AUDL Alley Cats Replay and “High Quality Streaming”

I just replayed the Indianapolis Alley Cats and the Columbus Cranes game.  It was interesting to watch the footage a second time.  I really enjoyed taking a closer look at the team strategies and trying to figure out how the teams were adjusting to each other throughout the game, but I didn’t get to do too much of that, as the camerawork was so poor.

*Spoiler Alert* At times, I can get pretty mad or energized.  Watching this replay was one of those times.

I found myself constantly distracted goliveultimate’s poor camerawork/video coverage, and worse yet, so much of the action happened off screen it was difficult to understand what the offensive/defensive strategy actually was.   I already talked about this when I discussed my first impression of the league, but everything I noticed live about the camerawork was worse on replay.  It was so bad in fact that I felt the need to vent.

Please understand that I am primarily discussing this as a means of constructive criticism.  If it hasn’t become glaringly obvious, ultimate is very important to me.  I am excited about the prospect of professional ultimate.  After seeing the work and effort the players put forth, I’d hate to see the AUDL fail because of poor video/broadcast production quality.  The production was so poor from a technical standpoint thought, that I am seriously concerned about its impact on the league if it isn’t fixed immediately.

**huge tangent**

You may wonder if I really think this league will live or die at the hands production.  I do.  I hope I’m wrong, but I do.  The problem is money.  The league hasn’t advertised heavily on a national level.  I suspect they don’t have the cash for that, as it is expensive.  They also need to find a way to leverage potential customers into watching the games.

As a result, he AUDL needs to be cyclically profitable.  They need to make money off their initial customer base in order to be able to spend money on advertising/expansion to increase their customer base.  Once they have enough eyes watching the games, they will be able to sell more advertising.  Plus, if people attend or stream regularly, they are more likely to be willing to buy merchandise.  The whole system really builds on itself, so the AUDL needs to make money so it can make more money.

Right now the AUDL’s revenue channels all funnel through people attending/streaming the games.  As far as attendance, there was some really solid attendance for a couple of the opening day games.  I think the Spinners game had something like 1700 fans in attendance.  When you factor promotional tickets, kids, and everything, I imagine that number is generously closer to 1200-1300 for paying fans.  That is still pretty good.

Not all games faired that well though.  The Columbus/Indianapolis game had a few hundred attendees.  It was raining, but it is difficult to tell how much that affected ticket sales and attendance.  You also have to consider these numbers were for the first games of a brand new league.  I’m worried that those numbers will die off a little after the first week, and the middle of the season could get pretty bleak if the fan base doesn’t grow as the season progresses.  Lastly, these demographics are fixed by location.  You can’t sell tickets to people who can’t get to the stadium, so the number of potential customer for potential ticket sales is limited.

You also need to consider teams are going to take a good amount of money to run.   Owners have to be getting a cut from ticket/stream sales in order to fly players around, rent practice facilities, and pay non-volunteer essential staff.  Renting the venue for the games will also be a big expenditure depending on the team.  All this makes me think the league and most teams would be lucky to break even from live attendance as a revenue stream.

If I’m right, I know how much the league is banking on streaming sales to provide income.  It is a good strategy.  There are ultimate fans all over the world that are interested in the AUDL.  The AUDL only currently has teams in the Mid-Eastern United states.  The internet allows the league to harness an enormous fan base, and use that fan base to drive cyclical profitability, and ultimate fans across the web have shown that they are willing to pony up to watch games.

There is a problem however if ticket sales alone aren’t enough to keep the league afloat.  If streaming sales are needed to keep the league and teams out of the red, then the league’s growth and future depend on streaming game sales.

**end huge tangent

This brings me back to the source of my frustration – the video production/coverage of the game.  It has to get much better.  I can watch good ultimate videos on Youtube for free.  I can pay for great live game coverage through CSTV, UltiVillage, or the NexGen Network.  I’m willing to support the AUDL by buying streams initially because I sincerely hope it will get better, and I believe in professional ultimate.

