The second NFL International Series game in London of 2015 was supposed to be a showcase for the NFL’s digital ambitions. However, Yahoo Sports first foray into NFL Streaming was a less than spectacular showcase for either the sport in the UK, or for digital distribution.
In the past few years, the NFL has seen an explosion of international popularity. A big part of this has come of the back of digital distribution through services like NFL Game Pass and through the growing popularity of the International Series in London. So it was only a matter of time before the NFL decided to go all in, and make an NFL game available online to a digital broadcaster, and the International Series seemed like an obvious choice of game to test the waters with.
While numerous online broadcasters expressed an interest in the game, in the end it was Yahoo who won the rights to the game for a reported $20 million.
The decision was something of a surprise to many, given that Yahoo are not known for either live streaming nor for sports coverage, and it showed on both counts.
On the coverage side of things, things were not bad—Yahoo farmed out the game production to regular NFL broadcasters CBS Sports, and it was obvious. The commentary team of Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon are an established CBS pairing, and, while recoloured to Yahoo Purple, the graphics and production were all CBS too.
However, this blessing was also a curse. Harlan and Gannon are CBS’s fourth string commentary team, not bad, but hardly the sort of headline commentators who would make the broadcast a true showcase. And the use of CBS’s on-screen graphics meant there was little to make the Yahoo’s stream stand out, and when Yahoo’s brand was front-and-centre, it really felt jarring.
However, it was really on the streaming side where things got bad for Yahoo.
Unlike heavyweights Google/YouTube, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon—who combined make up to 85% of all internet streaming traffic according to several calculations—Yahoo does not have a significant streaming pedigree, and many wondered if they would have the network backbone to handle a worldwide stream. Early in the game, it quickly became apparent that they did not.
While many people had good quality, stable streams on all kinds of devices, many, many others did not. And the quality of your stream seemed to have little, if anything, to do with the quality of your internet connection.
While we saw plenty of people raving about the quality of their stream on Twitter, many others, ourselves included, had a much worse experience.
We stream games almost exclusively now. When NFL Game Pass works—which has fortunately worked without any major incident or outage this season—we find the quality of their streams at the highest bandwidth settings (720p at 60fps) to be of even better than broadcast TV, given that certain devices support 60fps video, which no broadcaster in the UK does. Since we stream games so often we’re well used to the used to just what streaming should look like on our devices.
NFL Game Pass, our streaming provider of choice give us consistent, high quality streams, with virtually no delay from the US Broadcast, at a consistent quality, with little-to-no lag or buffering once the stream starts. On my home broadband connection (a pitiful 12 megabit ADSL line) I can watch the highest quality broadcast—a 4.5 megabit 720p60 stream—while my wife watches Netflix, and I check fantasy and other sports news sites with no problems.
Consistently, the Yahoo streams just came up short. Because I was out-and-about during the early game, I was limited to watching the game on my iPhone 5c. However, this came with some added benefits since it meant I would be using my stable 4G LTE mobile connection through Three, which is actually quite a bit quicker than my home broadband—full 4g signal regularly tops 40mb/s
While we were able to connect pretty simply at first, the stream was far from the high quality we were used to from the NFL Game Pass app. Using both the NFL on Yahoo website, and the Yahoo Sports app, the results were the same.
The stream would start with a low quality stream, but would quickly buffer some higher quality video, and kick up the quality noticeably. However, after between 10-60 seconds of this high quality stream, it would begin to buffer again, freezing and stuttering, before reverting back to a low quality stream for the next 30 or so seconds. It would then often revert back to the higher quality stream, but never for very long.
The stream was a cycle of blurry and low frame frame-rate—generally only 15 FPS—followed by high a high quality stream, which would then start to freeze, stutter and jump regularly—sometimes the audio would continue, while the video would freeze, often, however, both audio and video would freeze sometimes for up to a second or more before jumping forward—then going back to a low quality stream and jumping back to near-live.
The only time the stream was stable was at low-resolutions, but in this case reading the scores and down-and-distance was often difficult, if not impossible, and tracking the ball in flight was usually a fools errand. The high quality stream was all too often like watching a slideshow.
Even during slow-motion replays, it was often next to impossible to keep track of the action due to the poor picture quality, and jerky inconsistent framerate.
