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Opinion | The future of sports viewing is interactive

InTheGame co-founder Yaron Kottler explains why the maturing of connected TV technologies, combined with evolving viewing habits, will completely change the viewing experience and how sports content is monetized.

1 March 2022 Yaron Kottler

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It is safe to say that the last 15 years have been the age of the smartphone and while it is anticipated that the industry will continue to sell about 1.9 billion devices annually in the next few years, there is greater innovation and growth percentages seen with connected TV.

The broadcast industry, which felt relatively stagnant until a few years ago, has become more exciting than ever. There are now about between eight and 12 different TV operating systems, depending on how you count the permutations of Android. Hardware manufacturers are not just competing with new and exciting hardware features, such as built-in cameras and digital payment capabilities, but also with software features that range from voice control to built-in over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms.

Media companies are now offering their own OTT platforms with combinations of subscription-based video on demand (SVOD), advertising-based video on demand (AVOD), or pay-per-view (PPV) business models. Some broadcasters like Sky have even come out with their own TVs. Most importantly, connected TVs are now full-fledged computers that can run software and are always connected to the internet.

These advancements enable lots of new and exciting capabilities but also remind everyone of the TV’s hidden power of the remote control, with these having become simpler too. Remote controls now often come with fewer buttons and more intuitive designs. Parallel to these technical developments, generational viewing habits have changed too.

Viewing habits have evolved

It’s practically impossible for viewers to sit through full matches without doing a variety of other things, mainly on social media. A study conducted by Microsoft in 2015 has proven that younger generations have shorter attention spans. Millennials and Gen Z specifically have attention spans of 12 seconds and eight seconds, respectively. They simply don’t have the patience to sit and watch any sort of content for hours at a time.

Studies focused on the sports industry have shown that those in Gen Z, in comparison to millennials, are ten per cent less likely to watch sports often and twice as likely to not watch sports at all. In addition, 48 to 58 per cent of National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL), and Major League Baseball (MLB) fans between the ages of 18 and 34 prefer watching highlights over full games. There is no doubt that today’s viewers are ‘multitasking’ while watching sports games or matches, and in a world of Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and so on, it is not enough to just watch anymore.

What is thriving in terms of extended dwell time are live streaming platforms like Twitch, where there is an emphasis on viewer engagement. The focus Twitch places on creating an immersive experience has manifested a certain culture where viewers feel connected to the stream and its community. It is this culture that has allowed Twitch to grow rapidly.

A new way

Enabling viewers to connect with their content and a wider community will transform passive viewing into a new, more immersive experience. The industry is already leaning into this trend, with OTT services now seeking to integrate engagement features within their video content. These features seek to gamify the experience with reward-based activations, interactive polls or live voting, built-in video, chat options for fans to watch together and more. These feaures work together to help OTTs evolve their viewing experience and drive viewership. Additionally, these innovations create new monetisation opportunities for brands and advertisers to engage with viewers or facilitate ecommerce.

Recognising this engagement opportunity, InTheGame has built unique interactive technology for content owners to create and manage interactive formats across all connected devices, with a strong focus on connected TVs.

The Inthegame founders (from left to right): Yaron Kottler, Aviram Sharon and Itai Arbel

It has to be easy. It has to be native

The viewer interaction vision described above is not new. In fact, it has been around for 15 to 20 years since mobile devices became capable of offering it. There have been some attempts to implement ‘second screen’ solutions that offer engagement via another interface (normally a mobile device), but few that bring it all into a single viewing window. While these more rudimentary solutions still have a role to play, they tend to suffer from the significant disadvantage of not being easy to use. This often translates to low engagement ratios of around one to three per cent.

Native viewer Interaction or ‘first screen’ solutions, similar to what InTheGame has developed, have been known to deliver engagement ratios above 50 per cent, with peaks of as high as 80 per cent. The right interactive experience will simply appear on the screen at the right time and is often correlated to the content. For example, asking a viewer to predict if a goal is about to happen or for their opinion on a topic being debated. 

Lessons learned

It is clear that viewer interactivity done right can enrich the viewer’s experience and truly set apart a streaming service from its competitors. Active engagement features help increase viewership, support retention efforts, help meet content discovery goals and generate monetisation opportunities, but there is a lot more to interactivity than displaying popups for viewers to click on. Goals for pieces of content, platforms, target audiences and sponsors are different; therefore each campaign must be different.

A typical implementation process can be divided into several areas; administering personalised, engaging content; customisation of the user interface (UI); branding implementation; advertising and ecommerce campaigns; measurement and optimisation; and so on. While those managing OTT platforms should also take notice of the simplicity of the tech installation process, it is important to keep in mind the mentioned specifics when selecting the right solution for the users interaction journey.

Imagine this

Pick a favourite sport of yours to watch. It could be a regular team sport like soccer, cricket, or Formula One, or a one-off event like the Olympics. Picture a remote in your hand while you are watching the action, responding to fun prediction or knowledge-based questions directly associated with the key moments on your screen. Imagine participating in interactive experiences during half time, being asked to rate the performance of your team or share your thoughts with other fans about a contentious moment. You can enjoy watching content together with friends or competing against others for prizes. If you feel so inclined, there is also the option of purchasing a merchandise or tickets from an official store.

Interactive experiences as such have already been implemented by InTheGame, most notably in the broadcast of last year’s Tokyo Olympics in Israel via a partnership with Cellcom, the market-leading OTT platform. During Cellcom’s Olympics coverage millions of interactions were administered, varying from predictions, trivia questions, performance ratings and opinion polls. Simply by participating viewers could earn points and rise on the leaderboard, with multiple opportunities to compete and win prizes. With 45 per cent engagement amongst households exposed to the experience, Cellcom proceeded with other interactive campaigns in which viewership numbers were proven to be a lot higher for viewers exposed to InTheGame’s interactive experience.

Looking into the future, these features and other interactive formats will become integral to viewing, advertising, and commerce experiences. There is a lot of talk around Web3.0 and the metaverse (specifically its role within broadcast sports), but regardless of the future of digital, the rise of interactive, connected technology will make video even more comparable to the experiences associated with the internet today.

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