I don’t know who goliveultimate is, but they did the streaming for the game I saw.  I’ve never seen their hat in the ultimate broadcasting ring prior to the AUDL.  They are a division of SoundQue Multimedia who describes themselves as a “broadcast in a box.”  Based on the description, it seems like they are a turnkey solution for streaming video.

I don’t think they have any experience with ultimate.  That makes sense because it didn’t look like they did.  The production team also doesn’t appear to have any experience researching how to broadcast events they don’t have any experience with.

If the AUDL wants to sell streams at a premium price point ($8-$10 per stream), the streams had better be at least as good as other products that are already available.  What goliveultimate produced was not.  It was grainy.  The players were fuzzy, even in the “better quality” replay, and the cameras had limited prospective.  They even attached a shoddy on screen graphic to track the score that just looked tacky.  If they had only failed in that, I would note that the quality needed to be improved and leave it alone.

There was however a bigger problem.  It wasn’t just that the broadcast needed polish.  The video recording they produced wouldn’t have even looked good if you managed to polish it.  The camera operators did not appear to have any idea what they were doing.  This was really just unacceptable.  I noticed the poor camerawork in the live play through, but when I watched the replay, it became clear that the camera crew lacked the skill, the experience, and/or the equipment to effectively capture an ultimate game on video.

To begin with, the camera was almost always focused on the thrower/mark.  That is fine, but the angle was too tight to include the cutters into the frame.  You didn’t get to see hardly any of the downfield cuts that led up to the throw.  This also meant that every time a disc was thrown down field, the camera had to chase the disc to the action.  As a result, the camera often got lost heading to where it was going.  The shot ended up zoomed in on grass in the middle of the field or showing the empty end zone 10 yards to the right of the back cone where “something” happened.  Even if the camera did ultimately point in the right direction, it captured the remnants of the action which the camera had just missed as often as it actually captured the action.

I can’t tell you how many times I missed something: a layout, a goal, a key drop, a great cut, or some other play.  I think there were two cameras, but I’m not sure.  If there were, they were both filming from roughly the same spot and used the same chasing style.

One of my close friends started filming games last year, while coming to watch her husband play.  She used this chasing style out of necessity.  She had never filmed anything before.  She was using a Sony Handycam, and she lacked bleachers or any other means of getting a better angle of the action.  Despite all this, she still missed less action than they did.

High quality productions of ultimate solve the camera chasing issue primarily by not doing it.  They typically use a wider angle (as is done in soccer) and then zoom in on the action.  This makes sure the audience doesn’t miss anything, while allowing tight shots of really great plays.  UltiVillage used an end zone perspective for some of their ETP games, which provided a different angle, but they still used a wide shot for most of the action.  Sometimes another camera is used to offer a different perspective or to get close-up action shots.  The NexGen tour did a particularly good job of this, and it allowed for some really spectacular replays.

It is clear goliveultimate dropped this disc on this one.  There is film out there that they could have studied in order to produce a quality product.  They must have chosen to not bother.  All it takes is a little research, a little experience, a little knowledge of the sport, and/or a little planning to make the live broadcast of ultimate work visually.  I could be nice and just blame the rain.  To be sure, players blame wind and rain for dropping the disc all the time.  The rain may have caused other production problems like the feed, but the lack of professionalism displayed in the first broadcast had nothing to do with rain or wind.

It was bad enough that it makes me not want to pay for games exclusively because I don’t want to support a broadcast company that thinks this level of work is acceptable, and I question a professional league that would hire them.  Still, I have to place most of the blame at the hands of goliveultimate based on my observations.  Goliveultimate pretty much accepted a check to film an event when they didn’t know how to do it.  They didn’t look at how other professional quality productions were filmed in the past.  Then, they showed up and slapped “that’ll do” onto a production which is announcing the AUDL to the world.  It is just plain unacceptable.

If I were Josh Moore, I’d be livid.  I’d be limping around like Brodie with my ankle taped up, because I’d just broke my foot off in goliveulitmate’s ass.  I’d be furious that a wounded and soaring Smith sky’d into ESPN’s Top 10 via footage that wasn’t taken by a goliveultimate camera, or if I’m somehow wrong and it was a golive camera, I’d still be furious that clip didn’t ever make it into the live feed or the replay.  I’d be trying to make sure that my biggest revenue stream and cyclical profit generator, live streaming, looked amazing for this weekend, or I’d be finding someone who can deliver that kind of production.  This league, these players, and all the fans deserve better.

