Prime Video works to tackle low latency, quality for live sports streaming

Sports rights have been trickling over to streaming and for Amazon’s Prime Video, it’s a key component in attracting viewers and offering increased value to consumers of the streaming service that has stated aims to be a one-stop video entertainment hub.

But as live sports are delivered via streaming, a quality experience – including consistent and reliable low-latency playback – is a challenge still being addressed, particularly as Amazon looks to scale across several sports in multiple regions and a variety of distribution and device partners that have their own distinct capabilities. Live sports also bring a time-sensitive dimension of appointment TV to a streaming world that for many years has been known for the benefit of on-demand, anytime viewing.

During a fireside chat at the NAB Streaming Summit, Prime Video VP of Technology BA Winston discussed how Amazon is thinking about live sports and technical features like low latency in particular.

Prime Video’s biggest sports addition has likely been its exclusive rights to the NFL’s Thursday Night Football. It counts additional sports, which as Winston noted, in the U.S. includes NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League), and YES Network, alongside global sports such as UEFA Champions League in Germany, Italy and the UK, as well as boxing in Japan, among several others. In addition, Amazon this year agreed to invest in bankrupt Diamond Sports Group, potentially getting access to regional sports networks (RSNs) on Prime Video, and recently inked a rights deal for exclusive coverage of certain NASCAR Cup Series races starting in 2025.

And with the recent disclosure that Prime Video has more than 200 million monthly viewers globally, the ability to scale a strong sports streaming experience could be both a priority and challenge.

At a keynote session during NAB in Las Vegas last week Winston described an approach of working backwards from a customer perspective, where with sports, he believes “fans are focused on the best streaming experience” – meaning one that’s uninterrupted and ensures they’re seeing plays or moments as they happen, rather than reading or hearing about it from friends who might’ve seen it first.

“From that perspective, we believe low latency is very very good,” he said, adding the company has gotten feedback from customers as well. “I believe over the years Prime Video has built probably the best streaming technology when it comes to sports, where we are able to delivery very low latency…”

Asked by NAB Streaming Summit conference chair and industry analyst Dan Rayburn to define low latency, Winston categorized it, in his mind, as less than 10 seconds from camera to glass (aka the TV screen).

Winston also emphasized looking “at the full spectrum of customer experience” which includes latency, coupled with other features, including high-quality streams.

He noted that customers, particularly with high-profile events like football and this year’s Super Bowl, do see the difference when they have a low latency feed. But it’s not always an easy task, particularly when dealing with high and often unpredictable peak volumes, complex infrastructure, and a variety of distribution end points and partners in the mix. Asked about tradeoffs, Winston pointed out that a company could treat the latency aspect of a live stream but still wind up with a lot of buffering, or one could improve latency and end up with an SD quality stream – which Prime Video doesn’t want.

“This is where our proprietary technology that we have invested a lot and built over the last several years comes into play,” he said.  As an underlying network stack, he said Prime Video uses UDP (user datagram protocol), not TCP (transmission control protocol). Both are data transfer protocols, where UDP touts capabilities to deliver higher quality and faster speed (for scenarios like streaming and gaming), while TCP is understood to be reliable but not as fast. Winston acknowledged it’s not simple, noting the job of getting UDP connectivity on TVs “and being able to pump it through our entire ecosystem at scale” while handling volume associated with popular live sports is “incredibly hard.”

Still, the tech Prime Video has built is “enabling customers with uninterrupted streams and high quality and we are focused on continuing to do that,” he added.

Working with ISPs on last-mile

While Amazon is building out tech and infrastructure to support sports streaming (including through its close ties with AWS), Winston and Rayburn acknowledged that unlike broadcasters who might have control of a feed end-to-end, there are aspects of Prime Video delivery Amazon doesn’t control – including devices in the home (other than potentially Fire TV).

Related to that, Rayburn noted that for Prime Video content Amazon utilizes the cloud through AWS as well as third-party CDNs (content delivery network) for a multi-CDN approach and questioned how Amazon is working with ISP partners – of which Amazon works with “a few 1,000” globally, per Winston – in terms of last-mile delivery, and whether there’s value in deploying different infrastructure styles within ISPs.

