Your Live Stream Event Doesn’t Have Captions If They’re Auto-Generated

I did it again. I got excited to see another live-streamed event in the gaming industry that had announced it would be captioned. In this case, Xbox built up hype for its Xbox Games Showcase by announcing separate streams for different languages, a stream with “captions,” one with ASL, and another with audio description. It sounded great!

When you start announcing that your event will have open captions or subtitles on YouTube, I would expect subtitles to be burnt onto the video (open captions), or the stream to be captioned by a company hired to caption live events. The Xbox Games Showcase was simply using auto-generated subtitles despite viewers being told captions would be available as open captions. This got me thinking back to every live-stream event that uses the dreaded auto-generated captions as a “good enough” feature.

[Note: I am aware Xbox ran into technical difficulties as detailed at the end of this piece]

How do I know if subtitles are automatically generated? Well, the enable captions option show “English (Auto-generated, beta)” as the only source to choose from. As a result, the subtitles don’t match up to events. Dialogue that isn’t clear or overpowered by sound effects is spelled wrong and on occasion, not even displayed. My viewing experience, for example with the Xbox Games Showcase, is spent trying to decode most of what was being said. But yay, new Fable I guess?

Let me touch on why this is frustrating for me. These last few months, events are all pre-recorded, and the segments between trailers featuring presenters have been edited and polished. There should be plenty of time for a team to whip up some subtitles, or even hire an external company to do the job for them and make the stream more accessible.

When it comes to streaming on YouTube, you have two options; Premiering an uploaded video, or live streaming. These both come with caption support, although the process for each is different. When premiering a video, you’ll have already uploaded the full video to YouTube, allowing you to get everything prepared for when it’s time to be revealed. This includes being able to use YouTube’s built-in caption tool.

Halo Infinite key art Master Chief Helmet held by his leg

The Xbox Games Showcase was a live stream, which changes the way captions work. When running a live stream on YouTube you have two options for closed captions prior to going live.

“Post captions to URL” is one option which provides you with a link to send to a captioner so they can do captions with any supported caption software, as detailed here. The other option is “Embedded 608/708” which is television broadcast standard captions. 608 is the old standard for television broadcast while 708 is the new standard. You can read up on these if you’re curious.

I won’t go into too much detail about how to use those two live features specifically because I’ve never needed to use them myself. But if you’re going to market your live stream as having captions available, maybe make sure there’s a permanent solution to ensure you’re providing the user with the experience you’re claiming to provide. Of course, technical issues can happen if you have planned ahead, but if you’re willingly opting to just use auto-generated captions, then it just looks lazy.

Everwild, a human stands watching a giant elephant looking creature with a bushy beard next to a fallen tree.

I will say, Xbox’s trailers that were uploaded all include subtitles post-stream so that’s a bonus — but the issue here is that the stream itself was said to have open captions. Even post-stream the auto-generated subtitles option vanished —or were automatically disabled— for about half an hour so I couldn’t go back through and catch what I missed.

I can appreciate that providing accessibility for live streams are probably still new to the industry, heck, accessibility in video games is still slowly growing. But even other studios noted for accessibility such as Ubisoft and Naughty Dog have all used auto-generated subtitles for live streams with trailers released post stream with full-captions. But if you’re going to run a live stream and offer captions, I’d expect to see them readily available and not auto-generated.

As it happens, Xbox ran into technicals issues with the captions and what appeared during the Xbox Games Showcase was not what the team had planned. My assumption is either the wrong video was uploaded, or a captioning software didn’t play ball. I can empathize that things messed up, and it’s a shame that Xbox didn’t get to showcase the accessibility it had planned. However, I’m still disheartened that the official captions stream didn’t have them burnt on anyway in a separate video stream alongside the official stream.

If you’re planning to stream a live event, just remember that auto-generated captions are not suitable captions.

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