Video by Cork Gaines—We regularly experienced the same the same jerky, stuttering video.
At one point, I was convinced the problem had to be with my internet connection, but a quick check with speedtest.net confirmed that I consistently had between 20-40 MB download speed, even with only 3 or 4 bars of 4G (although I did notice a slightly higher latency than expected—up to 80ms ping time on occasion). Switching off 4G gave me a full strength 3G connection with lower latency—a consistent 15ms ping time—and a stable 15mb/s download speed. But things were just as bad on Yahoo regardless of whether I was using 3G or 4G.
To completely rule out the possibility of my connection being the problem, I opened up the stream in NFL Game Pass. As expected, the Game Pass stream allowed me to watch the game at the highest quality setting available in the app (a 1.5 megabit stream, which was lower than the theoretical maximum of the Yahoo stream, and also lower than the 4.5 megabit stream provided by NFL Game Pass on a PC or Mac). The stream remained stable and consistent throughout, whether using 3G or 4G, and the quality was fantastic for the size of the screen.
For comparison, I took screenshots in the Game Pass app, and Yahoo Sports app as close together as I possibly could, allowing both streams to buffer for approximately 30 seconds. While Game Pass quickly settled into the highest quality stream (seen in the first image below) and stayed there, the Yahoo Sports app regularly reduced the quality of the stream to that seen in the second image.
NFL Game Pass app—you can easily read the score, and see all the grass stains and details small on McCoy’s jersey.
Yahoo Sports App—the on screen graphics are almost unreadable, and any fine detail is a blurry mess. The stream was also only 15fps at this point, around 25% full speed
The difference simply couldn’t be more apparent, and worse still, by comparison to others we saw posting on Twitter about the experience, our Yahoo stream seemed to be pretty good!
I have really good internet and early on I am getting way too much of this from Yahoo. pic.twitter.com/xefuUKU3QR
— Dr Cork Gaines (@CorkGaines) October 25, 2015
Of course, all of this assumed that you could get access to the stream at all. On far to many occasions—at least 5 in the roughly 10 minutes we were collecting these screenshots—our stream dropped out completely, and reconnecting was a real game of chance. Often we were left staring at a blank screen for as much as a minute before the stream reloaded, at best, once the stream went back, you were in for a 30 second wait, and in the NFL, a lot can happen in 30 seconds.
In addition to the streaming issues, however, Yahoo had plenty of additional problems to overcome in making the stream a reality.
In the run-up to the game, Yahoo struggled to sell their ad slots. Initially asking $200,000 for a 30 second slot, they were eventually forced to slash this by 75% in order to sell their available ad time. A big problem for them was finding companies with the worldwide appeal necessary to advertise on such a global platform. Yahoo hoped that the national US market would be the major draw for advertisers, but a 6:30 AM kickoff in the West Coast, for a matchup between two sub-par East Coast teams was always going to be a tough sell.
For regular users of online streaming services, like Game Pass, ads for products and services not available in their home countries is the norm, and there was certainly some of this during the Yahoo stream, but more often than not, the result was an odd mix of overly generic, and the same, repetitive adverts over and over again, with ads for products and services not appropriate to the vast majority of the viewing audience splashed here and there.
To tempt mainly US advertisers, Yahoo guaranteed 3.5 million US streams, but initial reports say this is far from what was actually achieved, due to both streaming issues, and the low-profile of the teams involved in the game. Even auto-playing it on their homepage, and in non-sports apps didn’t seem to generate the promised viewing figures, which could leave Yahoo in a deep financial hole.
For the fans, the lack of interested advertisers did mean fewer ad-breaks—no bad thing, especially when some estimates suggest that as much as 60% of an average NFL broadcast can be made up of commercials—but this also clearly impacted the profitability of the broadcast, meaning other broadcasters may be hesitant to dip their toes in the water with digital distribution in the future.
While I am certain other online companies, like Google, could easily find a way to tailor ads based on geographic location—they already do this effectively with Youtube pre-roll videos—Yahoo’s missteps may set regular digital streaming of games back.
There was also the fact that the NFL quickly backed away from their initial promised “online exclusivity” on this game for Yahoo.
