The age of playable sports content
New media formats change content. They always have done. While archetypal stories persist across generations and cultures, the way in which they are told at different times is defined by the dominant media of the day.
Take the three-minute pop song for example. That format came to dominate popular music in the latter half of the 20th century because of a change in media technology.
Shellac records replaced the phonograph cylinder and so the production and distribution method of choice for recorded music became the ten-inch single.
If you wanted to be on the radio or a jukebox in the 1960s or 1970s, you had to make a song that would fit on a single.
It so happened, due to restrictions around sound quality and the required spacing of grooves on those shellac records, that the amount of music they could hold was just over three minutes and so that became the standard for musicians to adhere to.
As Marshall McCluhan said, the medium (ten-inch singles) became the message (pop songs). Some were good, some bad; some hits, some flops.
Three-minute pop songs became the standard to which geniuses like Paul McCartney and Carole King tested themselves. In another age, perhaps these artists would have been writing symphonies.
In sport, we have our own pre-defined formats (90-minute football matches, five-day cricket Tests) that have bumped up alongside the dominant media formats of the day (live television, radio, even social media) quite symbiotically and created a self-supporting ecosystem where sports have helped media businesses grow and media businesses have in turn rewarded sports handsomely.
Now, thanks to a proliferation of new platforms, devices, and features coupled with great strides in connectivity we have a cacophony of new content standards.
We have got to grips quite quickly with some (tweets, stories, video loops, ephemeral media etc) because they have all been generally supportive of the main product - the live broadcast - despite second-screening and allegedly shortening attention spans.
We are seeing increasing clues that media format disruption is once again affecting the underlying ‘product’, turning symphonies to pop songs.
If we look to drama, video on-demand technology has already had an impact on how narrative formats are being packaged, distributed and consumed.
Binge-watching is redefining how television series are written. As one episode autoplays into another the audience no longer has to wait a week to find out what happens next, and this in turn has a bearing on how often plot call-backs are required.
As ad breaks no longer define the SVOD experience, so writers can dispense with mid-show cliffhangers written to entice audiences back after the break.
Yes, sport still remains one of the few entertainment formats that drives live audiences but the inconvenient truth is that these audiences now skew older.
Content you can play
Netflix’s recent Black Mirror Bandersnatch gave a modern spin on the old ‘choose your own adventure’ format
Until recently there has always been a relatively hard line between interactive and passive media: stuff you watch vs stuff you play.
Interactive media allows the consumer to take part, to play a role in the experience and sometimes even the outcome of content. Passive media on the other hand, is produced for consumers to lean back and enjoy.
Increasingly, there are signs that the next media leap will be the collision of interactive and passive media consumption.
Today's dominant interactive media we call gaming, today's dominant passive media we still tend to call TV (ignore what the screen is called or how the picture gets there).
Google recently announced Stadia, a gaming platform that will be integrated with YouTube letting users watching video game footage instantly click to play the game – an advance that promises to blur the boundaries between watching and playing. While early hype should be tempered, you can see the direction of travel.
Netflix’s recent Black Mirror Bandersnatch gave a modern spin on the old ‘choose your own adventure’ (CYOA) format, which coincidentally is also seeing a renaissance on voice-enabled smart speakers.
But where old school CYOA was always clunky in book-format, autoplay and voice technologies mean that audiences can make selections and experience the consequences of their decisions in a much more fluid, uninterrupted way.
We are also seeing a growth in formats that mash-up traditional rightsholder IP with user-generated content. This is what TikTok/Douyin is essentially... licensed music alongside video capture, edit, enhancement and distribution tools to create a new content format.
Another example is Twitch Sings, the free-to-play karaoke game that allows users to stream themselves playing the game using their Twitch accounts. An interesting aspect of the service, which has 2000 licensed songs, is that it supports duets using asynchronous multiplayer. One user sings, saves and uploads one half of the song. The other user does the same. The whole user-generated content experience is gamified on top of existing IP - as you sing more songs, you earn XP and coins which can be used to level up your profile and buy new in-game items for your avatar.
Messaging platforms too have made a variety of enhancements to their group chat features to attract and retain users and we are also seeing increased evidence of content overlayed on top of streams such as additional statistics or alongside with live chat feeds.
What these developments show is that new media formats are habituating consumers to: one, being more in control of their content; and two, expecting more social or creative experiences built alongside content.
What does this mean for sport?
In sport, we are beginning to adapt to changes in time and attention. There are new formats such as the Hundred and Rugby X, as well as new ways of selling access with the National Basketball Association's (NBA) micro-transaction experiments - packaging ten-minute passes for US$0.99 or fourth quarter access for US$1.99 - which are driven by changing media.
Looking further ahead though, it is conceivable that for younger audiences, being able to participate in, manipulate and interact with content may become normal, if not an expectation.
The economy of the sports industry is built largely on its ability to drive value in one particular medium: live video.
What we have not grappled with as an industry is how new technology that enables seamless interactivity, placing audiences inside content with an active input in its outcome - allowing audiences to change storylines in real-time or instantly join gaming streams from their mobile phones - might completely change expectations around content consumption.
If audiences are increasingly wanting to ‘play the content’ sports properties will need to consider how their base-level offering (the games) can layer on this interactivity.
Sports television purists will tell you that they have tried various ways of making broadcasts more interactive, personalised and immersive over the years - alternative camera views, virtual reality (VR) views, player cams, alternative commentary - and for the most part the audiences have not really engaged.
That said, it has not been an audience expectation to date and innovations in sports broadcasting have generally been about giving an augmented or alternative experience around the live action. It has not fundamentally changed the content. It has not turned the symphony into the pop song and it has not unbundled the album.
As more technologies emerge, we are only just beginning to imagine new ways in which features like touch-screen manipulation of video (pinch, pull, swipe) or the proliferation of devices with sensors (facial recognition, gyroscopes, accelerometers, GPS/location) and voice controls will change the creation and consumption of sport.
It is possible that interactivity will create new sports altogether. Formula E’s fan boost was an early attempt to allow audiences to change and gamify live sports through remote interactivity but as technology improves and people innovate around it, you can see how new formats could emerge where competition is rooted in spectator engagement.
Smart organisations are preparing to serve consumers who may one day be expecting more 'playable' rather than 'watchable' content. Capitalising on these trends will be key to mitigating against the business risks they present.
This article was first published on SportsPro on August 1st 2019