of official development, WWE was able to launch the new platform with more than 1,500 hours of VOD content across more than a dozen devices.

On April 6 in New Orleans, the new network faced its most significant challenge to date when it live-streamed WrestleMania, WWE’s most popular event, on the WWE Network. The event drew more than half a million live-streaming viewers and took place on the same night as the premiere of the wildly popular Game of Thrones on HBO Go, making for a very crowded Internet landscape that evening.

“You also have to take into account that our service is a premium service that people are paying for,” said Joe Lalley, VP, digital product strategy and operations, WWE. “It’s one thing to do a large-scale event for free, but it’s an entirely other thing to do a paid large-scale event, so quality really matters. We did an enormous amount of preparation to make sure we had adequate capacity on the CDN side and that customer service was ready to deal with any issues that may come up. We made sure we were monitoring everything, addressing issues before they came up.”

The MLBAM Video Model: Creating Once for Many Devices
MLB Advanced Media has blazed the trail for much of these efforts, not only introducing its own successful products like MLB.tv streaming and the MLB At Bat app but also serving as the streaming backbone for other major content providers, such as CBS Sports, ESPN, and WWE.

MLBAM hasn’t stopped there, however. It continues to show year-over-year revenue growth, has taken the lead in the buildout of MLB’s instant-replay operation, was recently estimated to be worth roughly $6 billion by Forbes (in an evaluation made during the recent Los Angeles Dodgers sale since each club owns an equal share of the company), and is expected to be worth $7.5 billion by the end of the year if the current growth rate continues, according to Inzerillo.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing live-sports-streaming outlets like MLBAM today is the proliferation of countless handheld, tablet, and OTT connected devices. MLBAM, for example, has made its products available on more than 400 platforms (when different combinations of hardware architecture and operating systems are taken into account) — a dizzying number that goes well beyond just the U.S. market.

“The market is enormously fragmented,” said Inzerillo. “That said, it really is just about making one copy of a video [do] as much as possible. So we make a full set of HLS [Apple’s HTTP Live Streaming], and we make a little bit of [Adobe] Flash for legacy purposes on the desktop. And that’s it. So we don’t make [MPEG-DASH]; we don’t make [Microsoft Smooth Streaming]; we don’t make any of this other stuff.”

Instead of attempting to cater to countless formats when streaming, MLBAM has opted to try to bring clients to HLS as a standard. The two key reasons for MLBAM’s significant commitment to HLS are simple.

“First, it destroys the economics of it if you have to have a gazillion copies of stuff out there; it costs money to make them and monitor them,” said Inzerillo. “Second, when you are doing a very large-scale event — around a million [viewers] — cache efficiency becomes essential. So, if you have two formats, you divide your audience in half; if you have four, you divide it [into quarters]. That would directly effect the cache efficiency. So the only way that the Internet can survive those types of massive events is to be able to reuse that singular stream as many times as you possibly can to allow the CDNs to do what they do well.”