OTT Sports Opportunities and Challenges
At the end of last year, Accedo gathered a panel of OTT experts together to discuss the current state of the industry, as well as what lies ahead in 2021. I was joined by Dima Svetov, an Engineering Manager at Accedo helping to transform the video experience; David Weis, from the Pay Product Team at streaming leader Roku and Bo Han; founder and CEO at innovative mobile sports platform Buzzer.
The Impact of the Pandemic
A key starting point for any discussion which looks back over 2020 is of course the impact of the pandemic. The sports industry was significantly affected by lockdowns and social distancing, and this became a pivot point for many organizations operating in the sports OTT space. The initial response to the pandemic meant a significant lull for many of the familiar sports services. It has been remarkable, given the circumstances, how quickly the industry has been able to adapt to these challenges.
Weis commented that when the pandemic first hit, a lot of the sports networks were trying to manage where their consumers might go. Subscription services were extremely concerned that not only could their customers unsubscribe, but that they might not return later on. It was vital to consider ways that services might retain their audience. David explained that Roku quickly implemented a subscription holiday option, so that consumers could watch sports rerun and highlight content for free whilst maintaining their account. This proved a good way to engage with users, show solidarity throughout the pandemic and help retain loyalty.
When sports did start up again, Han noted that because fans couldn't physically be in the stadium or the arena, it was vital for the leagues to work on innovative ways to engage with them. For Buzzer, this is about making it easier to tune into exciting live sports moments that fans of individual players, teams, or leagues might otherwise miss out on. While it isn't quite comparable to the energy of a live, in-person audience, over the past year we have seen solutions such as virtual fans in the stands, as well as social media campaigns to help establish a greater connection.
In the vacuum left by the empty schedules of traditional sports, Svetov noticed that a lot of new "sports" appeared. Some of these quirky alternatives garnered a lot of online attention and demonstrated an audience's willingness to engage with new content formats.
How are OTT Services Adapting?
The pandemic has certainly highlighted just how important content discovery is. Bo Han mentioned that when sports returned after a hiatus, major league schedules were layered on top of each other. Prior to the pandemic, a sports equinox (when all four major US sporting leagues play on the same day) had happened only 21 times in history. But as schedules shifted this became a frequent occurrence. These conflicts made it extremely difficult for fans to decide what to watch, or when, directly affecting fan engagement. But as we know, decision fatigue is a viewing challenge which has been impacting audiences long before the pandemic began.
Viewers are certainly looking for more customizable and personalized ways to engage with content and reduce the effects of choice overload. Bo Han explained that understanding interests and connecting with what fans are engaging with on mobile platforms is key. He went on to say that the next generation fan is more player-led than team-led and that will continue to prove an important entry point for engagement and stats. Overall a more personal approach to the sports experience will be a huge growth area in the future, particularly when it comes to the casual fan and helping them to discover and access the content, they care about in a seamless way.
The Evolution of Sports OTT
User experience (UX) will remain an important tool for maximizing engagement with existing customers, as well as attracting and retaining new audiences. But with attention spans getting shorter and engagement fast becoming a precious resource, OTT solutions will have to be more innovative than ever. Han explained that in an environment where user behavior is constantly adapting, OTT services need to focus on generating shorter form content as an additional offering. This will appeal to the changing consumption habits of a younger millennial and Gen Z audience and create personal moments which will capture a sports fan's imagination, rather than asking them to commit to hours of content. A Gen Z audience would be more likely to connect with mobile based content which is easily shareable whilst also watching a game, and this trend is only set to grow.
OTT services are increasingly looking to user generated content to integrate into their offerings. Weis explained that features such as screen capture and recording content to share within the service, would enable audiences to comment on games and interact with friends, eventually leading to a VR component allowing them to sit side-by-side. The evolution beyond linear TV offers huge potential to create a community around content, all within the framework of the OTT service.
Another key area for consideration is the broader OTT ecosystem and how different services can cross pollinate to create more value. In the case of Buzzer, by gathering data on which cable services its users are already subscribed to, it can offer bite-sized live content which falls under those sports rights, ensuring subscribers experience the full value of their paid subscriptions, by serving as a personalized, mobile-first content discovery engine. Weis agreed that services need to move towards a more streamlined approach, allowing audiences to get to the content they want to watch as quickly and easily as possible, with as few interactions with the device as possible. Features such as voice search and sign-in must be simplified in order to achieve this.
Svetov identified some of the technical challenges which sports OTT services face. Sports have more information which needs to be captured in the moment which adds an extra layer of complexity. Plays need to be viewed from multiple angles or from the referee's perspective and replays need to showcase key events. This requires a huge amount of on-demand data, and for some platforms it might be a struggle to layer information and store data, particularly when it comes to older devices. Therefore, it is vital to be able to present the information in a user-friendly way, with no loading time and the ability to connect to multiple endpoints at the same time. Middleware software can aggregate the data and filter what is needed to lighten the load on devices.
Where is UX Heading?
OTT sports subscribers have traditionally been used to a fairly feature-rich environment when compared to entertainment services. Features such as stats, scores and schedules have been integrated into platforms for some time now. This trend is only set to continue into the future with increased usage of extended reality through AR and VR devices.
Svetov noted that second-screen culture is on the increase, and often users are engaging with another device while watching OTT services. He explained that providers need to capitalize on this type of content and integrate personalized information directly into the main viewing screen so that subscribers don't miss a moment of the action. Svetov also proposed that content providers need to maximize social interactions around sport, with voice to text features which enable friends to share their own personal commentary. Han highlighted that co-viewing is going to become even more important in the future, as well as options for subscribers to select the specific commentary they want to listen to.
This type of tailored experience is becoming a huge growth area for OTT. Weis explained that from an operating perspective, depending on how the provider integrates into the OTT ecosystem, all of these features could be layered onto one screen. He particularly noted the advances in VR technology which will eventually allow subscribers to take their seat in the front row of the stadium. As well as voice becoming a more prominent tool for direct consumer interaction with devices and social interaction.
Engine Media Global Head of Esports Darcy Lorincz discusses the crossover of gaming and sports and the increasing push toward automated production and AI-based workflows for high-volume esports in this clip from the sports panel at Streaming Media Connect 2021.
Leagues like the NBA and MLB are seizing the opportunity to reach fans wherever they are. Increasingly, that's on social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Twitch.