Turner Sports Unveils Updated MMOD for Broadband, Mobile, Tablet

The beginning of March means mere days separate college basketball fans from the best three weeks of the year, and, thanks to Turner Sports, the three weeks of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament will be even better online, on tablet, and on mobile. As part of the 14-year multiplatform partnership of Turner, CBS, and the NCAA, Turner Sports Interactive has officially taken the reins of NCAA March Madness on Demand (MMOD). The newly unveiled 2011 edition of the live-streaming product, which is now available online and as a free iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad app, features a host of improvements and new features.

Broadband: Bigger and Better
The broadband version of MMOD features two important changes: in dimension and in encoding. In previous years, MMOD ran in two versions, Flash and Silverlight. The Silverlight version used different encoding profiles to change the size of the stream, but the Flash version did not. For the 2011 player, Turner Sports decided to focus purely on Flash and has brought a number of video improvements to the single-version broadband player.

“It’s going to be a dynamic-bitrate stream that will take users as high as 1.6 MB and then scale down from there,” explains Michael Adamson, VP of sports new products for Turner Sports. “As long as your bandwidth is good, we believe that you’re going to get the best experience you can.”

When visitors initially log into MMOD online, the size of the initial viewing window is larger than it was in past years, offering fans a bigger, better video experience from the start. Once fans switch from the main view to the Game Center View, each mosaic video feed will be a separate purpose-built stream optimized for that size. In the past, larger video was scaled down to fit the Game Center viewing windows, requiring buffering and causing inconsistent quality.

“One of the things that we wanted to make sure we got right is that, when you switch from that full-size screen to the smaller Game Center screen, we didn’t go through any buffering,” Adamson says. “So far in our tests, it’s really seamless and elegant. I’ve been very impressed with the tech team pulling that off.”

Turner Sports has also been working with its encoding partner, Akamai, on new schemes to deploy their latest technology, which Adamson believes will also produce a better viewing experience for fans.

iPhone, iPod, iPad on IOS
For the Apple family of products, Turner Sports has created a separate version of MMOD, using HTTP streaming to provide dynamic-bitrate profiles on the IOS platforms. Fans who pull up MMOD on the iPad will automatically go to the Game Center view first, so that 3G users will get a 3G-friendly stream as they enter the application.

“The view that you see in that Game Center is the exact same dimensions and stream settings as you would see on the iPhone,” Adamson explains.

In the broadband version of MMOD, dynamic-bitrate streaming is applied to the full-screen experience, while the Game Center experience uses completely separate streams. On the iPad, however, the scaling goes the opposite way.

“The Game Center experience on the iPad is the dynamic bitrate allowing for 3G,” Adamson says. “When you go to full screen, we’re going to bump you up to a high-end broadband stream at 1.8 MB if you’re on WiFi. Everyone who saw it running on WiFi thinks it looks gorgeous. We’re very excited about this new platform; this is the first time March Madness will show up on an iPad, so we really want to get it right.”

A New Numbers Game
In addition to three new television networks involved in producing this year’s NCAA Tournament (TBS, TNT, and truTV joining CBS), four new teams will be brought into the tournament, which has created new bracket variables that did not exist in the past.

“From how those teams were going to be seeded to how regions were going to be assigned and how selections were going to work, it became very apparent, from a logic standpoint, how challenging that is,” Adamson says. “We’ve had to rebuild our entire bracket data structure to anticipate all these new scenarios and logic problems.”

To solve those problems, Turner’s engineering teams created a new data-feed system. As the regions are announced on Selection Sunday, the system will automatically populate brackets on NCAA.com, SI.com, the official bracket game, and all MMOD products, across platforms.

“The good news is, we won’t have to worry about things being different,” Adamson says. “It will all be identical. Figuring out the logic of the brackets was a challenge for us.”

Another challenge that Turner Sports is facing is the increased scale of the project. Because the IOS products are free and the iPad product is new, Adamson expects a significant lift in live-streaming traffic versus the broadband product alone.

“We have taken great care in doing some intense network planning, working very closely on the IOS side with Apple and AT&T, as well as with our encoding partner, Akamai, and our production partner, MLBAM,” Adamson says. “A lot of thought has been put into what impact the free IOS is going to have on traffic and what usage behavior we think we’re going to see versus what we see in our other sports mobile products. That was no small task either.”

More Stats, a Channel Map
New for the broadband product this year is an expanded stats experience within the Game Center View, “our first chance to take the NCAA experience and add some visualized stats and storytelling,” Adamson says. Game Center View will feature box scores, team leaders, scoring streaks, foul trouble, and biggest lead, among other stats.

A new feature for all iterations of the application is My Channels, designed to help fans navigate the four television networks, across which they can find every game of the tournament.

“We’re excited about that, not because we think people will use it a lot but because we think people will absolutely appreciate it once they use it the first time,” says Adamson. “Working with a national cable database and ZIP-code service, you put in your ZIP code, and it tells you where every game is going to be played. Once you’ve pulled your ZIP code and service once, it populates your channel lineup across the entire schedule.”

Also new for this year is a social arena, which will extend onto Facebook and NCAA.com. Complete with live social hosts, fan comments, and courtside reporters from CBS and TBS, the Social Arena will allow fans to comment on games, interact with hosts, and rate highlights.

MMOD will provide live-streaming video of every game of the 68-team NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament beginning with the First Four on March 15. The application will be available to download for free for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch starting March 10 from the Apple App Store.

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