Online Video &Software Steven Kippel on 11 Jul 2012

WatchESPN app overview

WatchESPN app overview

I’m not a big sports fanatic, unlike most guys I know. But ever since Landon Donovan scored the game-winning goal against Algeria in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, I felt like maybe I should. And then as I watched the Los Angeles Kings win the Stanley Cup finals, I made at least one small commitment: I had become a supporter of the LA Galaxy.

Unfortunately, I’m located just outside the Los Angeles media market, and if you’ve been reading WesleyTech for the past couple years you would know that I don’t subscribe to cable or satellite television. Yes, there are ways to watch live sporting events online, but they’re usually on sketchy websites. My wife has also been taking college courses online, tying up the only computer we have at home, so I was stuck with my Android smartphone as my only alternative to the sports bar, and these sketchy websites don’t tend to work on mobile browsers.

There are a few options available for the mobile phone, and some mobile phone operators offer unique options themselves. But in this case, I tried out the WatchESPN app downloaded from the Google Play store. It is also available for iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad), and though web browsers.

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The app is stable, and laid out plainly. Initially you’re asked to enter your login information for your cable subscription, but they do offer a four-hour trial period, which is how I watched my first Galaxy match (the exciting shootout with the San Jose Earthquakes). I’m sure this subscription confirmation is a compromise with cable and satellite operators which carry ESPN channels in their basic packages. I’m sure Comcast and Time Warner Cable don’t watch to compete directly with ESPN, especially as sports is one of the biggest draws to live television.

The app provides live streams from several ESPN networks, including ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPNU, Buzzer Beater, and Goal Line. These networks, collectively, cover NBA regular season and playoffs; The Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship golf tournaments; college football and basketball; Barclays Premier League, Spanish Primera Division and Euro 2012 soccer; all four grand slam tennis events; and, ESPN programs such as SportCenter, PTI, Mike & Mike and SportsNation.

As I said before, a cable subscription is required. The partner providers include: Bright House Networks, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon FiOS. ESPN3 is available on the app through participating internet providers, with a wide-ranging list.

Awkwardly enough, my Time Warner Cable internet & phone only subscription account information unlocked the app allowing me the privilege to watch the Galaxy defeat the Chicago Fire. I’m not sure how this worked, and I’m not sure it will last very long. I’m sure there has to be a verification process to make sure users actually have a cable television subscription, but at least in my case everything worked out for me.

Now to the downsides

Watching a soccer match on a 4″ screen isn’t a very engaging experience. It’s difficult to tell which player is possessing the ball without the commentator’s announcement. (But enough of that, I’m sure most of you who will read this are more interested in sports that aren’t soccer.) But, this criticism is valid for a lot of sports. Hockey is a tremendous event on a big screen HDTV, where the ice, puck and jersey numbers are clearly visible. The same just isn’t true on a 4″ screen. This solution works when this is a last resort option, but I’m positive most true sports fans would prefer a larger screen.

The video would also frequently freeze to buffer, or compression blocks would obscure the image. It’s hard to tell if this was the fault of ESPN, Time Warner Cable (delivering the content), T-Mobile (my mobile phone operator), Linksys (my wireless router), or LG (my phone’s manufacturer). It could be one or all of them to blame. However, this again just reinforces the idea that live sporting events are best delivered to a big TV over the air, by cable or satellite.

My final criticism isn’t with the app service itself, but with the way television contracts are handled. With WatchESPN, you’re able to access any sporting event broadcast on ESPN in real time. But not all sporting events are broadcast on ESPN. The only reason I was able to catch Galaxy games on ESPN is because they were “MLS Game of the Week” due to the fact that LA Galaxy is the MLS Cup reigning victors. It’s a similar situation with NFL football and other sporting franchises.

In Los Angeles, Time Warner Cable has been working on exclusive broadcast rights for local sports teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers, and starting next year the LA Galaxy. This puts home game broadcasts on Time Warner channels unless other arrangements are made. So it’s very difficult to be positive all the games you watch to watch will be available from WatchESPN, or even with any other app of this type.

The conclusion

As I have stated before, cutting out the cable subscription is a viable option for those who aren’t concerned with live television. If you are a die hard sports fan, it seems impossible to cut that bill. Of course if you’re die hard enough and you want to save money, join a supporters club, buy season tickets, and watch away games at your local supporter’s club sports bar.

One of the alternatives I alluded to above is streaming services provided by the sports leagues. Not all leagues have all of the games streaming live due to the contracts with local affiliates. At least for my own needs, Major League Soccer does provide all games streaming for $60 per season to iOS, Apple TV and Roku. I’ll provide more coverage on alternatives in the future.

I also want to to thank my wife for understanding why I ignored her during the final stoppage time of the California Classico.

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