All The Bells & Whistles of MLB.TV (Part 1)

(Disclaimer/Guarantee – I’ve been an MLB.TV subscriber ever since it launched as a paid service, and am also an avid baseball fan, so expect this entry to be loaded with heaps of bias.)

Major League Baseball was one of the first (if not the first) Internet TV success stories, outside of the porn business, with their MLB.TV streaming service. They began dabbling in streaming live baseball games back in 2002 (they did 30 that year), and today you can watch all ~2,400 games per season, both live and on-demand, with some of the best HD-quality streaming & playback available anywhere.

For the privilege of access to MLB.TV, which offers up this feast of baseball, you have to pony up $20-25/month (depending on whether you want the basic or “Premium” package) or buy the entire season for $100-120. And the catch is this only gets you “out-of-market” and “non-national-broadcast” games. Which means you cannot watch

  • Your local team
  • Any game broadcast nationally on FOX or ESPN (although the ESPN games are available on Internet TV via ESPN3)
  • All playoff & World Series games

Major League Baseball is one of the few true monopoly enterprises in the United States, and the myriad contracts they have in place with local rights owners (e.g. Comcast & the local NBC affiliate here in the San Francisco Bay Area) means the local cable/satelite operators still trump Internet TV where viewing rights are concerned.

In my case, it’s because Comcast still wants me to buy a cable subscription to watch my local team, the SF Giants. In some markets you can get around this, if your cable operator has struck a special deal with MLB (SD Padres is an example of one of the few teams which have this going), and you pay an additional fee on top of your cable and MLB.TV subscriptions – holy mackerel that’s alot of dough just to watch ballgames.

But I digress, as I’m getting into a very thorny issue that warrants it’s own post. Let’s get back to a look at the Bells & Whistles of MLB.TV, which in the context of an Internet TV experience I define as the following:

Anything that you don’t need to enjoy the simple pleasure of watching the ball game.

There are a few different ways to get to the player, but I generally look at a list of the day’s games on MLB.com and make my selection there.

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If you bought the Basic package, you get the home-team’s broadcast only, whereas if you sprung for the Premium subscription you can choose the home or away broadcasts. As far as I’m concerned, listening to the opposing team’s broadcast is bad ju-ju. Baaaaad ju-ju. So I’m one of the shmos that pays the extra bucks for that feature alone (n.b. the Premium subcription also gets you higher bitrates, DVR functionality, and some additional Bells & Whistles).

So, let’s start with the stuff that has nothing to do with watching the game.

How important these features may or may not be to you boil down to whether you:

  • Follow the entire league, as opposed to just one team
  • Participate in a “fantasy league”
  • Just like to jump around between different games in progress

For the sake of this post, let’s call people who fall into one of these categories the “Lunatic Fringe

If you’re not part of the Lunatic Fringe, 95% of the Bells & Whistles on MLB.TV will likely be useless to you.

Upon entry to MLB.TV (which happens after the player tries to detect your location and verify that you’re not blacked-out of the game you’ve requested) the Player opens in a pop-up window and thankfully it’s default state is relatively uncluttered, with feature buttons lining the player below and above:

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The first thing a Lunatic Fringe member might want to do is to jump around between games in progress. Clicking “Today’s Games” initiates a push-transition of the video, which slides to the left and shrinks in size somewhat as the “Today’s Games” menu is revealed.

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I’m a big fan of this type of transition, as it holds continuity with the video and you always get a sense that it’s all connected.

The menu itself is straightforward, and gives the option to “hide scores” for those wanting to watch games later on without knowing the outcome for “maximum suspense effect” (I had a Lunatic Fringe roommate back in college who would tape games on his VCR and watch them later — if you told him the score before he had a chance to watch the tape, he would commit an atrocity against your belongings. — so, based on this experience, let’s just call this one a “key feature” for these guys).

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Clicking on a game in progress brings you to that game (unless it is blacked out where you’re watching). You also get access to the full on-demand library of all games played in the current season, and the menu contained within the “Archive” button lets you search by Date or Team.

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Here, I’ve selected SF Giants vs LA Dodgers, and it gives me a list of all the games played between these 2 teams this season, sorted by “earliest first”. The only thing missing here is the actual Game Date, a pretty conspicuous omission. Even though you can search by date, I would like to see the dates attached to the games when I search by team.

Moving down to the row of buttons that appears on the lower-left of the Player, the Highlights button reveals the highlights of the game currently being watched.

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This list gets populated as the game progresses, but the amount of time it takes for a new highlight to appear can vary dramatically (anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes, I’ve seen it take as long as 15 in some instances). I wonder what in the workflow of creating the highlight clips causes this…

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You can also view the highlights from all games in progress in the entire league, by clicking “Around the League.”

Viewing highlights from the current game is one of the few Bells & Whistles features that the non-Lunatic Fringe user will actually use — e.g. you join a game-in-progress and want to see the important plays you missed.

Then, if you want to get to the “scorecard-keeper” level of Lunatic Fringe (which is one step removed from the next level, where you are at the game itself, listening to the broadcast on a headset radio, keeping a scorecard, and sitting on a foam-rubber-seat-cushion you brought to the game . . . ) Well, you can see a list of every single play:

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And if that ain’t enough, you’ve got the entire boxscore.

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OK, that stuff isn’t as uber-baseball-nerdy as I’m making it out to be, but now we start to get to the territory of things that matter only if you participate in a “fantasy league” where you’re more interested in tracking individual players as opposed to teams.

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The “Player Tracker” is a very simple UI that lets you add the players you’re interested in following, and it gives you the option of getting an alert when that player comes up to bat.

Adding players to the list is really simple, you just select the team and the roster appears.

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I just used this feature for the first time while writing this post, and was really impressed by the simple, effective UI design. So, the next time Buster Posey is at bat, I’ll get an alarm telling me to switch over to the Giants game and watch him. But, wait, I can’t because I live in SF and the Giants are blacked-out here.

Last, but not least, we have the omnipresent Twitter widget which lets you tweet directly from the Player and view tweets with the hashtag related to to the team you’re watching.

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If you’ve got a live online event going on these days, and you don’t have Twitter integration, you’re nowhere (I’m being kinda-sorta faceitious) as this has seemingly become a de-reguer part of any “live online broadcast”. I enjoy ballpark trash talk as much as the next guy, and this is the closest you can get to that, I guess, without actually watching the game with someone. But for me, personally, nothing beats the in-person interaction which is why you can often find me at the 24 Willie Mays Plaza Office when there’s a day game on.