Internet technologies are enhancing fans' experience in sporting events

At the Dota 2 tournament at Mumbai’s NSCI Dome in April this year, the stadium was filled to the brim. When it came to the most awaited esports match of the tourney, fans screamed and tried to reach out across the separating screens to touch their heroes — the group of nerdy 18- to 30-year-olds who got on to the stage to sweat it out for the final game which would be watched by millions across the US, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Australia. 

Sporting events, whether it is esports or physically challenging ones like the Indian Premier League (IPL), National Football League (NFL) or the Grand Prix, have always attracted big advertisers and a religious fan following. However, with the rise of social media, faster network connectivity and smartphones, they are increasingly turning into arenas for technology giants to introduce services at scale for their consumers and sports audiences alike.

Three years ago, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio made its presence felt through free WiFi  hotspots for cricket fans across stadiums during the IPL. It gave future subscribers a preview of the telecom juggernaut that would hit the country soon.

A recent Forrester report on sports fan analytics noted that millennials and Gen Z-ers expect a different sports experience than Baby Boomers. Who better than tech innovators to provide this enhanced experience? 

Intel predicts that by 2028, media and entertainment companies will be competing for wireless revenue opportunities worth $1.3 trillion, courtesy 5G networks. Sports, say industry leaders, will be among the top ways for consumers to experience this in the form of live streaming of major events. One of the key things that network-based innovations have done is to provide fans multiple ways to engage with the sports in real time. For example, today people can watch an IPL match in their regional language even while travelling. 

“Traditionally, the broadcasters at sporting events physically transported their presentation teams to the venues at huge cost. But with solutions like remote production, which enables the broadcaster to customise television feed to different locations from a single place, the teams can work from where they perform best,” says Brian Morris, General Manager of Global Media & Entertainment Services, Tata Communications.

To put it in context, the total television viewership of IPL 2018 stood at 1.4 billion impressions, up by 15 per cent from IPL 2017. The last tournament consisted of 60 matches that took place over 50 days in nine cities across India: Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chennai, Indore, Mohali and Pune. This included customised feeds in local languages, including commentary in six languages, which went up to eight languages in the final. 

To tackle the challenges stemming from back-to-back events, the long distances between match locations, and the need to localise content for different regions, Star Sports worked with Tata Communications to centralise the production and broadcast of the matches.

One of the biggest challenges for sports fans and broadcasters alike is to ensure that everyone has access to real time feed, even on their smartphones. Setting up a new benchmark for online viewership this year, Hotstar hosted about 18.6 million concurrent viewers on its app during the IPL final match between Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings. 

This is 8.6 million more than last year’s concurrent viewership when 10 million logged onto the platform to watch the final game played between Chennai Super Kings and Sunrisers Hyderabad. And it was made possible through increased efficiency in scaling network utilisation challenges. Moreover, Hotstar’s streaming platform has introduced mechanisms to tackle simultaneous access by millions of users. For example, if users have up to five minutes of free access followed by a paywall asking them to subscribe, the platform lets some of them spend a few seconds more on the site so the payment servers don’t crash when thousands of users use it simultaneously.

In fact, scaling up computing resources for millions of concurrent users during a match is an integral part of the Hotstar's platform design. Let’s say that Hotstar expected 20 million users to log in to view a match and due to an interesting turn of events, suddenly, there are another 3 million-odd users who want to watch the match. If the servers were not prepared to scale up dynamically, the tech team would spend up to 4 minutes reallocating servers, a delay which could turn away millions of users. 

Raghav Anand, segment leader-digital, media and convergence, EY India, notes that the rapid rollout of 4G and internet connectivity has played a massive role in sports fraternities’ shift to tech-heavy initiatives. “It has helped bring the audience closer to the game, giving telecom providers, advertisers and technology providers avenues to improve and monetise the fan experience,” says Anand.

This has also spawned the rise and consolidation of the gaming ecosystem in India. The recent entry of Indian fantasy sports platform Dream 11 to the startup unicorn club with over $ 1 billion valuation is  a case in point.

Intel has a three-year, $100 billion partnership with ESL, the esports organiser that produces video game competitions worldwide. The partnership is among the biggest sport- tech partnerships globally and is focussed on bringing esports to south Asia. “Intel recently partnered with ESL and Indian esports platform NODWIN Gaming to bring ESL One to Mumbai to deliver a world-class gaming experience to Dota 2 fans in India,” Prakash Mallya, Intel India vice president and managing director, sales and marketing group, told Business Standard. 

The internet ecosystem across Asia has attracted the biggest technology players to the region over the past few years. “Mumbai was chosen because the infrastructure and demographics required for a great gaming experience have evolved rapidly here over the past 18 months or so,” said Frank Soqui, VP and GM, Gaming group, Intel, during the event. 

With the 5G network rollout expected in the next two years, the sports fan experience will only improve further. Among the many use cases presented at the Barcelona Mobile World Congress this year was the idea that in future fans can follow around their favourite player during a tournament or even a match, live and on the go.

For sports fans, the future is looking very exciting indeed.

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