Game On, Cable TV: How Yahoo Tackled the First NFL Livestream

How agile practices helped beam the game to millions of fans around the world.

National Football League (NFL) games are famous for their pulse-pounding action, but on the morning of October 25, 2015, the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars had nothing on a crew of 17 engineers in Sunnyvale, CA, where Yahoo was gearing up for the biggest event ever in streaming video. Their task: Livestream for the first time an NFL football game, free, to a worldwide audience.

P.P.S. Narayan, Yahoo’s VP of engineering, was the man tasked with figuring out how to pull it off. Yahoo had handled large-scale streaming efforts in the past, but nothing like this. When all was said and done, the game was streamed from Wembley Stadium in London to some 15 million global viewers. It easily earned the record for the largest livestream ever—more than twice the streaming audience for CNN’s recent presidential debate. 

We role-played scenarios and coordinated with the NFL directly to ensure we were on target every step of the way.
— P.P.S. Narayan, VP of Engineering, Yahoo

The stakes couldn’t have been higher. The web has long been chomping at the heels of old-guard media, particularly cable television. Today cable TV represents $116 billion in annual revenues, and a week of NFL games can gross about $190 million in potential ad sales. As consumers grow increasingly disenchanted with paid television and legions of “cord cutters” flee to online alternatives, Yahoo’s eye is clearly on the prize of the future of sports broadcasting.

When the day was done (Jaguars 34, Bills 31), Narayan counted the event as a massive success, with 33.6 million streams (and 8.5 petabytes of data) reaching 185 countries, and a high-definition stream pumped out at up to 60 frames per second. Never mind the size, Narayan says to look at the quality statistics. The industry average rebuffering ratio—indicating times when a stream is interrupted—is 1.4 percent, says Narayan, but on game day, Yahoo’s rate was just 0.6 percent, “unheard of” for such a massive undertaking.

No-Huddle Offense

The secret sauce to all of this comes down to two things—serious teamwork and cutting-edge technology.

Narayan credits his team’s aggressive agile development framework as a key factor in being prepared for the challenge of a massive webcast like this. The livestream was a unique scenario because it featured a deadline that absolutely, positively could not be moved. Narayan’s team worked backward from game day to set milestones and line up its three-week sprint cycles accordingly. “We role-played scenarios and coordinated with the NFL directly to ensure we were on target every step of the way,” he says.

The lack of flexibility in the deadline was actually a boon, says Narayan. “It’s fantastic because you have to prioritize activities and develop mitigation plans for the things that you can’t get done.” All told, Yahoo spent four solid months getting ready for the broadcast.

On the tech side, Narayan chalks up his team’s success foremost to the deployment of seven content delivery networks, or CDNs, which were vital in distributing the streams to various points around the globe. “People who watch NFL games on TV have an expectation, and we had to be better,” he says.

Using multiple CDNs — again, at a magnitude never seen before — was the key to making that work. The system was designed to give the user the best experience, whether he was streaming to an older tablet or a new 80-inch HDTV. All told, nine different bitrates were available for broadcasting, with Yahoo’s own adaptive bitrate algorithm allowing for automatic switching among them.

Practice Makes Perfect

Of course, a Bills-Jaguars game—two NFL teams with losing records that don’t exactly have massive followings—is hardly a panacea for streaming. Ed Desser, President of Desser Sports Media, says that the show looked great and that it successfully brought the game to a large audience, but the road ahead, he says, is still a tough one. “It’s unlikely that this will materially impact the business in the near term,” he says, “but it does indicate that streaming will be a bigger part of the conversation going forward.”

Narayan says Yahoo is ready for that conversation—and the challenge—when something bigger becomes available.

“I think this is just a start. The scale at which we’ve done this—15 million viewers—is not small, but we aren’t afraid of breaking it. Imagine the NFL playoffs, the Super Bowl or the World Series,” Narayan says. “You know, the Olympics are coming up….”

Christopher Null
By Christopher Null | May 25, 2017