In an NFL game each important play is an earthquake of content. At the moment when Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones gets a touchdown by pulling the ball out of a defender's unfortunate hands, the effects spread far and wide. Someone in the stands with a good view uploads his video to Instagram. Fantasy scores and update of online gamecasts. Twitter goes crazy. Friends write "Did you see that?" With a lot of emojis with open eyes. And you get an automatic notification on your ESPN or Bleacher Report phone, which notifies you of the highlights.
If you watch the game in a live broadcast instead of through your decoder, all that usually happens even before you see the game. Whether you're on Hulu, Sling, YouTube TV or some rudimentary Russian website, all sports fans know that the pain of their transmission is 30 seconds behind, maybe even more. Add the occasional repository and every time the image has such a low resolution it looks like you're watching National Football Legos, and every fan starts to dream of paying Comcast too much money again.
That's why, when Amazon won the right to broadcast football on Thursday night during the 201
Even offering an excellent flow to someone with fast Internet and a new decoder poses challenges. But Amazon Night Football's plan included viewers in more than 200 countries, using more than 600 devices. Many of those people would have slow Wi-Fi and old devices. Others would be watching on their phones, sipping LTE and 3G from who knows how. Everyone wanted to see the game, and everyone got very upset if it did not work.
Amazon has a lot of experience in video streaming, of course. Its Prime Video service is transmitted to tens of millions of subscribers. Amazon has been investing for years in all streaming media: buying content, building the back-end infrastructure, even creating and selling the devices that people use to watch things. Few companies can claim as integrated a transmission system.
But the live video is a bit different. Live sports even more. If your feed for The Good Place is 30 seconds late, you probably will not notice it, but you will definitely notice the delay in a soccer game. "Low latency was a critical project for us when we started this project, which is not a big criteria when looking at an HBO broadcast," says BA Winston, the global head of video playback and delivery for Amazon Video. "To bring it as close as possible to a cable or transmission channel was fundamental".
The system that the teams designed is quite complicated: even the "really simplified" flowchart that Winston did for me involved many intertwined arrows, color-coded frames, and words like "heuristic optimization." It seems to be reduced to this: Amazon's work begins once NBC or CBS or whoever is covering the game for TV create their game master feed. (Amazon adds its own comments in some regions and languages, and maintains the standard transmission in others.) That feed reaches the Amazon data centers, where it is immediately dispersed to servers around the world through a system called AWS Direct. Connect. Then, Amazon software encodes that video in all the resolutions, formats and compressions it needs for the hundreds of devices it supports. It works within the limits of DRM, optimizes bandwidth restrictions and creates the best version of the feed for each device.
Just before going to your device, Amazon sends the feed through its internal ad program. Instead of loading ads separately on people's devices, like most services, Amazon adds them directly to the transmission. That, according to Keith Wymbs, the marketing director of AWS Elemental, which provides much of the infrastructure for the service, solves a key problem in live streaming: the fight against ad blockers. "It transcodes the ads to match the main content," he says, both help advertisers and improve the quality of the broadcast. And with AWS Elemental, those ads can still be as personalized and targeted as the advertiser wants. For the viewers, it simply looks like TV.
After everything that happens, Amazon sends the final feed to its many CDN partners, which are the data centers and servers around the world that deliver the content to customers. Amazon's own Cloudfront service is a massive CDN, but the company also works with many partners. And then, finally, you get the video. It sounds a lot, but ideally everything happens in a few seconds.
A couple of weeks ago, during a painfully boring night football game between the bad Denver Broncos and the terrible Indianapolis Colts, I put everything to the test. I opened three game sources at once: one on TV, one on Amazon's Prime Video application for iOS and one on Chrome on my laptop. None of the Amazon transmissions reached the television, but they remained solidly united: my laptop ran about 20 seconds ago, and on the iPhone it was only about seven seconds behind. The transmission never died, even through a BTE Bum connection, and it only decreased to 8-bit resolution types a couple of times. It was still not as clean as watching it on TV, but the configuration worked legitimately. Which is no small thing.
After 10 games and more than 17 million viewers in more than 200 countries, the Amazon soccer broadcast ends at Christmas, at least for now. But the infrastructure that the company created has a bright and great future. Earlier this fall, Amazon announced a service called AWS Media Services, which allows anyone to activate a video channel, live or on demand, as easily as hosting a website on AWS. "Now we are at the point where the infrastructure, at least the central part of it, can be rotated in minutes," says Wymbs. All advertising targeting, all bandwidth, all transcoding and DRM, all available to anyone who has a video and a credit card.
Meanwhile, other providers are about to learn how difficult it is to broadcast football. NBC signed an agreement to broadcast Sunday Night Football to anyone with a cable subscription, starting next season. Verizon, which has been broadcasting NFL games to subscribers for years, will begin broadcasting everything to everyone simultaneously through Yahoo Sports and AOL. All are dedicated to football because it is the rare event popular enough to make people go where they want to see it. They are also starting with football because they know, as Amazon learned, that live sports can be the most difficult problem in broadcasting. If they can generate a super reliable and low latency advertising segmentation sequence of the most popular sport in the United States, they can transmit anything.