Live Sports Streaming at Scale

Live Sports Streaming at Scale
Thomas Decieux, Head of Sport – EMEA & APAC, Harmonic

The massive growth in live streaming over the past decade has already transformed sports media. Yet there is little sign that the pace of that change, or the challenges it creates, will be letting up any time soon.

Thomas Decieux, Head of Sport for EMEA & APAC at Harmonic, noted early in his ISC presentation that the company’s clients keep setting new streaming records.

In February, Super Bowl LVII became the most streamed event in the history of Fox Sports. Last year, Beijing 2022 was the most streamed Winter Olympics to date in the US, with 4.2 billion streaming minutes representing a 78% leap for NBC compared with PyeongChang 2022.

Harmonic helps its partners to stream over 3,000 live events a month, using cloud-based technologies that are “very elastic” and “allow us to build resiliency”.

At the heart of Harmonic’s offer is VOS360, a full-service, end-to-end streaming infrastructure product focused on video processing and delivery. This operates globally around the clock, which is crucial to delivering at scale.

For Major League Baseball games in the US, streaming platforms receive 1,500 requests to join per second – or around 100,000 per minute. For an NFL game, that figure can jump to 4,000 requests per second.

With 90% of US households streaming at high quality, that puts a huge premium on stability.  “It’s about the basics and getting the basics right,” says Decieux. “The user will pay attention to that.”

Guaranteeing that reliability is “not just about the technology, it also requires a lot of preparation”. In this NFL example, Harmonic consulted with the client and prepared the system for 10,000 joins per second.

The Fifa World Cup brought home the breadth of challenges that exist in this sector. Harmonic had 15 VOS360 customers covering the tournament and deployed systems across nine cloud regions.

That event brings its own unique pressures. Four years is “an eternity” in digital media terms, with audience expectations moving on dramatically in between. At the same time, new innovations can be brought into plans just months before kick-off, while every day can have a different storytelling prerogative.

Ultra high-definition (UHD) streaming, Dolby Atmos and HDR were also adopted much more widely in this World Cup than any previous edition, placing further strain on cloud networks. To address this, Harmonic deployed geo-redundancy, where mission-critical components or infrastructure are spread across multiple locations to compensate for any outage, and source redundancy, where video is ingested from more than one source in case the primary one goes down.

This is an era in which several key lessons have been learned. Good planning and preparation are vital, resiliency is paramount, and quality matters when “fans will share their experiences on social media”.

“For us,” Decieux says, “it means constant investment in how we compress the video and how we optimise for quality.”

Innovation must scale as well, particularly with partners reliant on ad tech that has to reach their audiences effectively. Harmonic handles around 10 million ad insertions into content every day.

The company also emphasises the importance of tailored DevOps services for its clients, some of whom may need dedicated features or additional support on setup and testing. Streaming platforms, increasingly, are having to think beyond the live event.

One such client is RallyTV – a new global home for rally motorsports which operates as a 24/7 channel. Managing that programming, distribution and video library access is another function of VOS360.

With FAST channels – free, ad-supported streaming television – becoming an increasingly influential model in the sports industry, those technical capabilities are now fundamental. There is an expectation that services will be able to mix VOD and linear consumption, leveraging catalogues and live events while monetising streams through the effective integration of advertising.

It is a space that is constantly evolving to meet needs that may only just have been identified.