November 17, 2009
OverviewNBA League Pass is the latest of a slew of apps designed to allow you to follow the NBA. It's actually one of three officially sanctioned by the NBA, which as I'll discuss a little bit later, doesn't make a lot of sense. This app's main draw is the ability to watch games live as they're happening over 3G or Wifi.
FeaturesOn top of watching live games, the app allows you to view full replays of games from the past 48 hours. All games, live and replay, are subject to blackout restrictions. The app uses your GPS to determine your location; if you are somewhere where the game is being broadcast on TV, then you will not be able to watch it. I repeat, if you are considering this app to follow a team that is regularly broadcast where you live, do not buy it (unless you travel a lot)! On top of full replays, you can also watch highlights from past couple of days. Push notifications are included to remind you of upcoming games. You can set individual game alerts as well as team alerts. You can also share what you are watching with the world via Twitter, Facebook, or Email by tapping a convenient "Share" button next to the standard video playback controls.
The BreakdownFirst off, I can't help but make several comparisons between this app and the excellent MLB At Bat which was the first app for a professional sports league to allow you to watch live games. The Good: Let's start with the most important feature: video quality. I found it to be excellent over WiFi and only slightly worse over 3G. Just to give you an idea of the difference in quality: over WiFi, I was able to clearly read the numbers on the players backs. Over 3G, they were a little too blurry to read. But both connection methods provide an entirely watchable experience. After the initial load which usually only takes less than 10 seconds, there is no stuttering or choppiness. The screenshots here don't really do the quality justice. The sound quality is equally good. The user interface is attractive and usable. When you first launch the app, you are presented with the "Live" tab which provides a snapshot of all games currently in action. With one tap, you are instantly able to watch the action. While watching the game, you'll notice that the standard video controls have been spruced up. As always, one tap of the screen brings up the control panel. At the top of the screen, you can also view the current score, timeouts remaining for each time, and graphical representation of how far the game has progressed. I would have rather seen the actual clock, but that's a minor nitpick. At the bottom of the screen, there are three additional buttons: Stats, Scoreboard, and Share. Clicking on the "Stats" button pulls up stats for the top five players of each team. The scoreboard button shows other current games and the latest score. The share button allows you to share the game and score of the game you are watching via facebook, twitter, or email. The greatest part about all of these features is that you don't have to stop watching the game to use them. The game continues to play in the background. This is awesome, and I hope more developers are able to create interfaces like this. If I could click on another game in the scoreboard and have the video feed switch to that game, I would be in heaven. On the replay tab, the app displays a list of all viewable games from the past 48 hours. By default, the final scores of these games are hidden so that there's still some suspense while you're viewing the game. You do have the ability to show all the scores with the tap of a button. This is a nice, subtle feature. The schedule tab shows all current and future games and allows you to set reminders for any of them. Push notifications are easy to set up, but as I'll discuss below, I was not able to test them out. I especially like the ability to set reminders to automatically recur for any team (and you set up more than one team). The highlights tab contains a nice little collection of highlight videos such as Top 10s. A nice addition, but nothing too groundbreaking. The Bad: Push notifications don't work. At least for some users. That certainly qualifies as bad. Immediately upon launching the app, I get an error that says, "Reminder registration failed. Please try again later." I contacted Mobitv, and they quickly responded stating that they are aware of the issue and working on pushing out a fix. They also recently just updated the app's iTunes page stating that an update has been submitted to Apple and is pending review. Once the new version is released, I'll update this review. I assume they will work as advertised when that fix comes out. While the in game stats are nice, there is absolutely no statistical information available when you are not watching a game. The only information available are the scores for games from the past 48 hours. No box scores or team standings either. In fact, if you're watching a replay, the basic in-game stats are not even available. Along the same lines, there is no way to follow a live game other than watching it live or watching the score update. There is no live audio stream and no ESPN Gameday style play-by-play. So if I'm not in a place that I can actually watch the game, I have no way of checking in on the action unless I want to just listen to the audio from the video stream (not the same as a radio broadcast and an unnecessary battery killer). It would be nice to have some options. And the kicker is, all of these missing features are available in the NBA's other paid app, NBA Game Time 2009-10. It costs $9.99. I have to pay for two apps to get all the info I want...really? Now, let's talk blackout restrictions. I understand why they are there, and that's perfectly fine. It's never going to change with the way TV contracts are structured. But why in the world are replays of games blacked out? Is the NBA afraid that I won't watch the live game live on my HDTV so that I can watch it later on my tiny phone? Even worse, for the current day, nationally televised games don't show up in the app at all to even let you know that they are blacked out (regional blackouts are displayed and listed as being blacked out). It's like the game isn't even being played. I launched the app on 11/12 and went to the schedule and saw no games listed. I thought there were no games being played when, in fact, there were actually two being broadcast on TNT. On the schedule tab, you do have the option to choose "League Pass" and "All Games." I assume this was intended to allow you to only show the games that are available to watch, but if so, it's not working as designed. If you scroll to future days in the schedule, you do see all games listed. It's an odd quirk and something that will probably be fixed. And then there's the issue of price. The NBA took a different approach with this app than the MLB did with MLB At Bat. $39.99 gets you access to all games that are not blacked out with no additional subscription required. This is a great value compared to the $150 it costs to get the same thing on NBA.com. But I would think that most fans willing to spend $39.99 on this app also probably want the nba.com access. In fact, I would view the iPhone app as a way to watch the games when I can't be in front of a computer. Why is there no price break or discount for people who want access to both? MLB offered an app that provided full access to all games for only additional $9.99 on top of the annual subscription price which itself was only $120 for a longer season. Maybe the NBA could offer two different apps: the existing one for fans that just want iPhone access, and a second free or nominally priced option that would just serve as an extension to the online subscription. Hey David Stern: making your most fervent fans pay twice is just evil.
The VerdictIf you simply want a way to watch out of market NBA games on your iPhone, this app is an excellent choice (and your only choice without without a Slingbox). But for $39.99, I expect a more complete experience. If MLB At Bat didn't set the bar so high, I would likely be perfectly happy with this offering. But this is just a version 1.0, and MLB At Bat took several versions to get to where it is now. I'm hoping for improvement down the road. On a side note, I could see in-app purchases used really effectively here. A free app with basic features and then a $9.99 add-on for live audio or $39.99 for live video. It would provide flexibility while simplifying from three apps down to one. Update: Version 1.1 has been released which appears to have resolved the issue with push notifications. I updated, and I no longer get an error message. I will update again after tonight's round of games to make sure they work.
Update 2: Push notifications work.