House of Highlights’ Sam Gilbert on the live strategy behind the HoH Creator League

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A 12-week 1v1 basket tournament recorded using iPhones boosts engagement for the digital brand

At a time when social media influencers and independent content creators have greater reach and impact than ever before, media brands are looking to harness the power of the organic side of digital media.

One of the standout brands in digital esports is House of Highlights, the vertical of Bleacher Report, which has built its prestige as a social media destination for sports highlights and pop culture. Today, HoH is increasingly turning to its own live productions, most notably the conclusion of a 12-week 1v1 basketball tournament streamed on YouTube and pitting popular basketball content creators from across the web against each other.

The series, the HoH Creator League, ended last month and was a smash hit by any measure. According to the Bleacher Report, the HoH Creator League saw 11 of his 16 matchups are trending in YouTube’s top 25, with the championship match peaking at 5th place on YouTube Global Trending. The league has garnered more than 226 million views and more than 20 million engagements across all House of Highlights social channels.

Interestingly, the productions were shot on two iPhones.

House of Highlights Director, Content, Sam Gilbert sat down with SVG to share what his team has learned about these productions and to offer his thoughts on the value of engaging with the brand’s following through engaging live content.

Sam Gilbert of House of Highlights: “Our focus is to keep testing, pushing boundaries and seeing what works and what doesn’t, particularly live.”

HHow would you describe the approach your team took to produce these live broadcasts in a less “traditional” way?
One, of course, is to produce them as cost-effectively as possible without compromising audience interest and the overall value of the production. Knowing that these are YouTube first live streams and that they are creator-focused, we can allow for a slightly less polished production as it’s more natural and authentic to what these audiences are used to seeing on creator pages .

Our focus was to give it to them as raw and authentic as possible. We used two iPhones. We have some backend technology that we stream back to our control room in New York where we have a single producer/editor or producer/director cutting these two streams and a graphic live [operator] who updates the score.

That being said, this was very focused on getting the audience there to see what they want and then delivering it to them in the cleanest possible way. It’s 1v1 basketball; We don’t add frills. [The audience] knows what they want to see and we give it to them exactly the way they want it.

When was that an idea that you started playing around with, and when did it cause the shift from an idea to something you actually decided you could do?
We first tried our hand at 1v1 basketball in 2020 with a few one-off events. We made them with a few content creators — FaZe Rug played against his brother Brawadis – and that was our first real test of an iPhone stream. It did decently well. I think we had 20,000 at a time [viewers], but it was definitely the best we’ve ever done at the time, and at the lowest cost we’ve ever done. We could at least see this little thought that this doesn’t have to be highly produced content to work at the level we want.

Then we tested again FaZe Rug plays Aiden Ross, who is another celebrity streamer/creator. This resulted in 70,000 simultaneous live viewers. Again, if we take that performance-first-cost metric, it was the most efficient thing we’ve ever done. The audience seemed to love the structure we used to create the 1v1 game. It felt more Gen Z focused, not as buttoned down as other basketball or esports tournaments in general are nowadays.

Once we had a few of these under our belt, we had to decide on the individual cases where we would have a week’s notice [to promote]. We would have the main event; it would be a huge hit, but then we’d be dark the next day. We’ve started from scratch again as we build all this anticipation for the next.

We thought about how to make it an always-on experience. Let’s take all of the things we love about regular sports leagues and remove all of the things that we feel are unnecessary or just screw it up. There, we got eight basketball creatives to sign up for a 12-week season of playing weekly. That’s how we were able to build that storyline, create that composite effect from week to week to the finale.

Were there any key challenges, technical/operational roadblocks that your team had to overcome to feel confident going live?
The main difficulty we had to overcome was the different levels of production within the same production. We had this full-blown studio in New York where we do our NFL draft shows and all of our high-end execution. It can accommodate 20 production workers and has everything you need. Meanwhile, we have two people on site holding cell phones. How do you get these to work together naturally and get the authentic visuals we want on screen for our audience?

Another of the biggest struggles we’ve had all along has been cell service. We have some Wi-Fi connections that we bring from afar but depending on the interior design you would see a lot of our problems there.

Audio was another interesting topic, especially for the finale. We had our TikTok duo with the Broadcast Boys hosting the semifinals. It was a challenge to both have that audio transmitted very naturally through speakers in real life for the audience there, and not come back echoing through the iPhone cameras and their cameras’ built-in microphones.

It’s about keeping in mind that we work with cell phones like our cameras and they aren’t equipped to handle some of the technical aspects that we want and are expected of more real cameras.

There are different opinions on social media about the value of life. When does Live come into question for a brand like yours? When you and your team sit down and plan content, what factors go into deciding whether it’s “worth” going live?
Ultimately, it starts with the idea itself and whether we feel the idea will benefit from the appointment viewing and the natural inclination to tune in. Most [that do benefit] are head-to-head competitions in a physical sport. That could be basketball, we did dodgeball, we did some soccer stuff.

There’s also the fan interaction factor, which I think is very important. If we think there are ways for us to allow fans to interact and engage with the content in real time and it adds an element that keeps them engaged, that’s also a big differentiator. For example, we have one Go Kart Grand Prix, where we ran polls on YouTube asking who should get a performance boost and we let the fans vote. Whoever the fans voted for got an extra 10mph on their cart during the race. If we have these kinds of tools through YouTube that we think will improve production, we definitely want it live.

It also allows us to build anticipation. I think if we did a VOD version of a 1v1 basketball game it would probably work just fine, but you don’t get that anticipation and that reality of being there while it’s happening. The audience knows that anything could happen because it’s not programmed. With a VOD, you know that if something went wrong or shouldn’t happen, it’s not in that VOD. When we’re live, you don’t have that. I think it entices people to stay longer.

From a macro perspective for House of Highlights, Bleacher Report and the B/R app, our focus is on more live streaming content. Right now our focus is to keep testing, pushing boundaries and seeing what works and what doesn’t, especially live. This was our first creative attempt and luckily it was successful.

For a few years during COVID you had to think about content within certain boundaries: what can we create without leaving our location. Now that we’re returning to the physical world, how was it for you and the team to reopen segments of your brain that might have been forced to remain dormant for a while?
It’s a process. I think we’re still getting there. We still put most of our content through the lens of not needing to be completely COVID-free. We have taken a strategic approach during the pandemic, trying to come up with concepts that will thrive with or without the barriers we put up ourselves.

For example, we had taken many COVID precautions [the HoH Creator League]. These were closed sets. Everyone involved had to adhere to our health and safety protocols. But you can see how it translates very easily into a non-COVID world. Let’s open those doors and let in hundreds of their fans. I think that’s it. It’s really just taking what we’re doing because we know it works and expanding it to make it feel more accessible to people in real life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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