NFL’s Live Streaming Leaves A Lot To Be Desired: Capping Users, Poor Video Quality

When the NFL announced it would be streaming seventeen games this year on and, dubbed "Sunday Night Football Extra", many were excited to see what kind of video offering the NFL had in store for their fans. With the NFL having now completed nearly half of their broadcasts, the user experience has been anything less than what I would call a quality offering for a variety of reasons.

For starters, I can't figure out why the NFL puts people into a waiting room? In a conversation with the NFL yesterday, they explained that in order to provide the best user experience, they are limiting the number of users who can watch the game at the same time. They also commented that since the wait time is usually very short, I waited between 3-5 minutes this past Sunday, it's not that big of a deal. But the question is, why cap the number of people at all? Through the first four broadcasts, each NFL game averaged around 125,000 total unique viewers online. That averages out to about 50,000 simultaneous users online at any given time. Considering the NFL is streaming the games between two content delivery networks (CDN), Limelight and Akamai, why the limitation? Akamai and Limelight combined can clearly support way more than fifty thousand streams and capping users is not providing any better experience for those who are already watching. Is the NFL simply trying to reduce their cost to broadcast the games, by capping users and keeping their bandwidth bill lower? To me, the rational for capping users just doesn't make sense.

In addition to the strange capping policy, the video feed is also being encoded using less than optimal settings that reduce the quality, not improve it. The NFL confirmed that the encoding is a multi-bitrate file, up to 980Kbps and I have confirmed from others it is being done in H.264. No problem with the H.264 part, but why is the video letterboxed? They are simply wasting bandwidth and video quality with the black bars at the top and bottom of the video window. And if you remove those bars, the aspect ratio of the video window is 490×280. The average aspect ration for a video that is being encoded up to 980Kbps would be 640×480. So why is the NFL not converting the broadcast signal correctly before encoding and why is the window size so small for such a high-quality bitrate? They should be taking the anamorphic feed and stretching it back to the 16:9
ratio and cropping out the black in the encoder to not waste bandwidth.

In addition, as many bloggers have stated before, why is there no full-screen option? For a 980Kbps feed, you could get some fairly decent full screen video quality. But even at the window size they stick to, the video quality for me last weekend was poor. I could not read the numbers on the bottom of the video screen that gave the score and there was way too much pixelation. And being on a 20Mbps FiOS connection and a new MacBook Pro, my connection and computer were not the problem.

As some have pointed out previously, switching between camera angles is a pain as you have to watch a video ad before it switches. So if you want to switch angles in the middle of a play, then you are out of luck on seeing how the play ends. What incentive is there for users to then switch between all of the angles? Why have the different angles as an option if you are going to make switching between them such a bad user experience?

I know that from day one, the NFL has clearly stated that this online video offering is an "experiment" to test the idea of potentially bringing more games online down the road. But even as an experiment, you would think the NFL would want to provide the best quality user experience possible? All they keep saying is that the steps they have taken, like the capping, is to increase the "user experience", yet it's doing the exact opposite. What do you think of the NFL's streaming experience to date?