ESPN, “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” is rightly recognized as the most ubiquitous TV sports network in existence (although I do wish they’d reach back in time and bring Howard Cosell back).
In my road warrior days, there was a 90% chance that no matter what hotel room I found myself in, on any given day, on any continent in the world, there would be at least 1 ESPN channel on the TV. So, it’s a watershed event of sorts — the recent rebrand/relaunch of the ESPN “web video portal” to ESPN3. The branding implication, to the global audience, is this is the next ESPN channel, just like the ESPN and ESPN2 channels you know and love on your TV set. You can expect it to be just as good.
At this point in history, it’s still a bold move for a franchise as grand as ESPN to stake the brand on the notion that the “web video” experience is going to give you a user experience that measures up to what you get on your TV set.
Let’s take a look at what happens when you point your browser at http://espn3.com.
Well, depending on who your ISP is, something may happen, or you might just get a “sorry, charlie” message. I’m writing this from my home office, where I have a DSL connection via AT&T, so I get the landing page, adorned with a “Powered by AT&T” logo in the upper-right hand corner. You need to be connected via one of the “ESPN Participating Internet Service Providers” or else you can’t access the site.
This is a “kinda-sorta” pay-to-view scenario, and it keeps the “value perception of the brand” high. The idea is that you can never watch ESPN for free, and conceptually making it free for everyone could “devalue” the brand in a certain way (i.e. if you expect to get it for free, why would you ever pay for it)?
So, assuming you can get to it, here’s where you wind up:
The UX is really geared towards live broadcasts of live sporting events. Clean and simple, with upcoming events clearly laid out, ordered by date & time, directly below the FMA space. You can also view listings of events currently in progress, or an archive of on-demand versions of past events.
The range of content available mirrors that on ESPN’s traditional channels — a mixed bag of top-tier league events like MLB and NBA games, global tournaments like the French Open tennis, as well as oddball items like Bass Fishing and Australian Rules Football (if you’ve never seen it, you should watch at least once, and see if you can figure out what in the heck is going on because I sure can’t).
Clicking on the listing of an event currently in progress, or the “Watch Now” button, opens the player in a separate window. This is where the actual content viewing happens, and where the rest of the UX ultimately lives (the Landing Page was really just an entry point — once you’ve got the player open you never need to go backwards). So, even though they did a good job of making the “Watch Now” button stand out from a color-palette perspective, without making it obnoxious or pulling it away from nav-bar, I’m wondering if there’s something I’m missing here in that it makes no sense to me why they wouldn’t take you to the player from the get-go. Do we really need the Landing Page at all?
The pop-up page that contains the player is a very “player-centric” design, in that all of the non-player content wraps around the player, and makes the whole thing feel centered and integrated around the video. It also gives me a sense that there’s lots of video content to choose from and, other familiar ESPN features like up-to-the minute scores & stats lend it a familiar, “TV-like, on-brand” feel, although a chat pod in the lower-right corner rolls in a contemporary feature of Internet TV, the “virtual shared viewing experience.” My first impression is they’ve retained the “goodness” of the broadcast version of ESPN, while nudging gently into some internet-specific functionality.
I’ll get more in-depth into the content around the player in a later post. For now, I want to focus on the Video Player itself. One thing that keeps this “feeling like ESPN” is the way they Pillarbox the 4:3 video appearing in this example with the ESPN3 logo (exactly how they Pillarbox on the ESPN broadcast channels).
There is also a complete absence of player Chrome around the top and sides, and a very simple timeline below, which obscures the controls in it’s default state. It also gives us the name of the event being watched, which is useful given the amount of content available at any given time.
When you mouse-over the video, the timeline appears, as well as controls to adjust Video Quality and Volume.
Much like many contemporary Internet TV channels, ESPN3 offers Dynamic Bitrate Switching (termed on this site as “Auto Adjust”) which serves up the best-quality bitrate you can handle at any given time. This is the default setting (which is exactly what it should be for the average Internet TV watcher), but you can set the bitrate manually, should you decide to “live dangerously.”
My only “suggestment for improvement” is how the CTI (current-time-indicator, the little thingy on the timeline that you can drag left-or-right to move forward or backward in time) can only be dragged. You can’t click on the timeline where you want it to go, and have it jump there (a feature which is very common these days, and which many users expect).
The three buttons on the lower-right let you toggle between the viewing states: Standard, Fullscreen, and Mosaic.
The Mosaic view lets you watch up to 4 events at once, but unless you have a really fast connection the viewing experience can still be dicey.
The Mosaic view, IMO, caters solely to sports junkies, sports gamblers, and fantasy-league participants, who really want/need to be able to track multiple sporting events simultaneously. For the casual viewer, it really serves no useful purpose. That being said, a good portion of ESPN’s base are sports junkies, sports gamblers, and fantasy-league participants. So this is a key feature for this Internet TV channel (as well as most Internet TV channels that cater to sports fans) and definitely starts to get you into the zone of “this is something I probably can’t do on my TV set today.”
The way you get content into this Mosaic view is either by drag/drop or going to the interactive calendar which also drives the PIP (picture-in-picture) feature. Since I believe this one is a bit more useful to the average viewer, let’s take a look at how it works (keeping in mind getting content into the Mosaic view pretty much works the same way).
In the mouse-over state of the player, an “Add PIP” button appears in the upper-right corner. Clicking on it brings up a simple dialog.
Clicking “Choose An Event” opens the interactive calendar, which appears as an overlay on top of the video player. It also shows you the video you’re currently watching on the right side.
This appears to me to be a crack at something similar to an interactive programming guide on a Cable or Satelite subscription. The only problem with it’s current implementation is that is just appears onscreen abruptly, and it took me a moment to understand what I was looking at (in particular, the video itself didn’t feel like a continuous experience). What I’d like to see would be for the interactive calendar to appear via a transition, which would push the video off to the right and have the listings fade up on the left. Would really make the whole thing feel connected — right now it feels a little disjointed.
This one complaint aside, at this point it’s easy to locate a “Replay” on-demand clip, or any live event currently underway (at the time of this writing, early on a Monday morning, there were no live events underway, so I loaded in a replay of one of the French Open matches).
The bad news is that the PIP window is simply way too small to see what the heck is happening, and there’s no way to resize it (although you can position it wherever you want). I can’t really see the usefulness, unless you go into fullscreen mode (but the ESPN3 branding on the Pillarbox goes away, which is probably good if you’re the end-user but not-so-good if you’re ESPN).
I’m watching this on my laptop which has a 17-inch screen, and at this point I can actually see the tennis ball in the PIP which is pretty darn good.
Part 2 to come shortly . . .