ESPN3.com has landed on Microsoft’s Xbox, marking the first foray into the living room for ESPN’s broadband network. Under terms of a deal announced on Monday, Xbox will be the exclusive gaming console for ESPN content, including ESPN3.com’s live sporting events and ESPN.com video clips.
“We have a theory that the fan always wants to catch the game on the best available screen,” says ESPN3.com VP Damon Phillips. “In the past, ESPN3.com has been a desktop or laptop viewing experience. So this allows us to put these games and events on a television set and still follow our existing business model of working with our affiliates. We think this is going to be a game-changer in the industry.”
No Additional Cost
Beginning in November, subscribers to Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold service ($49.99 per year) who also receive their Internet connection from an ESPN-affiliated service provider (Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and Cox, among others) will have access to all ESPN3.com content at no additional cost. This content includes a host of college sports, MLB, NBA, international soccer, tennis (all four Grand Slams), and golf’s major tournaments. ESPN.com content will be available to all Xbox Live members.
“There are two video components to our deal with Xbox,” says Phillips. “The first is bringing ESPN3.com to the TV set via Xbox [and an Xbox Live Gold subscription]. That’s going to be the same content that you get on the PC product. All 3,500 events you see on your computer, you can see on Xbox. The second part of this deal is all the ESPN.com video — news, highlights, information — all those clips that are available on ESPN.com will now also be accessible through your Xbox for free.”
HTTP Live Streaming
ESPN will use HTTP live streaming (developed by Apple) to deliver video content on the Xbox. This method allows ESPN to publish video once to multiple platforms.
“It’s a situation where we’ve built our technical stack to encode once and publish to multiple platforms,” says Phillips. “Opportunities like this are exactly why we built the stack this way. We can basically deliver [the video] in the same fashion without much extra work.”
ESPN3 Goes Interactive
Xbox’s ESPN channel will also deploy a variety of interactive elements, including polls, trivia, predictions, and social-media applications, such as team-affiliated fan communities. In addition, users can replay events with full DVR control, pull up current scores while watching a game, and see what the most popular games are in the Xbox Live community in real time.
“ESPN3.com on the Xbox will be a lot more social, so you’ll be able to interact with friends and other fans through Xbox,” says Phillips. “Stats will be a big component of what we do, and polling will also add a lot to [the platform]. We’re building a TV experience now, as opposed to a PC or desktop experience. We’re going to definitely see what the future of television is like through this deal with Microsoft.”
The college market is sure to be a key factor in the ESPN3-Xbox deal, since both products already hold sizable footprints in the area. ESPN3.com content is dominated by college sports and is available at no cost to approximately 21 million U.S. college students and U.S.-based military personnel via on-campus networks. Meanwhile, Xbox’s reputation as a high-brow game console that caters to young-adult demographics has already put it in college dorms around the country.
“The college market is absolutely a big [target] for us,” Phillips says. “The college market has access to ESPN3.com, and this is right in the wheelhouse of Xbox. We think that we’re going to see significant consumption among college students because it’s now going to be accessible on their Xbox. A lot of the college content will definitely appeal to college students, but also a lot of college students are watching a lot of soccer and other sports. We definitely think we’ll see a big usage increase in the college market as a result of this Xbox deal.”
The Future of Live Sports on Game Consoles
ESPN3, which is currently available in about 52 million households nationwide, provides Microsoft with a much needed advantage over competing game consoles, such as Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii. While services like Netflix and Facebook are not exclusive to any game console, this new deal makes Xbox the sole carrier of ESPN3.com within the category.
“We believe gaming consoles have a huge place in the live-sports business,” says Phillips. “The biggest thing is, they are already in the living room and connected to TVs. It is a great platform for sports programming, and it can bring social interaction to events. It’s a great marriage of content and technology.”