New app aims for mobile sports gaming

Sports gaming apps such as GrabFan are trying to tap into the second-screen market with sports fans. Courtesy of Steve Smith/GrabFan

Zynga leads the world of social gaming apps, and it’s easy to see why – its games have a clean interface, they’re easy to learn and it’s easy to find your friends.

That’s why GrabFan, a new app that allows users to bet against each other on live sporting events, modeled itself after one of Zynga’s crown jewels, Words with Friends. And its creators, a couple of 25-year-old college grads from San Francisco, believe their app will boom with sports fans eager to use their phone or tablet while watching sports on TV.

GrabFan, currently available for iPhones and iPads, is a little more than a month old, but its idea has potential: You bet game credits against other users on the winners of live sporting events or on props such as how many points an NBA team will score. You can use those points on coupons for discounts on tickets or merchandise. That idea sounds fun with or without the prizes, if executed correctly.

The mobile and tablet social, sports-gaming market is still developing. Twitter is certainly the app of choice for sports fans to interact with each other during games, but that’s just because those people were already on Twitter.

That leaves an opening, at this time, for a smaller sports gaming app such as GrabFan -- or FanCake or Sports with Fans or something similar -- to rise up. “We believe the market is wide open,” says Steve Smith, a co-creator of GrabFan.

The biggest question is if this market exists, at least beyond the niche. The guys at GrabFan think there is. Quick, fun games such as ESPN’s Streak for the Cash and MLB’s Beat the Streak do well, although they’re different than what GrabFan is trying to do -- and they have millions of users already built in.

The best thing about GrabFan is its lack of intrusiveness; you don’t have to stare at the app while watching a game. Your friend can challenge you and you’ll receive an alert – just like Words with Friends – and then you can accept or decline. Quick and easy.

But it’s hardly a perfect app (and to be fair, it is young). The screen is too busy for my taste, with dancing coins and alerts all over the screen. This made it difficult to find the game I was looking for last night: I wanted to make a wager on the Pacers-Magic game, but it took longer than I hoped for – and random users will show much less patience.

Oh, and you’re encouraged to create an avatar before playing – is that really something people want to do? I just chose the default character, as did almost everyone else on the game. Let’s all use our Facebook photo or generic icon and move on.

But the idea has potential as GrabFan – which launched on March 27 – continues to tinker by simplifying the Facebook integration, adding location-based updates, incorporating individual players into the prop bets and adding more prizes.

The prizes are a nice touch, and surely they’ll help bring in ad revenue, but it doesn’t matter how great rewards are if users don’t enjoy playing the game. Angry Birds doesn’t give away prizes. Neither do social games like Words with Friends or Temple Run or pretty much anything else that’s popular.

GrabFan has to be fun, first and foremost – and it certainly has the potential to be just that.