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How Lonely NBA Fans Are Hacking Zoom to Stream Games With Friends Again

It didn’t take long into quarantine for group-watching Netflix to become a regular pastime. When will sports leagues catch up?

After cautiously watching the first few games once the NBA returned from its COVID-induced hiatus, 28-year-old Merwyn relieved himself of the expectation that the “whole bubble experiment was going to be a total train wreck.” “The NBA was back, and with it was a slight semblance of our past,” the L.A. native tells me. “Finally, there was something to look forward to almost every day, which was awesome.”

It didn’t take long, however, for that sense of normalcy to become a stark reminder of just how abnormal things are. “Before we went into quarantine, my friends and I would get together all the time in person to watch games,” he says. “Obviously, that wasn’t possible anymore.”

As such, watching those first few games with no one to talk to or share the experience with only served to make him feel even more isolated and alone. Joining the conversation on social media didn’t scratch that itch. Nor did trying to get a group of friends to watch while together over video chat.

“Some people weren’t watching the games or their stream on YouTubeTV was lagging behind my stream on Hulu, or someone else’s stream on something else,” explains Ryan, a 33-year-old NBA fan in Chicago who has a tight-knit group of “about 10 friends” that compete in a yearly NBA fantasy league, regularly get together to watch games and swap memes back and forth on a group chat.

Ryan’s group chats would be somewhat active during games, but an attempt to schedule a Zoom during a marquee game “failed miserably, since every different platform the NBA outsources its games to streams with different timing, not to mention all the feedback and audio issues,” he says. “Ultimately, it just became too much of a pain to talk about the games in real time.” (Unfortunately, none of the platforms available to watch the NBA provide something similar to Netflix Party, a service that allows different households to sync up a show or movie on Netflix and interact in a private chat room along the way.)

The problem strikes at the heart of a snowballing issue for the league. The NBA makes most of its money from contracts with ESPN and TNT, which combined for $24 billion in 2016, but its fanbase is increasingly composed of younger, online cord-cutters. And as cord-cutting is on the rise due to the financial crisis, the NBA’s reportedly “alarmingly low” ratings don’t bode well for next season.

When r/NBAstreams got shut down, I reached out to Mark Cuban to see if he had any thoughts on what the NBA could do to win back illegal streamers. “It may not be a bad idea for the NBA to look at advertiser-supported streams and see if they make economic sense,” Cuban tells MEL.

To that end, one thing the league might explore is offering an option for group-watches on its own subscription-based streaming model, NBA League Pass. “There’s just something about having the game on the same screen that you’re chatting along with,” Ryan explains. “It’s a sense of togetherness that you don’t get if everyone’s blowing up the NBA group chat on their phones.”

For his part part, Merwyn decided to take things into his own hands. “I needed a way to feel the same connection, the same vibe,” he says. Given that he works in cybersecurity and systems management, Merwyn MacGyver-ed a solution that allowed him to reconvene his family and friends scattered across L.A. around their beloved Lakers. It was a bit tricky, he says, “but anyone curious enough with the knack for trying to solve things with a computer can figure this out.”

Fearing reprisal from the NBA (he actually went so far as to recite the league’s terms of use regarding “sponsoring or inciting the use of copyrighted broadcasts”), Merwyn could only say it involves “tricking” Zoom into thinking the video of the game streaming on his desktop is a physical webcam to avoid lag and quality loss, while configuring the “conference bridge” as well.

Another option: “If you are okay with just the chat room and some quality loss, something like Discord might be a bit simpler. The person streaming could probably just stream their desktop.” From there, he recommends people search for “tools and processes that allow high-frame-rate broadcasting via a desktop/browser window,” and they’ll find several how-tos.

Now, just as with before quarantined, Merwyn opens his (virtual) door to any friend who wants to swing by. “Sometimes I can’t watch the game, but I’ll still text everyone that the ‘bridge is up.’ Anyone who wants to come hang out in the chat and watch the game can,” he says, adding that this new tradition has reignited communication between the friends.

“The game just sort of gives us a place to meet, catch up and of course trash-talk each other at least once a week,” he says. “Honestly, it feels great.”