Play Ball! A look inside MLB's high-tech media center
Major League Baseball Advanced Media’s network operations center in New York looks a bit like a NASA control room. Computers cover several rows of tables, all facing a wall covered with eleven massive flat-screen displays. To complete the space-shot feel, there’s a red digital clock just below, slowly ticking toward blastoff—er, first pitch.
This room (and several other floors of workstations and servers) in a converted 19th-century cracker factory is the center of live sports streaming in the U.S. MLBAM collects, processes, and streams video, audio, and metadata of every game of the baseball season—as well as numerous other events, such as the NCAA basketball tournament and ESPN’s entire slate of streaming-video broadcasts.
It’s funny to consider that not too long ago, Major League Baseball was viewed as the most backward, the most hidebound of all the major U.S. sporting leagues. But the founding of the MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM) division—it’s a venture jointly owned by all 30 clubs, who share its profits—turned out to be a masterstroke.
Nestled in New York City’s funky Chelsea Market (rather than the league’s more staid offices uptown), this is an operation with the feel of a high-tech startup. There’s a massive network infrastructure that allows high-definition video from dozens of sources to flow in, huge racks of servers to encode video in a dozen different formats, a sea of iMacs that are used to add pitch-by-pitch metadata to the party, and teams of developers to create apps on platforms as disparate as iOS, Flash, PlayStation 3, and even the LG TV set I have in my living room.
I visited MLBAM during Spring Training, and things were relatively quiet—but beginning with Thursday’s Opening Day the place will become a hive of activity. Once all 30 clubs are playing on the same day, the control room will be processing more than two-dozen high-definition video feeds.
It’s the media hub of baseball, so much so that when league officials decided to institute limited in-game instant-replay review of certain calls, they set up the system inside this very room. (It’s since been moved to a smaller room on the opposite side of the big video wall, dubbed the “replay operations center.”)
Fans watching a game on their iPad, Apple TV, Roku player, or any other device might not realize just what’s involved in getting that video stream to their device. It’s a process that begins in the network operations center, which is tied in to every major-league stadium and all of the team broadcasters. Those video feeds are encoded into 12 different bit rates and formats (all using the H.264 video codec).
Even that process isn’t a simple: the video engineers in the control room have built custom pre-sets for encoding video from different ballparks, day and night, as well as pre-sets for different broadcasters. That’s because a network like ESPN might prefer a warmer color palette with more saturation than a local cable broadcaster, and of course the lighting and coloring in each ballpark can be quite different.
And then there’s encoding that video down in a way that it can reach a device at the end of a phone, or even a slow home Internet connection.
“Mobile is challenging,” said Joe Inzerillo, MLBAM’s senior VP of multimedia and distribution, as we stood in the middle of the network operations center. After all the work MLBAM does to make sure the high-definition video it receives is of perfect quality, then it’s time to crush it into something a mobile device can receive. “It’s like ordering a nice meal, made for you by a chef, and then discovering you have to put it through a straw.”
Inzerillo led me across the street to look at the massive amount of hardware powering his operation’s encoding and storage systems. Here are racks of systems, each dedicated to encoding a single stream for a single broadcast at a single bit rate. In the next row is a wall of 750GB hard drives. On a different floor there’s a massive digital tape archive (with 30 petabytes of storage capacity) with a little tape robot zipping from slot to slot.
Meanwhile, back across the street at Chels