SVG Sit-Down: House of Highlights’ Sam Gilbert on the Live Strategy Behind the HoH Creator League
Twelve-week 1v1 hoops tournament shot with iPhones boosts engagement for the digital brand
In an era when social-media influencers and independent content creators have greater reach and impact than ever, media brands are looking to harness the power of the organic side of digital media.
One of the preeminent brands in digital sports is House of Highlights, the Bleacher Report-owned vertical that built its prestige as a social-media destination for sports highlights and pop culture. These days, HoH is increasingly turning to its own live productions, most notably putting a wrap on a 12-week-long 1-on-1 basketball tournament streamed on YouTube and pitting popular hoops-content creators from across the internet against each other.
The series, the HoH Creator League, wrapped last month and was, by all metrics, a massive hit. According to Bleacher Report, HoH Creator League saw 11 of its 16 matchups trend in YouTube’s top 25, with the championship game hitting the No. 5 spot on YouTube Global Trending. The league registered more than 226 million views and more than 20 million engagements across all House of Highlights social channels.
In an interesting wrinkle, the productions were shot on two iPhones.
House of Highlights Director, Content, Sam Gilbert sat down with SVG to share what his team has learned about these productions and offer his thoughts on the value of engaging with the brand’s following with live, engaging content.
How would you describe the approach your team took to producing these live programs in a less “traditional-television” manner?
One is to, obviously, produce them as cost-efficiently as possible while not reducing any of the audience interest and overall production value. Knowing that they are YouTube-first live streams and knowing that they’re creator-focused, we’re able to allow a slightly less polished production because it’s more natural and authentic to what these audiences are used to seeing on creator pages.
Our focus was giving it to them as raw and as authentic as possible. We used two iPhones. We have some backend technology that we stream back to our New York control room, where we have a single producer/editor or producer/director live-cutting those two streams and a graphic [operator] who’s updating the score.
Other than that, this was very much focused on getting the audience there to see what they want and then delivering it to them in the cleanest way possible. It’s 1-on-1 basketball; we’re not adding any bells and whistles. [The audience] knows what they want to see, and we’re giving it to them exactly how they want it.
When was this an idea that you guys started knocking around, and when did it make the shift from an idea to something you actually decided you could execute on?
We initially dabbled in 1v1 basketball back in 2020 with a few one-off events. We did them with a couple content creators — FaZe Rug played against his brother, Brawadis — and that was our first real test of an iPhone stream. It did decently well. I think we had 20,000 concurrent [viewers], but it was definitely the most we had ever done at the time and for the least cost that we’ve ever had to do it. We were able to see at least that nugget of thought that these don’t need to be highly produced pieces of content to perform at the level that we want.
Then we tested again with FaZe Rug playing Aiden Ross, who is another prominent streamer/creator. That one led to 70,000 live concurrent viewers. Again taking that performance-first cost metric, it was the most efficient thing we’ve ever done. The audience seemed to love the structure of how we developed the 1v1 game. It felt more focused on Gen Z, not as buttoned-up as what other basketball or sports tournaments in general look like these days.
Once we had a few of those under our belts, we needed to solve for the one-offs, where we would have a week of lead-up [to promote]. We would have the main event; it would be a huge success, but then we would be dark the day after. We were starting from the ground up, again, on how we build all of that anticipation for the next one.
We looked to figure out how to make it more of an always-on experience. Let’s take all the things that we love about regular sports leagues and strip away all the things that we think are unnecessary or just bog it down. That’s where we got eight creators in the pick-up basketball space to sign up to a 12-week season where they played weekly. That way, we were able to build that storyline, create that compounding effect from week to week, up until the finals.
Were there any substantial challenges, technical/ operational obstacles that your team had to overcome to feel confident about executing live?
The biggest difficulty that we had to overcome was the varying levels of production within the same production. We had this fully built-out studio in New York where we do our NFL Draft shows and all of our very high end executions. It can host 20 production people, and it’s got everything that you need. Meanwhile, onsite, we have two people holding cellphones in their hand. How do you get those to work together naturally and keep the authentic visuals that we want to have come across on-screen to our audience?
Another one of the biggest struggles that we had the entire time was cellular service. We have some Wi-Fi connections that we bring with us remotely, but, depending on the indoor facility, that’s where you would see a lot of our issues.
Audio was another interesting one, especially for the finals. We had our TikTok duo with the Broadcast Boys, who were hosting the semifinal games. Allowing that audio to translate both in real life for the audience there very naturally through speakers but also not having it come back as an echo through the iPhone cameras and the onboard mics from their cameras was a challenge.
It’s about keeping in mind that we’re working with cellphones as our cameras and they’re not as equipped to handle some of the technical aspects that we want and more-real cameras are expected to hold.
In social media, there are varying opinions about the value of live. When does live come into the equation for a brand like yours? When you and your team sit down and plan content, what factors into the decision on making something “worth” going live?
Ultimately, it starts with the idea itself and whether we feel that the idea benefits from appointment viewing and the natural inclination to tune in. Most [that do benefit] are head-to-head competitions in a physical sport. That could be basketball, we’ve done dodgeball, we’ve done some football stuff.
There’s also the factor of fan interaction that I think is super key. If we think that there are ways for us to allow the fans to interact and engage with the content in real time and it adds an element that will keep them in, that’s a big differentiator, too. For example, we did a Go-Kart Grand Prix, where we put up polls on YouTube asking who should get a power boost and we would let the fans vote. Whoever the fans voted for got an extra 10-mph speed on their cart while in the race. If we have those sorts of tools through YouTube that we feel will enhance the production, we definitely want to have it be live.
It also allows us to build anticipation. I think, if we did a VOD version of a 1v1 basketball game, it would likely perform well but you don’t get that lead-up excitement and that realness of being there as it’s happening. The audience knows anything could happen because it’s not pre-scripted. With a VOD, you know that, if something went wrong or if something wasn’t supposed to happen, it is not in that VOD. When we’re live, you don’t have that. I think it entices people to stay around longer.
From a macro-level perspective for House of Highlights, Bleacher Report, and the B/R app, our focus is on more live-streaming content. Right now, our focus is to continue to test, to push boundaries, and to see what works and what doesn’t in the live space in particular. This creatively was our first go at it, and it was successful, thankfully.
For a couple of years during COVID, you had to think about content within certain confines: what can we create without leaving where we are. Now that we’re getting back out into the physical world, what has it been like for you and for the team to reopen segments of your brain that maybe were forced to sit dormant for a while?
It’s a process. I think we’re still getting there. Most of our content we still put through the lens of not having to be fully COVID-free. We took a strategic approach during the pandemic, trying to come up with concepts that are successful with or without the barriers that we’re putting up ourselves.
For example, we had a lot of COVID precautions in place for [the HoH Creator League]. These were closed sets. Everyone involved had to adhere to our health and safety protocols. But you can see how it very easily translates into a non-COVID world. Let’s open those doors and have hundreds of their fans come in. I think that’s it. It’s really just taking what we’re doing because we know it works and expanding on it to make it feel more accessible to people in real life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.