Xbox LIVE expands ESPN, sports content

LOS ANGELES -- The NBA, NHL, UFC and every ESPN network are now available on Xbox LIVE, and while you still need a pay-TV subscription and LIVE Gold service to access the content, the system’s features make it a unique way to take in sports.

Say it’s a college football Saturday and there are college football games on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU. They’re all available in one place on the bottom of your LIVE screen, making it easy to quickly switch from game to game. You can also watch two games at once in a split-screen format, while scores scroll at the bottom of the screen.

It’s more convenient, in my opinion, than navigating through the channels on your cable or satellite provider to find sports.

Before this sounds too much like an advertisement, let’s clear this up: This is not a cord-cutter. Not even close. You still need the code from your cable provider to get the ESPN content, and you have to pay extra money for the NHL, NBA and UFC content. And there are still some features I’d like to see added, like the ability to split screen between a real-life sports game and a video game (the Xbox 360 is a gaming console, after all).

But the new sports features sure were fun to sit down and play with. There’s a listing of live sports, so on Tuesday I browsed and watched some tennis and European soccer matches. And we’ll have to wait 'til autumn for the NBA, but the ability to quickly sift through basketball games -- with the score of each game showing before you click onto it -- is far more expedient than navigating through the channel listing on my cable box.

There are special UFC features exclusively on the Xbox LIVE, as well. Before each major pay-per-view fight, there’s a “storyline” preview, which is an interactive timeline of each fighter’s UFC career. It’s interesting, although it cost $2.99 to view the guys’ old fights, meaning it could cost up to $20 to view the entire storyline. That’s a lot of money to preview a fight that costs around $50 to actually watch at home.

Microsoft also announced “Project SmartGlass,” a second-screen effort to connect your smartphone or tablet to the sports (and movies and TV shows) you’re watching or playing on Xbox LIVE. The exact content that will be available on “Project SmartGlass” was a bit ambiguous, but Yusuf Mehdi, the corporate vice president of marketing and strategy at Microsoft, mentioned the possibility of drawing up plays on an iPad while playing Madden on the Xbox 360. That’d be sweet.

More than anything, it seems like the new sports features on Xbox LIVE are laying the foundation for something that could be really intuitive and fun for Xbox LIVE users. And if you’re already paying for cable and the Gold membership, it’s a convenient way to take in ESPN between Halo sessions.