Microsoft and ESPN launched the new version of the WatchESPN app on the Xbox 360 Monday night, bringing ESPN's full family of networks to the country’s top-selling gaming console, which is increasingly attempting to become a one-stop destination for sports fans.
The new ESPN content -- including live showings of ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU -- joins the NBA, MLB, UFC and NHL to create a rather extensive sports collection for Xbox LIVE Gold users, provided they have a cable subscription for the ESPN app and are willing to shell out extra money for the other sports (although there is some free content, detailed below).
In the WatchESPN app, users can split screens to watch two games at once, customize their home page to their favorite sports and teams, and use the mini guide to quickly guide through all of the ESPN live programming. There are also ESPN highlights and replays available to watch on demand.
As I wrote in June at the E3 Conference, this is not a cord-cutter, it's just a super convenient way to navigate through different live sporting events, especially on days when there's a lot going on at once, like college football Saturdays or college basketball Wednesday nights.
While previewing WatchESPN in New York City last week, it was fun to quickly and seamlessly browse through all of the ESPN content. And, I can't lie -- while putting the finishing touches on this story, my Xbox 360 was a bit distracting. When the 49ers jumped out to a 20-0 lead on the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football, I opened the mini-guide on the bottom of the screen to see what else ESPN had to offer. I quickly found UCLA and Georgetown engulfed in a close game, which I chose over the first half of Texas vs. Chaminade and a World Series of Poker rerun, both on ESPN3 (available on your Xbox 360 but not your cable box).
The ESPN app connects with the Xbox 360's sports cloud, which provides quick access to everything sports related on the system, including a new picks feature that encourages users to make predictions on games against their friends. The folks at Microsoft and ESPN are pretty excited about the upcoming bowl pick 'em feature on WatchESPN, as ESPN has the rights to almost every bowl game. It could make for a pretty cool thing to do with your friends on Xbox LIVE next month.
While WatchESPN -- also available on the smaller screens of your tablet or smartphone -- is a quality addition to the console's sports lineup, I have one nitpick: I'd like to see the generic commercial screen include scores or stats, the way the NBA League Pass does. Also, ESPN Radio could probably play a role here, although that's something that could be come down the road.
And I still pine for the ability to split-screen with a video game. Wouldn't it be great to pause your game of "FIFA 13" because the Nuggets and Grizzlies are heading to overtime, and then toggle back to your video game during commercial breaks? The hardware may be to blame -- you can't split screen between ESPN and NBA League Pass either, always limited to one app at a time -- but it's still something that would be just delightful.
It's also nice to see the Xbox Kinect is compatible with all of it. A shout of "Xbox, switch" will switch games, and "Xbox, guide" brings up the guide, and it all works well provided you don't have a dog named Xbox.
An update on some of the other sports apps on the Xbox 360:
UFC fights are still offered on the system, including the storyline feature to bring users up to speed on how the two fighters made it to where they are today. They've added some free content, too, meaning you don't have to fork over money for everything available in the feature. And next month, some more SmartGlass features will roll out for the UFC app.
NBA League Pass, available for the first time this season on the Xbox 360, has enabled my insomnia recently as I quickly flip from game to game using the mini guide. There are also highlights available -- the daily top 10 is a must-see -- and up-to-date stats and standings.
The NHL would also be available in the same capacity if games were being played. Hey, there's always "NHL 13."