Last week, I was invited to a loft to look at how ESPN and the NFL would be integrating into the Xbox One. I was excited: I'm an NFL fan, and I track a fair amount of sports news, too.
I'm also someone who owns a smartphone and has cable TV, and owns a tablet. Between these services and gadgets, I'm pretty well covered.
Microsoft wants you to perceive the Xbox One as a way to get your TV and entertainment in a bold new way. While we knew this was coming since the Xbox event back in May, Microsoft has offered a little more detail about what these sports offerings entail when they debut in November. Between the split-screen delivery of content and multitasking that the Xbox One's capable of plus its use of HDMI-in to deliver cable TV content, the One could be a magical living room all-in-one device. But, the NFL and ESPN services I peeked at seem more like slight evolutions of what already exists on the Xbox 360.
ESPN features: Similar to Xbox 360's service, but prettier
ESPN's Xbox One manifestation, in particular, looks a lot like its Xbox 360 service: a row of instant-access video clips accompany tabs to get live games and also ESPN 3, which requires you already pay for the service via a compatible cable provider. Some of ESPN's content is free, matching some of the services you can get on the Web. Also new is ScoreCenter, which already does a fine job as an app on mobile devices. Microsoft promises customization based on favorites you select and syncing with your ESPN.com profile. But that's already possible on a lot of mobile services. This feels like a familiar spin.
NFL on Xbox One: Not a Sunday Ticket replacement yet
The NFL's partnership with Microsoft looks equally pretty -- a bit like my dream layout for an interactive cable channel -- but with limitations. No, it seems like you won't be getting a full roster of live NFL games. Instead, the NFL service taps into NFL.com, the NFL Network and Red Zone, and all the content those offer. The latter two channels are ones you have to subscribe to on cable, much like many recent TV apps. There are also ways to track NFL.com fantasy football teams and league scores and stats -- the Xbox One's NFL app will track at least four teams right off the bat. A sidebar can be pulled up to watch these stats as you play a game of Halo, for instance.
It's a fine idea, perhaps, in theory, and some of the presentation borders on a real-life version of a Madden game menu...which, of course, made me wonder when this type of sports integration will make its way into sports games like Madden versus living separately. Merging an interactive NFL hub with a game like Madden feels like a natural step, but we're not there yet.
As far as the presence of Snap sidebar data even goes, I think it has to be done with care without it feeling too invasive. Taking up precious TV real estate on scores while playing another game has to be done carefully and elegantly. The Snap sidebar currently looks like it eats up a little more space than I'd prefer. The demonstration didn't let me try using the controller to swap out information and switch screens, but the process didn't look as quick and easy as, say, talking directly to Kinect to search on Bing for movies. It'll be interesting to try using the NFL Snap feature while watching a live NFL game, or whether it'll feel too redundant. The ability to create a team-based hub and watch highlights for, say, my ill-fated New York Jets could be the most tempting proposition: would its content be deep enough to be my go-to fan destination over a Web site or standard local TV coverage?
Incidentally, NFL fantasy football services are also making their way to the Xbox 360 today, part of a multitiered Microsoft partnership with the NFL that will also deliver fantasy football apps and even concussion-testing sideline applications for Windows 8 tablets.
No way to tell till November
Motion gestures and clever voice commands will be what make sports and TV side-services sing on the Xbox One. This type of multitasking runs the risk of distracting from already-immersive games. The best way to handle this type of added content is with an easy-on, easy-off set of hands-free or gesture-simple commands. It's probably safe to assume that sports programming will also include some SmartGlass second-screen tablet/phone function with the Xbox One, but that wasn't demonstrated during my brief demo.
We'll know more about TV on the Xbox One as its November debut approaches, but I'd venture to say that these services are absolutely key to how the system succeeds. There isn't much different under the hood between the Xbox One and PlayStation 4: this promise of complete home entertainment is Microsoft's big check to cash on the One, and I hope it does better than TVii on the Wii U.