Members of Crunchyroll, the most popular dedicated anime streaming service, called out the service this past weekend for what appeared to be an intentional reduction in video quality. That’s not quite the case, as a Crunchyroll representative told Polygon — but not until after legions of anime fans made their disdain for the poor quality streams known to the service’s customer support line.
“To keep up with our growing audience and the many ways people are consuming anime, we've been working on a new infrastructure to better support viewing,” a statement to Polygon reads.
“Last weekend, new episodes were released through the new infrastructure to test the system's ability to serve video to large portions of the Crunchyroll audience. The encodes that some users experienced were not up to the standards of our previous system, nor up to the standards we demand from ourselves.”
Of course the viewing infrastructure explanation wasn’t obvious to both paid and free viewers of popular shows like Yuri on Ice and Konosuba. Many viewers noticed that their videos were streaming at a much lower bitrate, leaving all content to look much, much worse, even at the highest possible standard.
A variety of shows had their episodes swapped out for ones with outdated encodings, and that ticked off some of the more outspoken users of Crunchyroll. Numerous threads about the technical issues appeared on the top anime subreddit (naturally called r/anime), with members and non-members piling on the service for degrading their viewing experience.
“I personally don't see much reason to pay for Crunchyroll if they are going to sell me garbage,” wrote a Reddit user in a majorly popular thread, which went on to become one of the most popular in r/anime history. “People have been asking them for years to increase video quality (old bitrate + settings was insufficient) and now they have done the exact opposite.”
Redditors started sharing comparison images to hammer in just how much worse their viewing experience had gotten in a matter of days. The first image, from the show Rewrite, shows the bitrate under the previous encoding settings; the second, blurrier one is what the anime looked like after Crunchyroll futzed with its infrastructure.
One user in particular, Daiz, made these images the crux of a Medium post breaking down the whole series of events. The post also spread because of Daiz’s suggestion that Crunchyroll had willfully worsened viewing quality, despite customer support representatives saying otherwise on the service’s forums.
“The obvious answer is money: when your video files are half the size they used to be, that’s going to save you a pretty penny when it comes to bandwidth costs for moving all that video around to their users,” wrote Daiz, answering the hypothetical of why Crunchyroll would intentionally make users watch worse-looking shows.
The post is actually an informative breakdown of how and why streaming services often inflict poor quality versions of their content on paying users, explaining the differences between resolution and bitrates, as well as what part encoding software plays into all of this.
“While we had previously identified issues with the encodes, solutions for a broad rollout require us to first move completely to the new infrastructure,” the company statement said. “Going forward, you will see that we have updated the video experience for simulcasts and new episodes within the new infrastructure. This means you will experience an improved encode for future releases on the new infrastructure, which will no longer use the lower quality encodes after any amount of time.”
Users should start to see higher quality streams again within a few days, the company told Polygon. Crunchyroll is also working to transition its entire catalog to the new infrastructure, so members shouldn’t expect every anime they watch to stream at its highest possible quality just yet. But the company insisted that they also should not assume that Crunchyroll is following in the footsteps of other services that compress streams within an inch of their lives.
“Please know that it will never be Crunchyroll's intention to lessen the viewing experience,” reads the statement. “In cases like this, we're grateful users reached out to us and provided feedback about the issue. We appreciate the patience with our efforts and will continue working to bring an improved viewing experience across Crunchyroll."