Friday the 13th was lucky for basketball fans and Internet surfers. In the first-ever live Webcast of an NBA game, those with broadband access were able to watch the Dallas Mavericks play the Sacramento Kings at near 30-f/s quality with CD-quality audio for free on NBA.com and REAL.com.
According to RealNetworks, the Webcast generated 120,000 visits from 87 countries, including approximately 30,000 from China alone.
Brenda Spoonemore, vice president of the NBA's Internet Services, reports that real-time visitor feedback was mostly positive. The purpose of the experimental Webcast was "to find out how fans want to receive the content." Since last year, fans have been able to watch video highlights, though not until after a game has ended.
The Web-only event is part of the NBA's plans to Webcast a series of games by its new eight-team developmental league beginning in the fall. ESPN will broadcast several of the minor-league games on-air; the NBA will distribute the remaining contests exclusively over the Web.
"This will be the first true Internet league," Spoonemore points out. "We're looking for the best ways to distribute the games in a format that fans like. This gives us a six-month lead-time to test games on the Internet and get it right before the new league's debut."
The goal is to learn fans' viewing habits. "From the Mavericks-Kings game, we learned that this is certainly a broadband experience," she says. "If you don't have broadband connection, it's really a novelty that's not much fun to watch. We had a certain number of fans that were on with a dial-up modem, but their experience wasn't as good as you would need to watch a full game."
People on DSL, in particular, had "an extremely good experience," according to Spoonemore, "and they let us know about it."
For the Webcast, the multi-camera feed from the NBA's Broadcast Operations crew was sent through Real Networks encoding software to the Internet. A few extra broadcast cameras were used, mainly set up at low angles. Because of the limited frame size, low angles work better over the Internet, according to Spoonemore. Fans view the games using RealNetworks RealVideo and RealAudio players.
"When we encode video streams or clips for our Web site, we always place an emphasis on cleanliness in the picture, but, if the first images we get are not shot at low angles, we go back and substitute them because that's really the only way you can follow the action [on computer]," she explains.
For the live Mavericks-Kings Webcast, NBA.com also utilized user-controlled 360-degree streaming video from Be Here Corp., Los Angeles. Its Internet NVC technology enabled viewers to pan, tilt and zoom in on the game action at will. Be Here's camera was installed courtside on the scorer's table. Video footage captured through a fisheye lens was processed in real time with Be Here's patented imaging software and streamed immediately to fans across the Internet. Ambient audio was married to the 360-degree views.
In February, Be Here produced navigable streaming-video coverage of selected portions of the NBA's All-Star Weekend.
Another technology allows NBA.com visitors to create personal highlight reels from plays that occur during a particular game, though not in real time. Approximately 10 minutes after each quarter ends, fans can access video and audio highlights of user-defined players or plays from that quarter. This functionality, introduced during the Mavericks-Kings game as "In Progress Highlights," is provided by Convera, a company created by the combination of Intel's Interactive Media Services division with asset-management–software supplier Excalibur Technologies. Last fall, the NBA signed a 10-year agreement with and took an equity stake in Convera.
There will be no live Webcasts during the NBA playoffs, but several WNBA games might be live on the Web during the summer. Convera's technology will be available to Web viewers during the playoffs.
"One of my roles is to make sure that we don't put things out there that are not viable products," Spoonemore says. "I don't mind experimenting along with our fans, but we're not going to make it available until we feel it's a reasonably good experience. I don't want to wear out my welcome.
"It's important that you be honest with your fans," she adds. "We realize that the Internet experience is in no way competitive with the experience you get watching broadcast TV. But there is value in what we offer, and we've shown that fans like it as well."
The NBA currently streams audio-only feeds of every home and away game on its Web site.