World Cup's record-setting peaks, minor disappointments set stage for online sports future

The World Cup didn't just shatter streaming records. It blew through analyst expectations that this would be the year for live sports online. Some highlights:

The Internet holds up

Akamai recorded previously unheard-of traffic spikes during the World Cup. On June 24, the combined matches between the U.S. and Germany, and between Portugal and Ghana, resulted in a historic traffic spike of 6.84 Tbps.

But the single semifinal match between Netherlands and Argentina on July 9 surpassed that total, peaking at 6.87 Tbps. The championship game between Germany and Argentina peaked at a very respectable 6.62 Tbps.

Akamai World Cup traffic peak

The Netherlands-Argentina match set a new streaming record. (Source: Akamai)

Consider that prior to the World Cup, the highest traffic peak ever occurred during the Sochi Games a few months earlier, with traffic during the U.S.-Czech Republic and Latvia-Canada hockey quarterfinals reaching as high as 2.5 Tbps.

And you'll have to look back a couple of years to the 2012 Summer Games for the last record, a paltry 873 Gbps during the men's 100-meter final. Sochi's average bitrate was 50 percent higher than London's, according to Akamai--and it had only about a third of the number of events that the Summer Games did.

In two years, the Internet has had to support traffic peaks it really hasn't seen before. Pundits fretted before the World Cup that Brazil's infrastructure wouldn't be able to support over-the-top traffic demand. But thanks to sustained investment in the country's fiber optic network--including buildout of 15,000 kilometers of fiber specifically to support the event--viewers worldwide enjoyed a largely glitch-free streaming experience.

U.S. viewers complained during key matches that their WatchESPN stream was affected. But Univision streamers didn't suffer the same fate, suggesting a glitch somewhere else along ESPN's delivery path.

A bigger issue than buffering, however, may be latency: Like other U.S. viewers, I noticed a nearly two-minute lag between ESPN's broadcast of the U.S.-Germany match and its WatchESPN stream. That is not an issue limited to the World Cup: Last fall, watching the World Series over Aereo's online stream, key plays were delivered more than a minute after broadcast viewers received them--as my neighbors' howls of triumph next door indicated painfully. The complexity involved with delivery--where transcoding, filtering, and the quality of the last mile all play a time-delaying role--is a key issue for live sports online.

iPhone leads mobile device vanguard

Viewers overwhelmingly turned to their mobile devices to watch the World Cup, with 79.3 percent of streams through Verizon Digital Media Services' (VDMS) content delivery network going mobile.

Among viewing devices, Apple's iPhone ruled: 39.5 percent of VDMS streams were viewed through iPhone versus 28 percent through an Android device. Just under 12 percent accessed streams through the iPad.

By comparison, just 15.2 percent of the World Cup audience viewed the matches on their desktop computers, the chart below shows.

Verizon Digital Media World Cup

World Cup streaming viewership by device, from streams handled by VDMS. (Courtesy of Verizon Digital Media Services)

Live sports and OTT: Two great ideas merge

While analysts knew that 2014 would see a lot of additional exposure for online video, thanks to the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February combined with the World Cup, streaming rates and the ways viewers were accessing events far surpassed expectations.

It's unlikely that we'll see such massive peaks in traffic again this year: The bigger viewing numbers show up during long tournaments and events, like the Games, the World Cup, and in the U.S., March Madness or the World Series. But expect 6, 7 or 8 Tbps to show up again in 2016 during the Summer Games in Rio (which will also benefit from Brazil's fiber focus) and to be the norm during the 2018 World Cup.

As more and more sports fans turn online to get their favorite sports, the OTT model is becoming ever more viable. WWE, for example, has gone all-in with its WWE Network, streaming Wrestlemania live online to its rabid fan base--which jumped right onto the $10 per month service when it debuted earlier this year, passing 600,000 in just a month.

Despite its glitches, though, the World Cup online didn't disappoint. And it likely, hopefully, has turned the heads of advertising executives, helping generate more enthusiasm for online advertising that could be critical to funding improvement of the live online sports experience.--Sam