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HBO Now stares down 'Game of Thrones,' its first trial by combat

When you watch the return of Arya, Tyrion and Daenerys' dragons Sunday, the network's online-only service HBO Now will face its first crush of streaming demand just five days after launching.

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HBO will face a mountain of demand for the "Game of Thrones" season premiere Sunday, just five days after launching HBO Now. HBO

While millions of "Game of Thrones" fans are glued to their screens Sunday night, HBO will probably be fixated on another drama: Will its new service HBO Now slay or be slain in the first surge of streaming demand?

HBO rolled out its direct-to-consumer streaming service on Tuesday. HBO Now lets people watch the premium cable network's shows and movies online for $15 a month, without having to commit to a pricey cable or satellite package.

The Season 5 premiere of "Game of Thrones" -- the network's most-watched program, with a rabid, gotta-see-it-now fan base -- is the hardest possible test of HBO Now's technological backbone. It will also be a high-profile trial of the trend to deliver television via the Internet. HBO Now, like Dish's Sling TV and CBS All Access, put full TV programming online. Any widespread glitches during popular programs has raised questions about whether the Internet is ready to handle such a burden.

"The idea that the Internet can't handle these events at scale, it's absolute hogwash," said Matt Smith, an executive at Anvato, which is a company that helps TV networks put their video online. "The critical thing is planning."

The benefit of not being live

Sling TV apologized when it struggled to stream the March Madness college basketball semifinals earlier this month amid heavy usage.

HBO Now sidesteps a fundamental challenge Sling faced. Even though many people will click to watch the show at the same time it's airing, "Game of Thrones" won't be streaming live. It's being offered as video on-demand. Unlike a live event such as a sporting event, which creates video at a single point of origin right as it needs to be delivered, video on-demand gives a programmer the ability to prepare for the onslaught of viewers.

For example, HBO can make many copies of Sunday's episode and store them on server computers across the country. That means the packets containing your video have less of a distance to travel across the Internet to get to you.

"On-demand lets you hide a lot of your sins," said Rick Herman, chief strategy officer of MobiTV, a company that helps put TV content online.

Problems in the last chapter

Last year, HBO faced waves of bad publicity when its HBO Go service faltered during the Season 4 premiere of "Game of Thrones." Just a month earlier, it tripped up during the finale of "True Detective." HBO Go is the network's online companion to its typical network subscription and very similar to HBO Now.

The network's HBO Go service tripped up when delivering streams of "Game of Thrones" last year. HBO

But the difficulties of HBO Go's past don't necessarily bode poorly for HBO Now's future.

For HBO Now, the network enlisted the services of MLB Advanced Media, a company that handles the streaming of professional baseball games, as well as ESPN and WWE Network. Working in MLBAM's favor is a track record of successfully streaming tons of content.

HBO and MLB Advanced Media declined to discuss technical details about HBO Now.

To deliver reliable video streams, "practice does absolutely make perfect," said Charlie Good, the chief technology officer of Wowza Media Systems, a company with software to simplify streaming. MLBAM has proved it knows how to stream an immense amount of video, he said.

In fact, HBO Now's newness may work in its favor. Video streams glitch when too many people in too many places want to watch the same thing at the same time. HBO Go, by virtue of having a much bigger base of users, faces a much larger collection of demand. But when it rolled out this week, HBO Now limited sign-ups to people who own an Apple iPhone, iPad or Apple TV and to customers of Cablevision's Internet service Optimum. That keeps its member ranks in check, which may keep demand at a level the new service can handle when it's only five days old.

That means members of HBO Now may have better luck avoiding buffering -- the wait for content to load and play -- than their friends using HBO Go. For people who've cut the cable cord and waited years for the chance to sign up for HBO streams directly, that may be the sweetest plot twist they see Sunday night.