Column: How stream quality is pivotal to the future of sports and esports
Subscribe to NewscastStudio's newsletter for the latest in broadcast design and engineering delivered to your inbox.
The pandemic has resulted in a lot of changes in many different sectors of the broadcast industry, with remote working particularly the most far reaching. The industry was caught off guard, as broadcast has been the slowest to adopt cloud for production of live content, mainly because the bandwidth and tools needed to support live production simply haven’t been ready. The need to produce content in a socially distanced manner has only accelerated that process as broadcasters were forced to adopt remote production and scrambled to leverage products that are “remote friendly” – TAG VS is a great example of this.
We now have a new model that sees remote workforces engaged
This has however provided l challenges for broadcasters ashey now have to adopt cameras that are capable of streaming content over IP networks. NDI is great for local networks, but what happens when you need to send NDI into the cloud?
It is no longer simply just a case of contribution and distribution, though that was challenging enough. If you consider a live production of a sporting event, there are usually a lot of cameras and monitors, not to mention all the people in one location, and all of that infrastructure now has to be replicated using the internet.
Sports commentary is one of the key areas where this is taking place currently, with graphics starting to follow. More elements of the live workflow will be added over the next few years, like AWS CDI, which will allow for ultra-high bandwidth traffic between EC2 instances. This is the type of tech needed to be able to switch cameras, add graphics, deliver replays, etc. Keeping on top of all these elements that are traversing an invisible medium (the internet) will require a new type of monitoring and some type of router in the cloud to help users understand what’s happening under the hood.
Production in the past was about SDI cables that don’t exist once you move into the kind of cloud-based workflows that are the lynchpin of such operations. Here there’s nothing to plug into, and that has created a definite requirement for tools that can manage, monitor, and orchestrate the effort without introducing additional costs that might be necessitated by adding a further layer of IT/cloud and broadcast video engineers.
This trend has only begun, and COVID has helped to push adoption forward for broadcasters. While live production is increasingly interested in 5G connectivity, and even slightly further out LEO satellite networks such as Starlink or Amazon’s forthcoming Project Kuiper, broadcasters will still need to leverage a packet protection protocol to ensure packets aren’t dropped. IP networks aren’t perfect and will often drop packets, and while this is ok for a lot of applications, TV broadcasting needs to ensure every single packet is delivered.
Those protocols will be required to resend dropped packets and help guard against quality issues as pixellation is already considered to be a deal-breaker by many viewers. As we move towards a future of increasing interactivity with sports content, and even potentially a metaverse deployment, the very highest quality signal is going to be required throughout the chain.
Quality in esports
We are already seeing this necessity for quality in the field of Esports. This very different environment raises an interesting set of challenges for those looking to broadcast its content.
One advantage is it’s already online, with organizations typically using the OBS open source solution to capture and stream to a variety of platforms such as Twitch or YouTube. OBS is usually sufficient for a single gamer who wants to broadcast to the internet. however when you have to aggregate multiple gamers and switch cameras, along with voice over talent, you now have a very complex workflow that doesn’t have a deafult solution. Broadcasters could go back to broadcast standards and convert everything to SDI using capture cards before reconverting it for transmission, but that would be reductive. That means software only solutions are the de facto standards, and here too, media organizations need a solution to be able to see and orchestrate all their incoming streams.
In this regard quality is vital. In esports coverage you can easily have eight incoming streams from different geographic locations around the world, all of which have to be synced in an environment where there is no timecode generator that will help you sync our sources. One client we have worked with came up with the interesting idea of having all players displaying an atomic clock on the screen to help narrow down the sync. This is where they can make adjustments in software to ensure one player isn’t out of sync with another player on the screen, and as these are based on internet clocks, which are already accurate. This enables the streams to be matched so that, for instance, the action of one player shooting another can be seen from both player POVs.
The online nature of coverage is both a challenge on the one hand, and an advantage on the other. Gamers are used to high quality on their screens when they play and will not tolerate stepping down to inferior quality when it comes to viewing esports coverage meaning 1080P as a minimum standard and4K as a better one. Happily, all the virtualized infrastructure to make this happen can be managed in a browser obviating the need for any broadcast layer and helping to keep costs down and quality up. Efficient transport protocols are again important here, especially when using cloud-based services for the insertion of lower thirds and graphics. Material needs to go through the I/O and creative process with all its information and metadata intact.
The online nature of esports enables media organizations to think different, for example inbuilt lag to mitigate against profanity is a matter of ticking a checkbox in software rather than buying a blackbox of electronics, but the watchword of quality is as important here as it is traditional broadcast. And that inevitably means acknowledging that delivering high demand live events to any device anywhere in the world is a challenging process.