Microsoft debuted its NFL on Xbox One app 12 weeks into the 2013 NFL season, a late arrival that limited the app's potential. The app remains one of the major pieces of the company's multi-year partnership with the NFL, and Microsoft is making some important improvements this year to make it more viable and attractive.
"People establish their behaviors and habits early on in the season. And when you introduce something so fundamentally new in week 12, the hardest-core people latch onto it and love it and give feedback, and it's great. But other people, it's harder to do," said David Jurenka, director of sports at Xbox Entertainment Studios, in a presentation to Polygon last week.
Microsoft made a major push for the app's integration with NFL.com fantasy football, but fantasy players fall into a routine very quickly and can be reluctant to change it up so far into the season. And the Xbox One introduced a new paradigm with its TV functionality, where football fans could Snap the NFL app alongside a live game — the console experience itself was something that people had to become accustomed to. Even so, the NFL app became the top app to be used in the Xbox One's Snap mode, and with a update for the 2014 season set to be released in late August, Microsoft is doing its best to make a stronger argument for the app.
"We are going to have more leagues than just NFL.com"
One of the top requests from users of the NFL app, according to Jurenka, was the option to interface with a wider variety of fantasy football providers. Last year, the app only supported NFL.com, leaving out millions of fans who use sites such as Yahoo Sports, ESPN and CBS Sports.
"We are going to have more leagues than just NFL.com," said Jurenka. He couldn't name specific sites yet, saying that Microsoft is still "working on finalizing some deals," but assured us that once those agreements are in place, the providers in question will be supported within the app by the kickoff of the season on Sept. 4. A Microsoft representative later confirmed to Polygon that the Xbox One's ESPN app will support ESPN fantasy football for this season.
This year's updated NFL app will support two major streaming video services as well. For the first time, DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket will be available on Xbox platforms; it's unclear at this point if DirecTV will release its own Xbox One app, but Microsoft's NFL app will include full integration with NFL Sunday Ticket. DirecTV subscribers will be able to log in with their credentials, along with people who pay for certain tiers of the new NFL Sunday Ticket.tv service. (Sunday Ticket.tv, which DirecTV announced last month, is restricted to those who are unable to subscribe to television service through DirecTV.)
Microsoft's NFL app will also include NFL Now, the new personalized streaming network that the league announced before this year's Super Bowl. The ad-supported free version of NFL Now will allow users to get a stream of news, highlights and analysis about their favorite teams and players. Fans who pay for an NFL Now Plus subscription — the NFL has yet to announce the price or availability of the package — will have access to the "full NFL Films digital vault," according to Jurenka.
"On demand, for the first time ever, we're going to have this content in HD on the TV," he added.
In addition to bringing in new content, Microsoft is aiming to improve the app's existing experience. Jurenka mentioned a second deficiency of the NFL app that launched with the Xbox One last fall: Regarding its Snap functionality, he said, "We found that it wasn't delivering as much value as we knew it could."
As you can see in the screenshots above, the app now sports a silver-and-blue color scheme instead of the current blue theme. The existing app allowed users to set a favorite team and scroll through videos such as highlights of top plays. Now, Microsoft is bringing that content directly to you.
Say you've got Jordy Nelson on your fantasy team, and Aaron Rodgers throws him a 60-yard touchdown pass. Within approximately two minutes of that play, you'll get a notification on your Xbox One (see top screenshot). At that point, you can press the Xbox button on your controller to launch straight into Snap mode and watch the highlight, while your activity in the main screen — playing a game, watching Netflix, whatever — keeps running.
"We're trying to seamlessly weave together scenarios for consumers without them having to do a lot of work," said Jurenka. This year, the NFL app will also be available on Windows 8 as well, so owners of devices such as Surface tablets will be able to take the experience on the go, or simply use the app on its own screen if they choose not to run their cable box through their Xbox One.
As always, the NFL app will provide the maximum utility for people who have a pay-TV subscription that includes the NFL Network and NFL RedZone channels, since a live feed of NFL Network is one of the main parts of the experience. But even those who don't subscribe to cable will still be able to watch video highlights and receive the latest scores and statistics, since those pieces are provided by the NFL website. Either way, what we've seen of Microsoft's new NFL app makes it seem as if it comes much closer to the company's vision of the Xbox One as a connected console at the center of your living room.