’Where the hell has my Gamepass app gone?’ asked numerous NFL fans in the UK over the past month. For the first time since it’s launch 9 years ago Gamepass is going through some serious changes, both from a technology and marketing point of view. Let’s take a look at what some of the changes might mean for it’s customers and fans.
The first thing subscribers noticed was the abrupt withdrawal of all Gamepass apps without any warning or announcement. Ok it’s only the offseason and you can access the new desktop and mobile website versions but having spent the best part of £130 on a year’s subscription, removing part of the service with over a month remaining and without notice left a slight sour taste in the mouth.
At the end of June the NFL announced a new initiative to drive subscriptions of the Gamepass service throughout Europe. Why? Well NFL International’s broadcast priority remains getting eyes on the league as seen in Germany and continues to be the case in the UK with the BBC expected to sign at least a three year extension to their expired NFL rights deal next month. Whilst this is a very cheap deal for the BBC the NFL gets access to promote the league on the platform with the greatest reach in the UK (last season saw a ‘reach’ of 24 million, nearly double that of previous year thanks in large part to the post MOTD magazine show). There’s also three more years to run on the Sky Sports NFL contract but with average viewing figures flat for the last six years and pressures from outlays on other sports rights (notably Premier League, F1 and cricket) it’s unlikely Sky will have much appetite to bid any more for the next deal. So with the NFL no doubt looking on forlornly at the Premier League’s $1 billion six year deal with NBC, among the English league’s ever burgeoning foreign rights sales, the attention turns to exploiting the direct to customer streaming product Gamepass in the UK and on the continent. With current subscriber numbers a closely guarded secret there’s a belief that the streaming service could be a real opportunity at driving some revenue for the league and it’s a model other sports leagues (such as the overseas EFL product being developed with streaming partner Perform) may also turn to over the next decade.
Gamepass was introduced in 2008 as an over the top product for out of U.S. markets. For the first couple of years it struggled for the consistent performance of it’s streams and authentication but from 2010 it’s been a great product for British NFL fans, even more so with reduced black out times and post season added last year. As my father (a 1982 Channel 4 original) never ceases to ‘be amazed he can watch every single Raider play, every season’, Gamepass truly revolutionised the way serious ‘outside of U.S. NFL fans’ could access games and support programming. So good was the offering that couple of years ago the old U.S. product of Game Rewind was folded into the Gamepass offering too. But now a European version is being set up with it’s own platform and with it’s own marketing budget.
So what does this mean? Well first thing to note is that the price has gone up by £10 to £139.99 for the new season, no doubt in part due to the falling value of the pound over the last year. But the real changes will be in the technology, the user experience and the marketing drive.
The deal to grow the subscription base with Bruin Sports Capital and big advertising boy WPP has meant Bruin owned Deltatre have been drafted in to be the technology solutions provider. Deltratre built the BT Sports Champions League streaming solution and as anyone who’s accessed that can attest (a world of difference from Sky’s lame football offerings) that could be good news for when the new Gamepass apps launch next month. Very easy to navigate, rewind, catch up on key action, innovative, hopefully the new Gamepass will benefit from this expertise and ‘technology solutions’ (urgh, apologies for the consultancy language).
The announcement of a new Gamepass product comes with promises for a return of the old favourite features and new ones we could expect like hiding the scores ‘No spoiler mode’ (something we could already do but for some reason is being championed more) and being able to watch a game that’s in mid-flow, from the start (something, again, we could already do on desktop. The addition of that ability in the apps will be welcome though). However the old product wasn’t broken and, despite the room for some tweaks and improvements, the worry going into the new season is that all the features won’t be there in time or some will have regressed.
Having used the new web version my feelings so far are mixed. I kind of liked the old portal view, it was easy to navigate and it felt like everything was in one place. The new version is of course a ‘more immersive experience’ and closely resembles the ‘look and feel’ of NFL.com but to me it just feels like extra effort to move around and find games and programming. The playback still seems fairly basic and there doesn’t appear to be a way of expanding the video player in the browser view, it’s either one size or full screen. Will we be able to have multiple live games running alongside one another like before? Will we get skip functionality on the player back (vital if you’re watching on delay and you don’t want to sit through ads)? Will we get back the full season of games to 2009 or only 2016? There’s still a lot we won’t know until the first slate of games in preseason it seems.
