WFTDA Playoffs 2013 Diary #3: WTF.tv

Welcome WRDN’s look-back at the 2013 WFTDA playoff season! Your intrepid commentator will opine on four different items in four separate posts, creating a snapshot of what the WFTDA has been doing right, what it has been doing wrong, and what it’s flat-out not doing. This is part three. (Part one is here. Part two is here.)

The next WFTDA.tv broadcast will begin in 3 … 2 … 1 …

The next WFTDA.tv broadcast will begin in 3 … 2 … 1 …

Launched for the 2011 tournament season, WFTDA.tv became an immediate hub for just about every major WFTDA game. It carried high-profile regular-season bouts and event weekends, the playoffs, and championships. Last year it started carrying the MRDA championships, and this year the online channel expanded to cover the newly-created WFTDA Division 2 playoffs.

Keeping all that derby coverage on one website is paying off. According to the sanctioning body, over 116,000 “unique website visitors” navigated to WFTDA.tv at at least some point during the WFTDA playoff season. Though this number includes the two free D2 streaming weekends that previous years did not have, it is still total that is impressive and commendable.

With Internet video streaming starting to become an indisputable force in the tech-society of today, and live sports programming becoming more valuable than ever, WFTDA.tv seems poised to ride both of those waves and help grow the sport. You could even say that the sky’s the limit for the WFTDA.

However, if the WFTDA is aiming to fly that high, we should make sure it’s not using wax wings to get there.

As great as the positives are with WFTDA.tv, worrying issues are beginning to appear behind the scenes. Dropped webcast feeds, payment problems, and capacity issues are the obvious problems, but there may be others lurking. And although growing pains were always going to be an issue with a project of this magnitude, they should be easing as time goes on—not getting worse.

After three years, enough time has passed to starting thinking about the direction the WFTDA is headed in with the service. There is no arguing that having it is better than not having it. But there is much discuss about whether how WFTDA is handling it is the best way of doing so, and whether or not its rapid growth is a good thing.

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But before that, here is a refresher of everything that did not go quite so right with WFTDA.tv in 2013. If you are reading this, it is extremely likely you experienced at least two or three of the problems below:

Major issues with the paid stream – This was the big issue throughout the 2013 playoff season. Though the quality of the stream was excellent, broadcasting a hi-def picture means nothing if there is no guarantee of it showing up on the other end of the line.

When minor problems arose during the 2012 season, they were isolated and random. An accidentally unplugged a cable here, a barge blocked a transmitter there. Those are the sorts of things one might expect to see in the shoestring budget productions that the derby community had been used to up to that point, and were easily forgivable—under the assumption that they would be fixed next year.

They were not. In 2013, things turned disastrous once the paywall went up and the WFTDA asked people for their money for the right to look inside of it.

Almost as soon as the first Division 1 tournament got under way, live from Fort Wayne, WFTDA.tv went up in cloud of smoke. People were prevented from accessing and watching the stream right as it was showing the highly-anticipated matchup between Rose City and London, upsetting thousands.

Quick to act, the WFTDA shifted the feed to its public Ustream page to make sure that everyone who bought a streaming pass could see what they paid for. This quick cure had a side-effect, however: Everyone who did not buy a streaming pass could see what they suddenly did not need to pay for.

For weeks, the WFTDA made it known that the only way to see the D1 playoffs was to fork over money for the exclusive privilege. As it ultimately turned out, everyone who gave the WFTDA money did so for no reason whatsoever. Those who paid in advance, particularly for those only planning on watching that weekend, were in their rights to feel a little peeved about it.

Website and payment problems – The major culprit behind the first failure was not with the stream, but with WFTDA.tv itself. The underlying code of the site paywall had some weak spots, explaining why it all fell down once the stress of a high-profile bout came its way.

Even after the WFTDA had fixed the website, there were reports of people trying to purchase passes and failing, or accidentally getting charged multiple times. The WFTDA was quick to correct payment issues, but not before more people had to go through the hassle of getting things set right.

Weak stream security – The problems with the website and the streaming exposed a more severe issue. Just after the Richmond tournament got started, a Facebook post instructed interested parties on how they could bypass the WFTDA.tv paywall altogether and watch the stream for free. All it took was a simple file edit on their computer, and voila.

Luckily for the WFTDA, this information did not make it far on social media; the post was in Swedish and only had two “likes,” so few saw it or took advantage of it. But a thorough and strictly scientific test of this exploit by myself confirmed that it worked as advertised for every game at every tournament, all the way through Champs.

And as it turns out, even with the paywall up and working, the stream was always free…sort of. It’s just that the WFTDA was charging for access to the one and only webpage on the Internet that you could watch it. The paywall exploit allowed the user to watch the stream directly, without needing to be on the secured (“secured”) page. That’s a pretty haphazard way to put together a paywall, which is no wonder why there were so many problems with it.