Like many fans, I’m willing to weather this storm, especially since the AUDL is so new.  I’ll be watching to see if things improve, but if things don’t improve I can’t guarantee how much longer…

What Worked and What Needed Work: The AUDL Week 1

I spent the last few days writing about the AUDL.  After opening day, I wanted to provide you with my first impression.  Please note that I was only able to watch one game, so my perspective is limited.  I watched the Columbus Cranes play the Indianapolis Alley Cats.  I’ll probably be watching the second game later this week, as it just recently became available to order.

Overall, I was very happy with what I saw on opening day.  The league met most of my expectations, and it even managed to exceed a few.  I think this season is going to be a lot of fun to watch.  That doesn’t mean there weren’t some big areas for improvement, and to be fair, my expectations were low for some things.  When I consider all the good and the bad though, it was a good day for professional ultimate.

There are really two general areas I considered in coming to this conclusion: the actual game itself and the other non-game related factors like the support crew, technology, etcetera.

The game itself was really interesting.  The overall experience felt more fluid and moved at a little faster pace than USA Ultimate events.  I think the officials can take a lot of credit for that.  There were a couple times when calls took a minute to make, but those pauses were few.  Interestingly, these glitches felt like an interruption.  That may sound like a bad thing, but I don’t think it was.

What I’m really trying to say is that aside from a couple hiccups, the game really seemed to flow, even through calls, and it made the whole spectator experience much more enjoyable.  That made the rare times the officials affected the game’s pacing noticeable.

As the officials get better and keep the game constantly moving, I suspect the AUDL games will be more fun for spectators to watch than USA Ultimate games, and I love watching USA Ultimate games.  I have watched literally hundreds of USA Ultimate games.  It is simply that the AUDL game doesn’t bog down for every single call, which makes the spectator experience more enjoyable.

I was pretty happy to note that the players also did a pretty solid job.  I won’t pretend the players are all the best the U.S. has to offer.  I don’t need that though.  Sure, the game wasn’t as clean and controlled as a top tier club game.  The players made some poor throwing decisions, dropped a number of discs, and sometimes fell out of rhythm.  Still, there was a lot of really good ultimate on the field.  The game was packed full of gutsy layouts, aggressive throws, and big air.  The game actually had a lot of similarities in my mind to the Nexgen vs. Revolver game that I attended last fall, which is pretty high praise if you are familiar with those teams.  The bottom line for me is that it was still very entertaining, even if it wasn’t polished.

The rules also didn’t really seem to have a negative effect on the game.  I wrote an earlier post about the rules and concluded that players would still be playing basically the same game of ultimate under AUDL rules as they were under USA Ultimate rules.  For the most part, I think this was true.  The only big difference I saw was that play was more aggressive on defense, as players were less likely to get whistled for every minor infraction.  All in all, I was really pleased with the game.

Things off the field were a different story.  I streamed the game.  I’m glad I did, and I’ll do it again.  Still, the production quality and overall technical feel of the game was pretty poor.  The stream for instance was initially very choppy and often cut out.  The game took place in the wind and rain.  I’m sure that had an effect on the production, and the quality got better as the game went on.  The stream was still considerably less fluid than the play on the field and my experience suffered for it.

I tried to go back and watch some of the game, since I missed portions due to the inconsistent feed, and I discovered another problem; viewers are only licensed one view of a game.  Paying for a live stream or even a replay shouldn’t grant you permanent access to the game, but I figured I’d at least be able to go back and view it for a little while.

At a $10 price point per game, especially in today’s world of DVRs, TiVo, and Youtube, it is a little hard to justify paying to watch the season without being able to replay the broadcast.  What kills me is that the decision to limit views isn’t even logical.  Right now, the best thing for the AUDL is more people watching and re-watching the games.  The league needs exposure.  They need early adopters to evangelize the AUDL.  It is hard to do that when product access is restricted.  After all, it’s not like ESPN is going to be replaying highlights for people that want to see them.