My biggest concern though, is how this refocused campaign to increase revenue from the product might affect the content in the future. What’s special about Gamepass is that you’re able to access football like an American would. It’s as close as you can get on this side of the pond to experiencing an NFL Sunday and the week in between as if you were living in Connecticut, or Wisconsin, or Oklahoma. Even the American ads in between the games and programming add to that experience. A lot of Gamepass subscribers even shunned the BBC and Sky on Super Bowl Sunday in February and streamed the game using the service so that they could watch the game, ads and presentation exactly like an American would.
Here’s what Bruin co-founder George Payne said of the deal in an interview with SportsProMedia, ‘I think you’re going to see aggressive application of engaging consumers in the UK, and in the long run, through the WPP network, we have intelligence and people on the ground in every territory. So we’re going to be able over time to localise messaging and eventually localise content.’
Argh. What?! ‘Localise content’? For me Gamepass is not the place to promote Jay Ajayi ‘content’, to prioritise the importance of the London Games, tell me how well ticket sales are going or showcase videos of the latest UK fans forums. Gamepass customers are sophisticated NFL fans and need to be treated as such. It might be understandable to, say in Italy or Germany, produce content in local languages but that’s as far as it should go. If anything I’d like to see (though it’s probably impossible) some programming from US networks other than NFL Network. ESPN’s Matchup show for one. The fact the league’s own network no longer produces any X’s and O’s programming is absurd but that’s a rant for another article.
Another shock for some fans will be the lack of instalments in the new offering. Old customers can apparently split their payments over two however new customers can only pay £139.99 up front. For a product aimed primarily at the millennial market I find that a surprising move, especially when so many potential customers are currently streaming NFL games illegally for free.
We’ll be back in August with a full review of the Gamepass products once they’ve all launched on 1st August (except for the Xbox app which is still waiting for a date). In the meantime here are my Gamepass ‘KPI’s’ that will define whether the new product is a success in the coming season…
All downloadable games must be available by 6:30am UK time the following morning
One of the key features for me and many Gamepass subscribers, particularly commuters that don’t drive. It is the only reason I have an iPhone because it was a feature only available to Apple devices for the last four or five years despite promises that Android would follow when first announced. This time it sounds like Android will be supported too but the real worth of this feature is for games to be available within two hours of finishing. Anything longer than that and the new service will have regressed significantly.
Do not give away the result
Sounds simple but being a dedicated American sports fan that tries to watch as many games on delay without knowing the score you know there’s multiple ways this can happen (I delete or hide my Twitter app 3 times a week during the season so that I don’t subconsciously open it and see a score). It’s not just a case of being able to switch off the spoiler scores which you can do in the new version like you could in the old. It’s the nuanced things like not loading up the NFL Network feed as soon as you log in potentially revealing results. It’s not defaulting to next week’s slate of games when you log in during the playoffs. And it’s also finding a solution to the scrub bar problem of revealing a result because you know how long left the video has to play. Could some post-game programming be added to each game to create less certainty of when a game will end?
Archive games and programming
By the sounds of it most of the programming that was available in the old product is being made available in the new one. A Football Life, The Timeline, Classic Super Bowl broadcasts etc. It would be great if these were downloadable too and also if they could cut out the adverts when these are on-demand. I really hope we get back the games from the 2009 season onwards although I feel less confident of that (how else will I get to watch the Jets in postseason action this season otherwise?).
Ability to scroll back to the start of a game during its progress and NFL Network
We’re being promised this feature for live games. We also need it back for NFL Network. Given that most shows premiere at 2am UK time on the channel and not all are archived like Inside The NFL, it’s vital we get the ability to scroll back through the last 24 or 48 hours on NFL Network.
No localised content
No Premier League goalkeepers catching American footballs please. Leave the marketing of the league where it should be, on the BBC and, more debatably, Sky.
Streaming that does not degenerate during peak times
It’s an obvious one and I’m pretty confident it’ll work fine because Deltatre are behind the product. But’s it’s very important that the highest quality streams don’t suffer during live games which did happen on occasion with the old product. Will we get 4k quality in the new apps?
Roll on the launch of the full service at the start of August and the preseason. I await it both eagerly and with a little trepidation…
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