When I first arrived at the demonstration space for the Xbox One's sports capabilities, the first thing Microsoft's PR team emphasized was that this was "the second or third way" to use the Xbox One. First and foremost, the Xbox One is a game console. But the way it handles sports and fantasy teams is attention-getting, to say the least.
What I was shown can really be split into two parts: Watching sports themselves, and fantasy leagues, specifically fantasy football. Both aspects were actually quite impressive, but whether or not they'll appeal to you will depend, a lot, on just how much you love sports: These are designed, very much, for the hardcore fan.
With that in mind, the on-demand setup is impressive not just in terms of sports, but in general.
The Xbox 360 has had ESPN for a while, but what I saw demonstrated both how that will work on the Xbox One and how, specifically, Microsoft's agreement with the NFL will tie into the system. Essentially, you'll be able to pull a surprising amount of content from across both ESPN and NFL broadcasts, and watch it on demand.
It's built around your ESPN.com and NFL.com login credentials, which you'll tie to your Xbox Live Gold account. Essentially, after you link the two, you're able to view clips, highlights, information tickers, and full games. The panel is informative without being obtrusive:
Clips and games you can choose are arranged across the bottom, and the information panel on the right can be customized or swapped out, depending on your preference. For example, if you're watching a game, you can have more information about your team and how they're doing on the right-hand side:
What got my attention the most was how smooth the whole process was; the stream never stuttered, even when switching panes, the information you wanted loaded quickly. Granted, it's a system that benefits greatly from having a large TV; the demo unit I was shown was roughly 60".
The range of clips available was also quite a surprise: The NFL apps are centered around teams, not content deals. So if, for example, a game is blacked out in your broadcast area, you'll still be able to pull up clips from your team. I saw clips from a wide range of networks, and for hardcore fans, this might be the only way to see some games.
It was also built for controllers. The demo changed items with the press of a button; there weren't any menus you had to pop up or otherwise tweak, no dives into the main menu. It was very smooth and if all on-demand content on the Xbox One is like this, it's going to make for some impressive demos.
However, you'll need to have some specific items to make this work. You'll need to have a cable provider participating in WatchESPN, and to get the full NFL experience, you'll need to be a member of NFL Red Zone. In other words, this really is first and foremost for the hardcore fan.
On the other hand, the fantasy features are for everyone.
The Xbox 360 will be seeing at least some of these features today: If you're running a fantasy team through NFL.com, you'll be able to see highlights, track your team, and perform other features through your console. But more interesting was how fantasy was integrated into the One.
As you may have noticed, you can track your team in real time; the Xbox One has a panel you can simply configure to appear on the side of the screen that updates as the game goes on. The demo I saw featured video content playing alongside, but we were told that gaming would work just as well with the panel. So if you're waiting for word to come in, you can keep an eye on it while playing.
One aspect that particularly stood out was the ability to see relevant clips. If a player does particularly well, or suffers a particular setback, you'll be able to pull up a clip and see what happened. This does particularly well with Microsoft's fantasy app for the Surface, which gets really granular with the information in question, and pops up the clips smoothly.
In short, if you play fantasy football, and already own an Xbox of some form, Microsoft wants to make running your team as simple as possible. Currently it's only for NFL.com, but Microsoft is working on adding other fantasy leagues.
So the question is, does this give the One an advantage in the upcoming console war? It's undeniably impressive, but again, Microsoft made it pretty clear this isn't the primary reason to buy the One, and you'll have to have fast Internet, a good TV, Gold, and a cable subscription to get the most out of these features.
Still, if you're a hardcore sports fan, this might be something worth looking into. If nothing else, there doesn't seem to be a more comprehensive solution on the market. Still, this doesn't seem to be the silver bullet some were hoping; how the console is received, and whether it's worth getting, is still going to come down to the games.
I want more like this!
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