5 Tips from the Production Room: How to Live Stream Like a Pro
By Carlos Rojas, Director of Live Event Operations
Today’s streaming technologies can help you deliver your sporting event with broadcast quality — even if you aren’t a major broadcaster with a big budget. However, there’s much more to live sports streaming than buying the latest camera and encoder. Here are 5 tips to help you stream your next live sports event like a pro.
#1 Encode the live stream for reliability and quality
Many mainstream sporting event broadcasters transmit the camera signals from the venue to an offsite encoding facility served by a satellite or fiber connection. This setup comes with high-quality transmission facilities that can be used to create a geo-redundant architecture for maximum resiliency — but this quality comes with a cost.
Ingest flexibility is a major advantage of streaming live events and can open new possibilities for cost optimization without sacrificing signal quality. Even large broadcasters are starting to take advantage of these new technologies. But you should take care to understand the risks and balance them against your need for fault tolerance. Here are some things to consider:
- Onsite encoding eliminates transmission costs by encoding the production at the venue itself, using existing internet bandwidth. Laptop to server-based options allow you to stream directly from the event site. However, an onsite appliance creates a single point of failure due to the single egress circuit and device being used for distribution, so depending on the event, you may want to build redundancy into the onsite infrastructure.
- RTMP’s lower cost of packetized transport allows for greater event volume coverage with respectable picture quality. A rate of 3.5 Mbps delivers an acceptable HD picture resolution, and a personal hotspot or the venue WiFi may have the available bandwidth to transport the stream for distribution. However, compared to the robustness of satellite, fiber, forward error correction, or TCP/IP handshakes, RTMP is subject to packet loss that could impact the end-user experience.
You can still achieve broadcast quality, optimize costs, and build resiliency and reliability without procuring satellite and fiber facilities. Encoders that use commodity hardware such as a laptop or server will keeps costs low. Look for providers that can provision with resiliency both on location and in the cloud. Ensure they can be managed remotely by your live events team.
#2 Decorate the live feed to optimize monetization
You can deliver a broadcast-quality streaming experience as your event goes to ad break by using server-side ad insertion (SSAI) technology. SSAI enables broadcast-quality ad viewing experiences by equalizing audio and video quality between ads and the live event content.
SCTE is the key to making SSAI work. SCTE signals are written into the manifest and are used to trigger ads. Broadcasters typically make code changes to their automation playout system to keep their streamed ad calls and playback in sync with their traditional broadcast or have control personnel manually insert SCTE markers for autonomous commercial breaks. When done without SCTE, the stream uses an API call to add a marker.
As you “decorate” the live stream for ad breaks, these markers become a part of the VOD asset and can be used to extend the economic value of the sporting event, enabling you to dynamically change out ads for VOD viewers. This is helpful because many of the ads and promos that you run during a live event are not the same ads you want to run if you offer the program as a VOD. You may also want to adjust the time of the breaks since viewers of a VOD program are less tolerant of longer ad breaks.
Look for a streaming platform that provides you with the flexibility to dynamically change the markers to suit your needs. Also, look for a streaming platform that uses an SCTE detector, so if the stream already has the markers, you can use SSAI, your campaign or your program content if you haven’t sold the inventory. You don’t have to take ads that are the original broadcast. Use the time to promote yourself, your product, your event, or the series.
#3 Estimate your live stream audience — and double it
Regardless of your event, the majority of live event viewers join within minutes of the event starting. So your live event infrastructure must be able to scale up fast in minutes, or even seconds. For most first-time rights holders, estimating peak viewers is extremely challenging. Despite your best efforts to model viewership, things can change dramatically.
Expected audience size also comes into play when working with your content delivery network (CDN) partner(s). For large events, your CDN will want to know your viewership estimate so they can make capacity reservations and possibly make configurations, so your content is available to your viewers in the right regions during the crucial seconds such as when the game starts and after halftime. These factors can help you estimate your audience:
- Historical Metrics: Viewership numbers from a past event is a good starting point to estimate upcoming live and VOD sessions.
- Client Forecast: A combination of historical data, as well as client internal numbers (whether through marketing or advertisement), helps set an anticipated forecast.
- Significance of Event: Events such as a championship game or a rival matchup are more apt to garnish higher viewership, especially within the region of each team.
- Time of Broadcast: Weekend games can easily command a 50–100% increase in viewership. Games broadcast in the evening in a particular region may lose 25–50% of the audience depending on the time zone impact.
- Geographical Coverage: Distributed, highly concentrated, or perhaps a combination of both? Work with your CDN, so they are prepared to scale in the appropriate regions.
Cost structures for streaming service providers can vary considerably. If audience size is an unknown variable, look for a provider that offers a variable rate structure with the freedom to scale. Also, look at whether the provider locks you into a minimum or tiered rate structure.
#4 Scale your live stream session management
Coupling high-quality ads with OTT’s 1 to 1 targeting makes for a high-quality viewing experience. If your live sport has geographical restrictions, you’ll also need 1 to 1 session management to manage blackouts. Both of these important live streaming functions are supported by the manifest server in your streaming platform or service.
However, for live sporting events, it is essential that the manifest services are designed to scale. Without the proper headroom, overburdened manifest servers can become a point of failure in your streaming workflow and leave customers staring at a blank screen.
Putting your manifest servers in the cloud with options for scalability can work, but it can be difficult to get this right. Viewers of live sports tend to show up in large numbers all at once. More will join when they see a tweet or notification that their home team is making an epic comeback against a competitive rival.
As explained in point 3, streaming services can help you absorb the risk of underprovisioning and the cost of overprovisioning. Look for a service that has a proven track record of not only scaling delivery but also for scaling manifest infrastructure for live events.
#5 Prepare your live stream for the worst
Live events rarely start and end on time. Being prepared for the unpredictability of live events means thinking through all the possible scenarios and having a backup plan that keeps your audience informed and engaged during delays or programming glitches.
Backup programming can further extend viewer engagement when geoblocking is needed or when weather issues take a turn for the worse. Longer form content such as related sports highlights, athlete documentaries, and recent news video are good options. Having these ready to go can maximize viewership during and after the delay.
Slates (a sill or animated looping image) keep audiences informed for a variety of scenarios. Create slates in advance so that they are well designed. Include a selection of graphics, background audio, and music that reinforces your brand identity. Consider creating the following slates to start:
- Pre-event slates to alert the audience that the stream is about to begin
- Post-event slates alerting viewers that the program has concluded
- Inappropriate content cover-ups during the broadcast
- Event not available in your area slate for geo-blocking restrictions
- Delay slates for technical or weather issues
Look for streaming services that can help you prepare for these situations and can quickly insert alternative programming or slates as needed. Be sure the provider can top up a full-screen graphic, properly alert your audience of the event status, and switch to a different live feed if the primary feed is delayed or canceled without updating a URL. A service that can quickly handle any of these situations helps ensure you don’t lose viewers.
Bringing it all together
Live event operators know that a successful live event doesn’t happen by chance. Experienced specialists work together in advance to prepare for any last-minute changes or technical challenge. In these moments, creating a seamless viewing experience is more art than science, as talent and experience come together to resolve any challenge. With the right planning and preparation, you too can build and deliver an edge-of-your-seat, buzzer-beating experience for your next live sporting event!
We are here to help you with your next live event. We work with some of the world’s largest broadcasters, rights holders, and production companies. We’ve delivered more than 100,000 live events to millions of viewers, from the biggest leagues and championships to the smallest high school matchups. For more information about our live event capabilities, visit our website.