Under the Hood: Delivering the First, Free Global Live Stream of an NFL Game on Yahoo

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Yahoo delivered the first-ever, global live stream of a regular season NFL game to football fans around the world, for free, across devices. Our goal was to distribute the game over the Internet and provide a broadcast-quality experience. Leveraging our focus on consumer products, we worked to identify features and experiences that would be unique for users enjoying a live stream for the first time. In other words, we wanted to make you feel like you were watching on TV, but make the experience even better.

For us, success was twofold: provide the best quality viewing experience and deliver that quality at global scale. We achieved over 15M unique viewers in 185 countries across the world, and we’d like to talk about some of the key technology innovations that got us there.

On the technical side, the HD video signal was shipped from London to our encoders in Dallas and Sunnyvale, where it was converted into Internet video. The streams were transcoded (compression that enables efficient network transmission) into 9 bitrates ranging from 6Mbps to 300kbps. We also provided a framerate of 60 frames per second (fps), in addition to 30fps, thus allowing for smooth video playback suited for a sport like NFL football. Having a max bitrate of 6Mbps with 60fps gave a “wow” factor to the viewing experience, and was a first for NFL and sports audiences.

One special Yahoo addition to the programming was an overlaid audio commentary from our Yahoo Studio in Sunnyvale. It was as if you were watching the game alongside our Yahoo Sports experts on your couch. This unique Yahoo take gave NFL viewers a whole new way to experience the game.

We focused on a few key areas:

Quality Viewing Experience
Our goal was to deliver a premium streaming quality that would bring users a best-in-class viewing experience, similar to TV – one that was extremely smooth and uninterrupted. This meant partnering with multiple CDNs to get the video bits as close to the viewer as possible, optimizing bandwidth usage, and making the video player resilient to problems on the Internet or the user’s network.

Broad Audience Reach
We wanted to make sure that our global audience could watch this stream anywhere in the world, on any device, so we delivered it on laptops and desktops, on phones and tablets; and finally, we wanted to reach the ardent fans on the big screen TVs, game consoles and other connected devices. Our destination page, which provided a full screen experience of the game on web and mobile web, was built on node.js and React, and extensively optimized for page load and startup latency. In addition, we decided to launch the NFL experience on our key mobile apps: Yahoo, Tumblr, Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Sports Fantasy.

Global Scale
Yahoo operates multiple data centers across the US and the world for service reliability and capacity. We also have dozens of smaller point-of-presence (POPs) located close to all major population centers to provide a low latency connection to Yahoo’s infrastructure. Our data centers and POPs are connected together via a high redundancy private backbone network. For the NFL game, we upgraded our network and POPs to handle the extra load. We also worked with the CDN vendors to setup new peering points to efficiently route traffic to their networks.
During an NFL game, which typically lasts just under four hours, there is a very small margin of error for detecting and fixing streaming issues. Real-time metrics as well as detailed data from our backend systems provide a high fidelity understanding of the stream quality that viewers are experiencing. Yahoo is a world leader in data, analytics and real-time data processing. So, we extensively used our data infrastructure, including Hadoop, to provide industry leading operational metrics during the game.

The Take-Away
Pioneering the delivery of a smooth 60fps live video experience to millions of users around the world was a significant undertaking. Huge thanks to the team for executing against our vision – it was a coordinated effort across Yahoo.

While much of our technology and infrastructure was already set up to handle the scale and load – one of the reasons the NFL chose us – in preparation for the main event, we designed a new destination page and enhanced our mobile applications. We also enhanced the control and recovery mechanisms, as well as expanded our infrastructure to handle the huge traffic of the game. We worked hard to ensure that the experience was available on every Internet connected device. We tuned our video players to deliver the optimal video stream, taking into account device, connectivity, location and ISP. Behind everything was our massive analytical system that would measure and aggregate all aspects of quality and engagement. We conducted comprehensive tests with our partners so that game day would be successful. In the end, the game exceeded our high expectations, setting a bar for quality and scale for live Internet broadcasts to come. We’re thrilled and proud of the experience we delivered, and further, the reception and accolades from our community of users has been gratifying.

Looking to the future, we expect live sporting events to be routinely streamed over the Internet to massive global audiences. People will expect these broadcasts to be flawless, with better than HD quality. October 25, 2015 was a significant step towards this vision. Yahoo, as a leading technology company and a top destination for sports, is proud of our role in setting a new standard for sports programming. We look forward to making other global scale broadcasts like the NFL game happen in the future.

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