Both Buffalo and Jacksonville local markets had a traditional TV broadcast of the game, as did BBC and Sky Sports in the UK. Worldwide, the game was also streamed on NFL Game Pass with few (if any) blackouts other than in the USA that we were made aware of. And coupled with the fact that NFL began buying up online adverts for Game Pass, offering free trials on virtually every page associated with the NFL on Yahoo stream, this significantly undermined Yahoo’s efforts.
While I don’t think the NFL was deliberately trying to do this, and were instead, I suspect, trying to capitalise on the buzz generated by the Yahoo stream to plug their own service, once Yahoo began to experience troubles, many fans will undoubtedly have turned their back on the Yahoo stream opting instead to use their free trial of Game Pass to watch the broadcast, still further denting Yahoo’s figures.
Even those people who did not struggle with the stream still had their fair share of problems. Many people who had stable, high quality streams—Roku and Xbox users seemed to have the least issues—still complained about the delay between the live game, and their stream.
For Roku and Xbox users, their broadcast was at least 1 minute behind the stream on the Yahoo website or mobile apps, and often as much as 2 minutes by the time the stream had buffered properly at the beginning of the game—some have speculated that this delay is one of the reasons these streams were more stable, and didn’t suffer the regular stuttering, buffering or reduction in quality.
An extra 1-2 minute delay may seem like a good tradeoff in exchange for a stable 720p60 stream, and for many live events, that would be true. But for sports, this 2 minutes can seem like an eternity.
NFL Game Pass rarely has more than a 15-20 second delay after the US broadcast—almost always less than the time it takes someone to type 144 characters on twitter and press send, and usually about 30 seconds less than it takes NFL.com, ESPN.com, CBSSports.com or any of the other major Fantasy Football platforms to update their stats.
One extra minute, on the other hand, runs the risk of big plays being spoiled by social media, or pushed out by news apps, basically forcing you to “go dark” during the game, and two minutes practically guarantees that checking how your fantasy team is doing will ruin the next play or two—and since this was the only game during that time slot, there was nowhere to hide.
Of course, this would not be a big deal, if not for the fact that the NFL Game Pass app has proved, time and again, that reliable streams can be delivered without these sorts of delays. Indeed, even on my phone the Game Pass stream was regularly 10-20 seconds ahead of the stream via the Yahoo app or website.
Another major annoyance for many players was the lack of PVR controls that Game Pass provides. On the mobile app, your were limited to jumping back a maximum of 30 seconds, with no options to replay a play in slow motion. Things options were, apparently no better on the website, or other devices, and to add insult to injury, there was, and remains, no way to rewatch the stream once it concluded.
So if you were a Bills or Jaguars fan living in a time-zone where the kickoff time was inconvenient—including, as previously mentioned, on the West Coast of the USA—you were bang out of luck. There is, after all, no easy way for the average joe to record a livestream in the same way he can TiVo a TV broadcast and watch it “time shifted”. Game Pass, on the other hand, had the full stream, ready for re-watching within moments of the conclusion of the game, and striped completely of all adds, and with a “condensed” option within mere hours.
Many analysts—especially those based in the USA—have been willing to overlook many of these issues. To them, it was a one-off novelty, an experiment, and one that almost worked.
For them, a legal low quality 360p stream is indeed better than they usually get, forced as they so often are to either shell out big bucks on NFL Sunday Ticket, or seek out illegal and often very low quality JustinTV, uStream or similar streams if they don’t live in the market of their favourite team.
And anyway, it was a game of no significance, between two teams with nothing left to play for.
But for those of us elsewhere—for those of us who know how good NFL streams can be, and who were hoping beyond hope that this would finally pave the way for regular, free, streamed NFL Games, without the need for expensive Game Pass subscriptions, this really was a let down.
What’s more for us in the UK, who are hoping for a London franchise soon, it just re-affirmed how gimmicky and insignificant many Americans think the International Series games are. While we are trying to lay the groundworks for a full-time NFL team here in the UK, across the pond, these games are still seen as trivial, and unimportant.
So, although fans in the UK hoped this game would be a showcase for both the fan base of the NFL here in England, and a chance to demonstrate new broadcast paradigms, what the world saw was an insignificant place for experimenting, where it didn’t matter if it failed, because it was a game that didn’t matter, in a country that doesn’t really “get” football anyway.
And it’s impossible to shake the feeling that this experiment may just have set free digital broadcasting, and the NFL in the UK back a few years… and perhaps more.