Poor customer support – There were still minor feed freak-outs during the rest of the playoffs, but nothing on the level of the Fort Wayne meltdown. However, with how buggy and unreliable WFTDA.tv had been so far, streamers still having quality and connection issues were beginning to assume that the problems they were experiencing must have lied with the WFTDA, not on them.

In most cases the major culprit was likely a lack of bandwidth on their part to keep the high-def stream coming in smoothly. A reduction in stream quality on the user’s end was all that was needed to fix it, but this was information poorly communicated to people up front. The WFTDA eventually put together a separate tech support FAQ and stream status page to address confusion, but this was again too late to prevent even more frustration, especially with a fair share of legitimate stream hiccups mixed in.

Lack of preparation and foresight – By the time WFTDA Championships came around, there was a general sense that the stream problems were not going to come back, since there was no indication that another major meltdown was going to happen. But as the first game of the finals was almost at hand, a rush of users bombarded the stream as London was gearing up to face Atlanta… and another major meltdown happened.

This happened in spite of public a load test that the WFTDA asked folks to sign on to a few days before Champs. The thinking was that the test could try and break things ahead of time so things could get fixed, so as to make sure the big games later in the week went off without a hitch. Yet the paid stream was KO’ed for most of the London/Atlanta game and significant bits and pieces of Rocky Mountain/Angel City after that.

Attempting to explain what happened, the WFTDA revealed that only 100 people participated in the pre-test. That is an amount so low for a load test that it might as well have never happened—which for all intents and purposes did not, given what happened when over 2,000 computers connected to the paid stream only to see there wasn’t one.

The only thing worse than the preparation was the curious lack of foresight to see that Champs was set to be an extremely well-trafficked event. Even without the benefit of hindsight, there were several clues leading up to the finals that WFTDA.tv was set to see a record audience.

The rush of people to see London play Rose City earlier in the playoffs caused site overload problems already. London being at Champs was only going to cause a bigger spike in traffic given the historical significance of the event. Plus, factor in how the WFTDA scheduled the first London game, pegging it for an 8 p.m. start time in the U.K. (and hour later across the rest of Europe). If you put a popular team in a highly-anticipated event on during prime time, quite a lot of people are going to tune in.

Even the WFTDA grasped the significance of what was going to take place. Not long after the final bracket was drawn up, a change in marketing strategy saw the tournament being promoted as the “International Championships.” Adding such a big and prestigious tag onto the event was clearly designed to get more people to check it out…particularly those from, um, international locales.

These plans worked so well that the WFTDA was completely unprepared for the audience it had prepared so much to attract.

Compounding frustrations – The WFTDA was quick to correct many of the issues that came up during the weeks, but at a cost. Even when things were mostly working, any apparent issue that happened added just that little bit more frustration and confusion. When the Champs feed went offline at the worst possible time(s), this ticking time bomb exploded in the worst possible way.

Some of the complaints lodged towards WFTDA on Facebook. And this is only a fifth of them…

Some of the displeasure towards WFTDA on Facebook over streaming outages. And this is only a small sliver of it…

Even after the initial outage at Champs was restored, many continued to complain that they were still not able to get the feed running smoothly again. There were even reports of people not getting to see the game at all, particularly from those who only bought a Champs streaming pass to follow London’s run for the Hydra.

The WFTDA got the archive of the game up on YouTube quickly—giving away another paywall game for free—but by then enough was enough. The WFTDA Facebook page was inundated with complaints and frustrations, both within the comment threads announcing the outages and onto the WFTDA page directly. (See a small sample of those to the right.)

There was almost universal scorn and disappointment over what had been happening. Everyone demanded that the stream they paid for be restored immediately. Many asked for refunds. More than a few did not have kind words, with some even openly questioning the WFTDA on if it could ever deliver on its promises—not just those regarding WFTDA.tv. (Translated rulesets: Coming early 2013!)

And as if the WFTDA already wasn’t having a hard time with things, the feed cut out one last time during the first half of the championship game between Gotham and Texas. Compared to the catastrophic failures that had been happening, this one was just a hiccup. But given the significance of the game and all the problems leading up to that point, it was a final insult to streaming pass customers and one last black eye on the 2013 WFTDA.tv season.

– – – – – – – – – –

There are two ways to look at what happened to WFTDA.tv in 2013.

On one hand, you have a still-growing organization doing what it thinks is the right thing to help grow the still-growing sport of roller derby. No one, not even the WFTDA, ever expected things to go 100% smoothly in the beginning. When significant problems arose, the WFTDA did what it needed to do to get them resolved as quickly as possible—even if that meant turning a paid stream into a free stream to make sure people didn’t miss any derby.

And ultimately the WFTDA can say that, at the end of the day, WFTDA.tv saw growth. So it’s not all bad.

