One Problem With Live Football on Twitter: Can Twitter Make Sure It’s Actually Live?

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This is what it looks like when you send data across the web.Photo: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Last night’s Bills-Jets football game was the first to be livestreamed on Twitter, and by most accounts, the initial installment of #TNF (Twitter Night Football) went pretty well. The video quality was good; the apps worked well; and the tweets were flowing like a mighty river. Except: Sometimes the tweets about the action were showing up before the action itself. For some users, the video stream was actually a few seconds behind the accompanying tweets, creating a viewing environment in which plays were spoiled moments before they occurred.

This was probably not unexpected: Staggered streaming rates have been happening for as long as video’s been streamed online, and this slight asynchronicity is the cost of doing business. If you’re streaming a football game in your apartment, with no outside input, a ten-second delay won’t really make a difference to your experience. (Unless you have very loud football-fan neighbors, no one will spoil the outcome of close plays.)

But if the unique selling point of your livestream is the “second screen” experience of text accompanying and commenting on the action — and if that text is arriving more quickly than the video — you may have a problem.

Twitter is leaning very heavily on live video like NFL games for its future. It’s a smart bet: At its best, Twitter is a great medium for following along with live events, and in many ways Twitter is already a TV-like medium. Serving up a single package makes for a convenient, easy way to watch sports or award shows or prime-time soaps alongside your friends and favorite commentators.

The problem is that streaming video is a complex enough task in and of itself, even before you get to syncing it up with accompanying tweets. Tweets are easy to send back and forth because they’re strings of text, not video frames; Twitter can be sure that the vast majority of clients receives and loads tweets within a margin so small as to be meaningless. Not so with video. Even if Twitter was sending out video and text at the highest possible speed — completely synced up — shoddy mobile data connections, outmoded Wi-Fi routers, tiered ISP data speeds, and myriad device processors and GPUs all intermingle to turn every single user into a unique edge case. Twitter can do all it can to sync up video and commentary, but even then it might not be enough.