According to Winston, there are teams that in some instances work with ISPs, as best they can, to assess the best way to connect with customers’ home from a given ISP in a specific location.

Prime Video does “have fairly complex systems in the backend that are determining the optimum” CDN and paths to connect, among other factors “to ensure that the end-to-end experience” can go through faster, he noted.  And behind the scenes, he explained there’s close monitoring of ISP traffic and CDN traffic, where in some cases Amazon needs to do re-routing and make changes to its stack in real-time to ensure it can address and mitigate experience issues.

To give an idea of the impact live sports streaming can have on broadband network traffic, Michael Cavanagh, president of cable giant Comcast, last October said the change of just a single NFL game – with Thursday Night Football on Amazon Prime Video -  moved peak broadband network data usage from Sunday night to Thursday night. The NFL game comprised roughly 25% of all Comcast internet traffic (meaning any internet usage, not just streaming) on Thursday nights, according to Cavanagh.

Working partners is part of the play at large as Amazon looks to deliver high-quality, low-latency sports streaming at scale. And the challenge also extends to third-party device partners, where Prime Video VP and head of global video partnerships Andrew Bennett in a separate earlier interview with StreamTV Insider, expressed a similar sentiment in terms of collaborating and a need for innovation on technical challenges.

Live sports drives need for tech innovation with device partners 

Amazon counts over 200 global distribution partners for Prime Video including major OEMs such as Samsung, Google, Apple, Roku, gaming consoles like PlayStation, and others. It also has relationships with MVPDs and ISPs, with app integration on traditional set-top boxes.

Overall Prime Video counts distribution across more than 1.5 billion OTT-enabled devices globally, not including mobile (for more from Bennett on Prime Video’s distribution strategy, including bundling, read here).

Bennett heads up heads up third-party living room device business development and partner marketing for Prime Video MGM+ and Freevee and his engineering team aims to deliver the best possible version of the Prime Video app on each device available, where the variety of device options for the living room means some aspects of live sports delivery gets complex.

As mentioned, Amazon views live sports as a valuable aspect of Prime Video and mechanism for attracting usage.

However, delivering sports on streaming isn’t simply replicating what’s been done in other mediums. Tech and discovery are two dimensions where Bennett cited a need to work with device distribution partners to innovate going forward. 

Streaming increases the importance of technical features, specifically low latency playback as it relates to live sports (which Prime Video feels “fantastic about for TNF,” Bennett said). Prime Video wants consumers to expect the same experience whether they’re tuning in from a low-power streaming media player or a high-end smart TV. And wants playback to be as close to real-time as possible, so one viewer isn’t seeing a key play well before another or after it’s already happened.

“To normalize that, we need to broadly drive down latency on all devices, regardless of what their capabilities are,” Bennett told STV. “That’s a challenge for us for sure.”

As for who the burden sits with, he described a “push and pull coming from both sides,” with changes made on a partner-by-partner and feature-by-feature basis. For example, device makers are building high resolution panels, informing Prime Video of outer limits of picture quality, where Amazon has to ensure it’s shooting live events to optimize for the newest smart TVs. On the flip side, partners need to build playback and players that deliver the lowest latency given different broadband and device capabilities.

And even if the stream is great with low latency, it won’t much matter if viewers don’t know it’s game time on Prime Video.

Most CTVs aren’t engineered the same way as electronic program guides (EPG) found on traditional set-top boxes, “meaning it’s not time-bound,” Bennett explained. As streaming primarily led with on-demand or “anytime” content, it’s more challenging to make viewers aware of appointment TV – or say a football game kicking off at 8:15 pm.

“So the question is, how do we work with partners to introduce that time dimension, the urgency that’s something’s happening right now?”

To that end, he said a “notification dynamic” on Prime Video needs to be improved with device makers. Where, if a viewer has a team they like and access to that game, Prime Video is looking at how to work with partners to make sure viewers are aware of it when they turn on their device.

“There’s a discovery, metadata, awareness component that we need to continue to evolve with partners,” he added.

In terms of delivering a strong sports streaming experience across devices, Bennett categorized it as a very symbiotic and synergistic relationship, where Prime Video and partners have shared goals.“We both win when we get this stuff right,” he said.