January 10, 2009
At first, the effect is dizzying: a sensory overload of images, facts and figures orbiting what amounts to picture-in-picture-in-picture-in-picture television. That it's occurring on a computer monitor, rather than the flat-screen hanging on the living room wall, doesn't decrease the feeling of digital claustrophobia.
Gradually, the charms of NHL GameCenter Live -- the League's Web- and subscription-based service that provides coverage of out-of-market games on a nightly basis -- blow away any clouds of confusion. Suddenly, you're not just watching a game (or four of them, at the same time); you're following real-time stats, shot analysis, dialing up video highlight clips and chatting with fans around the world.
"What we've learned is that people really want to have this immersive, 'you're in control' experience," said Andre Mika, Senior VP/Executive in Charge of Programming, New Media for the NHL.
There's plenty that dazzles the eye on GameCenter Live, but its most important aspect is something less observable and more implicit: that the way games are being presented on NHL.com today could be the groundwork for how they're presented on television in the future.
The NHL has streamed games online for the last few seasons. In the past, they were an online component of Center Ice, the League's successful subscription service on cable and satellite.
GameCenter Live is a next generation upgrade that has transformed the digital viewing experience. Fans have the ability to watch up to four games at once. The audio options range from television calls to radio voices. There are detailed real-time stats, including ice time. Text-based play-by-play is offered, with on-demand video highlights of goals. A rather addictive shot-tracker allows the viewer to assess the quality of offensive chances. Finally, the GameCenter chat allows for running commentary from around the world, although much of it is reduced to trash talk.
This immersive experience has produced some blockbuster numbers for the NHL, which reports that subscriptions for GameCenter Live are 231 percent up from last year. "We're ecstatic about the response this year, because it really validates the work we put into this," said Mika.
One of the driving forces behind the development of NHL Network Online, Mika, 42, previously executive produced the Live Earth concert and directed the HD content for the Athens Olympics on NBC.
In developing GameCenter Live, the first question was about the viewership: Who, exactly, would be watching hockey games online?
Not every fan has broadband internet access or DSL, so GameCenter Live is able to assess the speed of a system and perform at that speed; or viewers can make the call. "One of the things that helps a lot of people is choosing the bandwidth, the rate, at which you want to watch the game," said Mika.
Ideally, GameCenter exists for fans who want to watch games while traveling or who don't, for whatever reason, subscribe to Center Ice. But even if you have Center Ice on television, Mika said there's still good reason to sign up for GameCenter as well.
According to the NHL, 40 percent of sports fans use a secondary device at home, usually a laptop, to get extra information while they're watching games. So while hometown games are blacked out -- like games on Versus and CBC are as well -- there'd still be viable information that GameCenter can offer during a local broadcast.
"Instead of just making this something for out-of-market fans, if you're in New York and you're watching a Rangers game, you can put it on GameCenter -- although you couldn't watch the game itself, everything else works," Mika said.
Included in that "everything else" are aspects that Mika enthusiastically endorses; like the ability to switch out the audio feeds for TV and radio. "There are a lot of fans who turn down the volume on their TV to listen to their radio guys," he said.
While the live chats aren't exactly Tolstoy, they do provide a compliment to the viewing experience. "I think it's great that you can sit there, watch the game and talk to fans around the world about what's happening," said Mika of the lightly moderated live forum. "Sports really defined the social medium of the chat room. Now it's evolved."
Evolution is the buzz word for GameCenter Live. The current incarnation is merely the first step in its growth. For example, the quality and consistency of the video feeds can be spotty; some games look crystal clear, others are pixilated or occasionally interrupted by lags in streaming.
Mika said the goal is to bring HD quality to GameCenter over time, and to present games in multi-screen, multi-camera formats.
That's right: GameCenter wants to cover games with different camera feeds presented from the same arena, including player-specific feeds.
NASCAR was one of the first sports to offer multiple camera feeds on specific competitors; NBC and Comcast have also offered hockey player-specific feeds for players like Alexander Ovechkin.
"It's kind of like back on the Michael Jordan days. People would always ask, 'What makes Michael Jordan such a great player?' It's not really what he does with the ball, but what he does away from the ball," Mika said.
What about specific audio feeds? Mika said one hope is to have an announcer-less ambient sound feed that viewers can call up; a "sounds of the game" channel.
Another potential audio innovation: mic'd up player feeds. Mika stated the obvious, that it would take the right player for this to work. In other words, no one practiced in the dark arts of Avery-like "verbal intimidation."
The reason for this is simple: the NHLPA wouldn't, at this time, go for uncensored audio feeds for most players during a game. "Is it a cool idea? Yeah, it's a great idea. Would the Players' Association ever let us do it? Probably not," said Mika.
Video feeds, audio feeds, real-time stats and interaction ... all of it makes for an interesting experience when viewing a game online. But would you be prepared for a similar experience on your television?
Mika said the time is coming when TVs will be transformed into Internet appliances. "We know for a fact that there will be a convergence in the coming years. It's happening now; this year at CES, you're seeing for the first time set-makers like LG put computer chips into sets for viewers to get onto the Internet," he said.
So GameCenter could be a glimpse at the "total immersion" experience for watching hockey that could hit television in the future.
For now, it's changing the way puckheads are able to experience hockey on the Web; even if the flow of information can be delightfully overwhelming.
"We're serving the super fan," said Mika.
For more about NHL GameCenter Live, including prices for half-season deals, check out the official site.