Super Bowl 50 — that's right, sans Roman numeral — will be played next February in the San Francisco Bay Area. As you might expect, the NFL is putting together plenty of retrospectives for the golden anniversary of the Big Game. But Microsoft, as the league's official technology sponsor in the third year of a five-year deal worth $400 million, is looking forward.
"Here at Microsoft," said Microsoft's Jeff Tran in an interview with Polygon this week, "we're thinking about the future. We're thinking about the next 50 [years]."
"we're thinking about the future"
Tran, director of sports and alliances in Microsoft's Windows and Devices Group, added that the company wants to "bring all of [its] technology to bear, and help evolve and shape how technology impacts sports and football." Microsoft's redesign of the Xbox One's NFL app for the 2015 NFL season, and its continued efforts to bring Surface computers to the sidelines of NFL games, are the strongest examples yet of that mission — and of the depth of the partnership between the two companies.
The new NFL app improves on existing functionality like fantasy football integration and game-day updates. Now you'll see the games of the week in a live scoreboard running across the top of the app's home screen. If you're subscribed to NFL Sunday Ticket, you can immediately start watching any in-progress games right from that scoreboard.
"You can watch the game by yourself with your cable, but on Xbox, we're going to make that game better," said Todd Stevens, executive producer at Microsoft.
The scoreboard also lets you "check in" to games you're interested in following. That will tell the app that you want notifications of important events for those matchups — scoring plays, kickoffs, new quarters starting and more.
Users can set two different NFL teams as favorites, which will personalize the app with news and video updates from those clubs, as well as notifications for their games. So if you're a Jets fan, and you want to know when they score without having to subject yourself to watching their games from start to finish, you can go play Halo 5 and catch Jets highlights — as rare as they may be — just when they actually happen.
Those plays will also appear in the NFL app's new highlights section. All of the day's big plays will show up in the list, and you can "like" individual videos and share them with your Xbox Live friends. Plus, if you don't want to tear yourself away from whatever else you're doing on your Xbox One, you can watch the highlights on demand instead of when the notification pops up.
On the fantasy football side, you can input up to two fantasy leagues into the Xbox One's NFL app. This year, the app supports three providers from the start: NFL.com, CBS and Yahoo (ESPN is available as well, but only in ESPN's own Xbox One app). If your team is set up in the app, you can get fantasy scoring notifications just like you'd see from real NFL games.
"We're pretty pumped this year to have all those guys right at the season's start," said Stevens, referring to the integration of CBS and Yahoo.
But the most interesting new feature in the NFL app this year is the debut of the NFL's "Next Gen Stats" program. The initiative, which the league began testing in the 2014 season, will put RFID chips in the shoulder pads of every NFL player this year. Those chips allow for the tracking, on every play, of an athlete's speed, exact position on the field and distance traveled. And the NFL is making that data available to Microsoft for consumer-oriented uses such as the NFL app.
The app will pair replays with virtual overlays that allow users of the NFL app to see exactly how a play went down, from the snap to the whistle. All 22 players on the field are represented with icons indicating their position, and lines show the paths of key participants in the play. (See video below.) The replay plays in a small window in the upper right corner of the screen, and the virtual diagram of the play animates along with the video. Next Gen Stats replays will show up in the NFL app as soon as the video of the play in question hits the NFL website.
Microsoft will also use Next Gen Stats replays to surface interesting data to users of the NFL app. At launch, the app will rank players by an attribute dubbed "Afterburner" to see which athlete reached the highest top speed during a week's games. Microsoft is planning to introduce another one in week 3, "Scrambler," to see how many yards a quarterback ran before completing a pass.
Users of the NFL app will be able to play pick 'em games with Next Gen Stats, voting for the player they think will top the, say, Afterburner list. Microsoft will offer weekly prizes for the winners in the form of physical and digital goods, and at the end of the season, the company will send the top scorer to Super Bowl 50.
Verge Video: Next Gen Stats replay
"You'll see next-gen stats in other places," said Stevens. "Like, you'll see the broadcasters do it a little bit more this season. You'll see some stuff on NFL.com that's super light-touch. But they don't have the power of the Xbox to where we can instantly marry those highlights, that are super successful, with that data."
To this point, the NFL app has been much less valuable to Xbox One owners who don't run cable or satellite television through their console. And many of the features Microsoft has been touting — elements like the scoreboard and fantasy updates — are things that football fans already keep up with on their phone while watching games.
"they don't have the power of the Xbox"
Microsoft wants the Xbox One to be your one-stop shop for following the action on NFL game days. But even if you don't want to use your console to keep up with your favorite NFL teams and fantasy leagues, the Next Gen Stats replays are a great argument for the app. And perhaps more importantly, they demonstrate the value of the NFL's partnership with Microsoft in an unprecedented, forward-thinking way.
The updated NFL app will launch in late August on Xbox One. Everything except the capability to watch live games will also be available in the Windows 10 version of the app.