Deeper Dive—The CDN battle rumbling underneath livestreamed sports

World Cup ball
The 2018 World Cup was a big livestreaming test for multiple CDN vendors. (Pixabay)

Competition, and the concept of a winner and a loser, are what make sports compelling. Those same ideas are at play in streaming live sports—at least, for the content delivery network vendors facilitating those streams.

During any large-scale livestreaming event expected to attract a large audience—typically live sports—broadcasters and programmers will often employ multiple CDN providers for the sake of redundancy and efficiency. It also allows the broadcaster to load balance and keep streams as close to broadcast quality as possible. It probably goes without saying that sports fans—particularly in the social media era—are fairly unforgiving when it comes to interruptions in the action.

This week DAZN, a sports streaming service plotting a U.S. launch for later this year, selected Limelight Networks, a CDN provider as well as a cloud security and edge computing firm, to help with delivering on-demand and live sports. DAZN laid out the importance of CDNs like Limelight in keeping livestreams on track.

“No one wants an important play in a game interrupted by buffering,” said Robin Oakley, head of distribution technology at Perform Group, owner of DAZN, in a statement. “Working with Limelight, we’re able to create and deliver a broadcast-like experience low on buffering, low on startup times and high on picture quality.”

Limelight released a case study alongside the news and detailed how it uses a multi-CDN approach to achieve low latency livestreaming and be ready for traffic spikes during live events.

Mike Milligan, senior director of product and solution marketing at Limelight, said broadcasters using multiple CDNs can monitor in real-time how each CDN in functioning.

“If one CDN is delivering a better quality or if you’re a global broadcaster and one CDN is delivering better to a certain part of the world, they will shift traffic to that CDN,” Milligan said.

Milligan said that Limelight loves to go head-to-head with other CDNs because it means it’s trying to give its customer the best performance.

“If we are giving them the best performance, they will generally give us more traffic to deliver because they’re going to go to the CDN with the best performance,” said Milligan. “It is head-to-head. It’s not that we compete directly with each other but we compete by trying to give our customers the best service.”

Like a coach deciding which players start and which ride the bench, broadcasters closely monitor the performance of individual CDNs. Milligan said that many of Limelight’s biggest customers will measure the number of viewers that experience rebuffering during a live stream and report back to CDNs with percentages of viewers affected. He said CDNs then must work with broadcasters to try to bring those numbers down.

“We’ll try to dig into that to understand if it was something on our end, something with the mobile network or a bottleneck at a peering point. We want to work with our customers to understand what it is they’re ultimately seeing…” Milligan said.

Milligan said that many of the larger streamers have already been using the multi-CDN approach for live sports for a while now, but that as those types of events continue to attract larger streaming audiences, more broadcasters and programmers are beginning to appreciate having multiple CDNs available.

Besides DAZN, sports streaming services like ESPN+, Turner’s Bleacher Report Live and Amazon—with its high-profile NFL Thursday Night Football games and Premier League Soccer matches—will all have livestreamed sports events with the potential to attract massive audiences. Not to mention broadcast partners for leagues like MLB, NBA, NHL and the NFL—particularly the Super Bowl, which set a streaming record earlier this year.

With a seemingly endless supply of live sports and more people opting to stream instead of watch on traditional TV, CDNs will have plenty more opportunities to face off behind the scenes.