MLB’s Video Problems Being Overblown By The Media, Here’s Why
Over the past week, and in particular today, various news outlets are talking about the problems that some MLB.TV subscribers are having with MLB video. While many are quick to want to say it's an Adobe Flash problem, or an issue specifically related to HD video quality, many don't understand all the different technology pieces involved. While I do think MLB has done a poor job of telling users what exactly is going on and what they are doing for those affected, most of the problems we are reading about today, took place from when the player was still in beta just a few days ago. No one seems to be writing about this in real time.
I've been testing MLB's new Flash Video player since day one when it went into beta, fifteen days ago. In that time I have traded a dozen or so e-mails with MLB giving them my feedback, providing my system settings and judging their video quality. For the most part, I have experienced very few issues and many of the posts I have been reading on the MLB support website come from users who are dealing with the beta version of the player. When MLB made the beta version of their video player available on March 26th, the whole reason for doing so was to test their offering with real traffic, see what needed to be fixed and then roll out a new version of the player and the Next-Def plugin in time for opening day. That's exactly what happened. The day before opening day, anyone using the beta version of the player was asked to download an updated Next-Def plugin and MLB took the Flash Video player out of beta. Since that happened, the issues users are having has dropped and looking at the posts on MLB support site shows the volume has dropped dramatically over the past few days. Yes, this all happened around opening day, but that was four days ago. Most of the articles I have seen today about MLB video problems are reporting on issues from four days ago and not in real time.
In addition to having to download the Flash Video plugin to get MLB, users who want to get HD video quality also have to download what MLB calls the Next-Def plugin. This additional plugin is from Swarmcast, not Adobe, and it enables much of the new functionality you see in the MLB player like the ability to have DVR like functionality. It also enables the HD video stream to be delivered via HTTP and pulled from multiple content delivery networks, instead of the video coming from just one CDN as is the case with a non-HD video stream. While some writers are calling this an Adobe Flash plugin, it's not.
Many of the complaints on the MLB support website were around the HD video feed and around the Next-Def plugin. But since MLB has fixed the majority of user's issues from a few days ago, it's interesting to note that no new update to the Next-Def plugin has been made since opening day. So whatever issues viewers were having, it clearly was not as a result of the plugin itself. Many of the other issues I see on the MLB support website are around issues not even pertaining to video, like experiencing login issues. I also saw a bunch of angry folks on the boards complaining that when MLB launched the player in beta for the Yankees game, they could see the video but not get the audio. That's because the main audio feed from MSG was down and something MLB had no control over, which I detailed on my blog that day.
What many folks don't understand is all the different pieces that go into the MLB.TV offering. The moment there is an issue it's easy to blame the player. But what about the feed coming from the stadiums? Or the encoding? The delivery of the stream from the CDN(s)? There are a lot of moving pieces to any live event let alone so many events all taking place at once. While some may think that the main reason for MLB making the player available in beta two weeks before the season was to drive subscriptions, it wasn't. The main reason was to test the player and all of the other pieces with real traffic to see how it all works. That's not something you can test in a lab and you need real world scale to see how it works. In most cases, MLB has no ability to test the feeds from the stadiums until open day. This is live and for an offering like this, you need a day or two to make it rock solid. Especially considering that last year, MLB was not using more than one CDN and this year, with the HD offering delivered via HTTP, are using multiple CDNs.
Some of the debate seems to be around MLB using Flash this year and moving away from Silverlight, with some implying that Flash is to blame. While the Silverlight plugin automatically supports HD video without the need of an additional plugin, like Adobe needs for the MLB service, we would have seen many of the same problems if MLB was switching from Adobe to Silverlight. The plugin plays a role in the offering, but it is only one of many pieces in the entire ecosystem for live video capture, ingestion and delivery. The video plugin alone does not make or break such a service.
No one is debating that having any issues with a live video feed, especially one that you are paying for, is really frustrating. But this is not TV and should not be treated as such. It's taken MLB at most two days to solve the vast majority of the issues and we don't know how many of the issues that users are still having are as a result of the user. While I would like to see the video quality improved on the 3MB HD stream being offered by MLB, I think overall MLB's offering is really solid. And if you take the time to look at hundreds of comments on the MLB support board, many of the users are not having any problems. As of today, there are 2,742 posts on the MLB support site about HD video problems, and many of those are from duplicate users. Putting that into perspective, that not a large base of MLB.TV customers.
If you are experiencing issues with MLB.TV, please leave them in the comments section.