There was an interesting turn of events.  Due to problems with the first stream, live watchers were sent an email giving them the opportunity to watch the game again.  I’m glad they made the effort, but you are usually still limited to just one viewing.  I hope the AUDL strongly reconsiders this decision.

Limiting fans’ access to the games they paid to watch just doesn’t make sense to me.  Personally, I’m not sure why they didn’t follow the Nexgen Network’s model and provide access for a number of days after the event.  If online piracy is a concern, the AUDL should know that if people want to pirate stuff, they are going to find a way.  Why punish the people who are actually paying streamers, but I digress….

On top of my issues with the stream, the picture quality was also rather poor.  Somehow, this got better as the game went on.  I’m not sure how or why.  Again, it was raining and the email I received assured me the replay would be better quality, so I’ll let you know.  As of right now, the live video never looked as crisp or clear as productions produced by Nexgen or UltiVillage.  Still, the video was good enough to show most of the action, and I didn’t grow up on HD.  As a result, I was pretty happy.

I feel like I’ve been piling on the negative here for a little bit, so I want to hit on one of the biggest positives of the game from a production standpoint.  The solo announcer for the game was outstanding.  Providing commentary for a whole game alone is tough.  He was really good.  His coverage was actually some of the best live ultimate commentary I’ve heard, and he did it by himself.  When I re-watch the game, I will give you his name, so he can get the props he rightfully deserves.  He did make a couple small errors, and laid on the praises of Brodie Smith a little too thick.  Despite that, it was top notch live coverage.  Kudos!

Unfortunately, the camera crew found a way to be as bad as the announcer was good.  I’m actually looking forward to watching the game again with no stuttering and better quality, but even if the quality is superb the replay likely won’t be.  As far as I could tell, the camera crew didn’t really have much experience filming ultimate games or other things with motion, or maybe they had an off night or are allergic to rain or something.

The zoom was often too tight.  I like a close look at players but only if I can see what is happening.  I routinely missed out on cutting action or only caught the aftermath of a bid because the camera was busy panning to catch up.  Worse still, a few throws to the end zone were missed because the camera didn’t react to the disc.

All of this could have been avoided by using a wider zoom.  Sure, you wouldn’t get great close-ups, but the possibility of close ups only adds production value if you capture all the action.  In this particular game, they didn’t even get a lot of good close up action anyway, so the whole effort was wasted.  My hope is that for future games, the camera crew watches some other game recordings and learns a better way to portray the action.  It astonishes me that there wasn’t more polish in the production.

Wow!   I just looked back over this article, and it is really long and sometimes pretty negative.  I guess it just shows how excited I was for this league to get started.  Obviously, I was frustrated by a lot of technical issues.  In fact, there were even a couple rants that I cut because they got really off topic.  The truth is that the AUDL as a product on opening day was not polished. It was rough.  There were issues, and the whole production felt strapped together at the last minute.

None of that matters for me though.  I didn’t really expect those things to be great initially.  The experience was enjoyable where it mattered.  The game looked like ultimate, and it felt like ultimate.  As a spectator, it possibly even looked and felt better than USA Ultimate offerings.  The action was really entertaining as was the pace.  The implementation of officials kept the game fluid in a way that never happens at high level USA Ultimate events.  The players were impressive even if they weren’t the best I’ve ever seen.  I’m already starting to root for certain standout players.

Most importantly, all of the things I complained about can all easily be improved upon and made better.  The AUDL has a fantastic product – the game of ultimate.  They just have to find a better way to deliver that product to the fans and enhance the spectator experience.  Once that has happened and the AUDL is polished, it really has the potential to shine.

That is what I think, but I want to hear what you think too.  If you saw the games, reply with a comment or send me a message.  Am I being too optimistic or is anyone else amped after week 1?

 

Off topic – It would also be really cool to hear from people that attended the two games that were not broadcast.  Let me know what you thought of those games.  After all, I got to see a game that went to double overtime/universe point.  I’d love to know if the other games were entertaining without the added drama and tension I got to witness.