NBA to Create New Direct-to-Consumer Game Streaming Service With Microsoft

Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum
Steve Dipaola/AP/Shutterstock

When pro sports return, the NBA wants to be back in the game with a brand-new entrant in the over-the-top space: It’s developing a streaming service it promises will “transform” how fans experience the league’s hoops action, in some cases borrowing concepts from the video-game world.

The NBA has entered into a multiyear deal with Microsoft, which will work with the league to create a direct-to-consumer platform that will use artificial intelligence to deliver personalized live game broadcasts and other content.

The NBA didn’t say when the Microsoft-powered platform is expected to launch, but a rep said the development of it has already started with the aim of going live as soon as possible. At a minimum, for the 2020-21 season the work being dong under the partnership will show up in new NBA stats in game telecasts.

The new platform, which is being built on Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing infrastructure, will include NBA League Pass, the subscription service that provides access to out-of-market games. According to the league, the platform being developed with Microsoft in conjunction with NBA Digital (jointly managed by the NBA and WarnerMedia’s Turner Sports) will effectively become an enhanced version of the NBA App.

“This partnership with Microsoft will help us redefine the way our fans experience NBA basketball,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in announcing the pact. “Our goal, working with Microsoft, is to create customized content that allows fans – whether they are in an NBA arena or watching from anywhere around the world – to immerse themselves in all aspects of the game and engage directly with our teams and players.”

One of the key features the NBA’s new DTC platform will be delivering next-generation game telecasts, which will include real-time stat overlays, alternative audio and video feeds, and gaming elements. It’s also intended to integrate the NBA’s various products and services from across its business, including tickets, merchandise offers and social media integration.

In addition, through the DTC platform, the NBA plans give fans the opportunity to earn “loyalty points” when they watch games, share content, or buy tickets or merchandise. That will include concepts popularized in the video games industry like tiered rewards, status badges, streaks and unlocking personal achievements. Per the NBA, rewards could potentially be used for discounts on merchandise, tickets, NBA League Pass, or exclusive content.

Microsoft’s AI technology will help the NBA DTC platform will “learn” what each fan likes and will present optimized content over time. For example, if a fan is watching a game and a player breaks a key statistical milestone, the digital service would show them a list of clips of the last players to break that same milestone.

The NBA has tried in the past various gamified approaches to live game broadcasts, aimed at reaching younger viewers.

For last year’s NBA Finals, for example, ESPN tested out a Twitch-like alternate digital telecast in its app with on-screen hosts and emoji-like symbols flashing on the screen. And in 2017, the league worked with Twitch to stream NBA G League games that included interactive stats overlays, a fan-loyalty program, and a co-streaming option for select Twitch personalities to provide their own live commentary.

Currently, the league is offering a free preview of NBA League Pass — after the remainder of the NBA’s 2019-20 season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic — with access to full-length and condensed replays of all games from the past season plus an archive of classic games and content.

There are marketing elements as part of the NBA-Microsoft deal. Under the pact, Microsoft will become the “Official Artificial Intelligence Partner” and an “Official Cloud and Laptop Partner” for the NBA, WNBA, NBA G League and USA Basketball, beginning with the 2020-21 NBA season. In addition, Microsoft will become the marketing partner of the NBA Draft Combine beginning next season and an associate partner of future events, including NBA All-Star, MGM Resorts NBA Summer League and WNBA All-Star.

(Pictured above: Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum in the April 7, 2020, game against the Sacramento Kings)