But on the other hand is the reality that there is soon coming a point where the WFTDA needs to stop “growing” and start doing. Modern roller derby is over ten years old, with the WFTDA existing for now more than half that long. A lot has been accomplished in that time…but a lot has not.

However, there still exists a prevailing attitude within the WFTDA community that the things that have not yet gotten accomplished will eventually get “figured out”—with enough time.

The question the greater roller derby community must begin to ask of the WFTDA, and of ourselves, is how long this “figuring out” period is going to take, and if the problems that are happening in the meanwhile may harm the game too much for the wait to be worth it.

There is a clear line between being in the still-growing stage and graduating to the level where it is the time to do things for real. In the context of WFTDA.tv, that line got crossed when the WFTDA started asking people for their money to get something they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise.

When the pay-TV service started in 2011, it was an optional upgrade. You could pay $20 for a tournament or $80 for full access to the high-definition stream and exclusive access to the archives (which were also locked behind the paywall at the time), but this did not prevent anyone from watching the games. A lower quality stream was freely available, and in fact was such a popular option—I wonder why?—that viewership on it had to be capped to keep it running smoothly.

This was a good model, since it was essentially a donation drive that gave donors an HD stream as a backer bonus prize. It also meant that any hiccups with it could be forgiven, especially since every effort was made to keep the free option available.

It seemed to work well enough; it even got me to bite the bullet and fork over $80 to the WFTDA when I didn’t need to, because the fact that I was supporting a cause helped me shell out the cash when I might have not done so otherwise.

But starting in 2012, the WFTDA decided to put all the games behind a paywall exclusively. Once that decision was made, the expectations that came from buying a streaming pass changed. Instead of asking supporters to give money to support a noble and growing cause, the transaction shifted to a vendor asking customers to make a purchase for a product with the expectation of that product being delivered as advertised.

For months, the selling point of buying a WFTDA.tv streaming pass was boiled down to a catchy marketable phrase: “Don’t miss a hit!” This effectively became the contract between the WFTDA (the vendor) and the person wanting to watch the stream (the customer): If you purchase a streaming pass, we will make sure you see all of the action! A lot of customers held up their end of the bargain by paying up.

The WFTDA failed on its promise. Big time.

The excuses that were given after the fact—in not one, but two apologies—would be understandable if the WFTDA were still presenting their streaming service as a work-in-progress that needs your donations to stay working. But the severity and frequency of what happened is flat out unacceptable in the pay-per-view business model that the WFTDA openly elected to adopt.

In the real world, when a company does not consistently deliver on a product, that company loses business and eventually dies. (If WFTDA.tv had a business page on Yelp, there would be a lot of one-star reviews and angry customers venting frustrations to the world.) With exclusive PPV streaming, the WFTDA is bound by these same rules. If it does not deliver the video service that it is advertising, customers will stop paying for it. If the drop-off in payments is severe enough, WFTDA.tv could suddenly find itself without the funds to operate at full capacity.

For that reason, the WFTDA needs to make significant improvements to WFTDA.tv, both the experience and the service, if it wants to win back some trust. Unlike the other issues the WFTDA is facing, this is one that it cannot beat around the bush when it comes to fixing. And its window of opportunity to do so is very small.

For 2014, the number one priority for the WFTDA is making sure there are no unscheduled outages or untimely interruptions with the stream. Even in the event of unplanned and unprecedented traffic, every measure must be taken to see that every situation and scenario is accounted for, even the unlikely ones, so that any potential issues are solved before they have the chance to happen. That is what people expected in 2013, because that is what people were under the impression they they were paying for.

When a vendor sets a price for something, it is because that is the (lowest) price at which it believes its product can be delivered and guaranteed to work. If the WFTDA believes it can deliver a high-definition, uninterrupted Internet-streamed three-day broadcast from six different venues over a six- or seven-week period, plus its showcase event a month later, all for $12 a head, that’s not good enough.

It “believed” it could do that in 2013, and we all saw how that worked out. The WFTDA must know it can work. If it can’t know for sure with the resources they have available—a 100-person load test?—they either need to cut expenses (dump the HD feed for an HQ feed to stay on affordable servers) or increase revenue (raise prices to afford IT pros and proper test equipment). If those two options are not possible, then the plain truth of the matter is that the WFTDA.tv. product, as currently envisioned, is doomed.

No one wants to see that. I don’t want to see that. But I don’t want to see the WFTDA crushed under the weight of its own growth, either. If the WFTDA can’t keep pace with itself, then it needs to stop growing and start doing—doing whatever it takes to make sure all its current problems are taken care of before it grows and creates new ones.

Because if the WFTDA thinks that continuing to devote major resources into a “for the skater” streaming website is more important than addressing rules problems, coming up with a solution for long-term officiating stability, and the roller derby wide issue of declining local attendance, among many, many other things…

Then WTF, WFTDA?

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