The 2012 Major League Baseball season is now under way, and tech-savvy fans have more ways than ever to stream high-quality video and audio at their command, whether it’s pulling out your iPad on the train home, checking your Android phone at the gym, or using your Xbox 360 for more than just late-night Skyrim.
After taking stock of what’s available this year, it’s clear that MLB Advanced Media, which oversees digital development and app R&D for the league, concentrated more on tweaking and upgrading the overall user experience rather than throwing in more glitzy features. That’s not to say the developer should have, as the offerings were plenty impressive already, providing multiple video feeds, crystal-clear HD, access to a wide range of platforms, and so forth. But it’s the smaller aesthetic changes, combined with a revamped business model, that will benefit users the most.
MLB continues its successful multi-tired subscription model, albeit with a slight uptick in prices. But the killer upgrade this year is MLB’s embrace of the “buy once, enjoy anywhere” mentality. By applying that thinking to its most invested users, many consumer will actually save some bucks.
The pricing structure is simple to grok and more universal than before. The mobile app version, called At Bat or At Bat 12 (depending on the platform), is $15 across the board; one purchase works across all like-minded platforms. So $15 on your iPhone also gets you the iPad version. Android users can pay $15 for access on their compatible Android phone, tablet, and Kindle Fire. (There is also a BlackBerry and new Windows Phone 7 version of the At Bat app.) Every app purchase comes with real-time scoring updates and unlimited home/away radio streams throughout the season.
If you want audio streaming on your PC/Mac, that’s separate and costs $20 for the year. But for those who also want unlimited video streaming, there are two subscription tiers. For $110, you get the basic home team video feed on your Mac or PC for each game that isn’t blacked out. (Basically, you won’t be able to watch local in-market games, since they’re theoretically being offered on a TV channel in your area. Red Sox fans in Boston, for example, wouldn’t be able to watch the Old Towne team on their computer.) That’s all you get.
For just $15 more, the $125 Premium package gets you a slew of extra functionality: home/away video feeds, access to multiple connected devices like Apple TV and Xbox 360, and free access to the At Bat app. Aside from this being the better value, the app access is a much-welcome inclusion. Just log in to your browser, mobile, or connected device with your MLB.com account info and you’re good to go. You no longer have to spend extra dough for the mobile version, as in years past.
(Image Caption: MLB.TV brings video to your Mac or PC.)
The MLB.TV prices are steeper than last year, when they cost $100 for the home team video feed and $110 for the premium package. But you still get live streaming of every game that’s not blacked out, whereas the $15 mobile apps only offer one pre-selected game per day. Plus, the more devices you have, the more cost-effective the investment becomes. A single $125 MLB.TV subscription would enable video streaming on your PC, iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Mac, Android phone, Kindle Fire, PlayStation 3, Roku, and Xbox 360.
Here’s a closer, hands-on look at some of the available platforms.
MLB released a slick, revamped iPad app last spring that cost $15 and featured actual in-stadium architecture and more fleshed-out PITCHf/x ball simulation. This season, a single app works on either the iPhone and iPad, and features some nice aesthetic improvements—specifically, a cleaner iPhone scoreboard and better placing of graphical elements on the iPad. (For example, when you’re watching the graphical real-time updates, the calendar now appears overhead and dead center, instead of tucked away in the upper left.)
Video streams buffer up quick and play without extended stutters. One noticeable change is that, while playing video, on-screen iPad graphics—instead of completely disappearing—revert to a translucent overlay when you bring up playback controls. It’s a small consideration, but one that may prove useful at times, especially when you want to stick with the game you’re watching.
Whether you run it on the iPhone or iPad, MLB.com At Bat for iOS is a joy to use. This season, the iPhone version also moves closer to its superior iPad counterpart by adding in a floating linescore at the top of video streams, so you can get a sense of what’s occurring elsewhere in MLB. However, switching video feeds on the iPhone still enables a clunky menu that envelops nearly the entire screen when activated.
Like its iOS brethren, a one-time app purchase gets you audio streaming on any compatible Android phone or tablet. For unlimited video, you have to be a MLB.TV Premium subscriber, and be sure to download the free At Bat Lite app for Android and then log in with your MLB.com account. Only Android users who haven’t subscribed to MLB.TV Premium should download the $15 version, which will also get you one free, pre-selected game a day.
Once set up, the Android version impressed with its speed and response time. Video loaded noticeably faster on a Samsung Galaxy Nexus as opposed to an iPhone 4 or iPad 2, perhaps a couple of seconds saved each time. Switching video feeds on an Android phone is easier than on an iPhone, since a discreet rectangular box pops up from below bottom and doesn’t cover the still-streaming game. However, you don’t get the iPhone’s helpful score ticker along the top of the screen, nor the option for wireless AirPlay functionality. Still, it’s an excellent option for dedicated Android users that compares favorably with the feature-friendly iOS port.
For the most features, watching MLB.TV through your Mac or PC remains the best option. One new highlight is a clickable linescore that allows you to easily go to any hitter’s at-bat from any point in the game. You can also input the names of players on your fantasy teams so that when they do something noteworthy—even in a game you’re not watching—you’ll get an alert bubble that will let you pull up a video highlight. The audio overlay option allows you to substitute radio feeds in lieu of TV announcers. (You can even choose the “natural” ambient sounds from inside the stadium, if you like.) And the split-screen, picture-in-picture, and “quad” views, which allow you to watch two or four games simultaneously, are also almost exclusively available on Mac/PC.
The biggest hangup with using your computer is that’s all Flash-based, so constant streaming is going to mean allocating a chunk of your system memory. Video playback typically isn’t as smooth as on portable devices or consoles. Frequent momentary stutters are the norm, even when viewing through the pop-up window. (If you can sacrifice the screen real estate, watching games in fullscreen is a much nicer experience.)
In the lower-left corner of the pop-up, you get smooth, unobtrusive integration of PITCHf/x data, video highlights that pop up via picture-in-picture, a play-by-play summary, and even a Twitter stream that allows you to post updates. However, your tweet will include mandatory hashtags identifying each team you’re watching, so your character count will be more inhibited than usual.
The mini-video highlights are the slickest feature, though. Click one and the live game audio mutes as a mini-window pops out to play the highlight. If you like, you can even swap their respective placements, so the live action moves to the smaller window.
Even if you just opt for the $20 Gameday Audio plan, the streaming experience is very reliable, as you still get home and away feeds while the free MLB Gameday interface provides real-time updates and stats.
One new Easter egg this year: As you load either the MLB.TV or Gameday Audio pop-up window, the semi-obscured background will be that of the stadium hosting the game you’re loading. It comes up dark and looks as if you’re peering through a dirty screen door, but any fan loading a San Francisco Giants home game will see a wide-angle view of their beloved AT&T Park.
Apple TV’s MLB interface is the same as last year’s. Just sign up for MLB.TV Premium and then log in with your MLB.com account info. From there, the clean Apple TV menu offers access to the day’s full slate of games, updated standings, and video recaps of completed games. It even offers up who the current pitcher and hitter is in each game before you click to watch. The Apple TV costs $99, and there are cheaper streaming options out there with MLB functionality, like the Roku line. The Apple TV remote also remains a clunky and frustrating way to navigate the menus as well as toggle through video. Still, the menu interface is laid out smartly, and the options are fairly extensive for a sub-$100 video streamer. You can also pull up the new clickable linescore feature by pressing down on the remote D-pad during a game, and Apple TV’s iTunes Store integration offers easy access to purchase bundled video packages of historic MLB games straight from the MLB menu.
Of all the platforms I tested, the Sony’s PlayStation3 delivered the cleanest video feed, and the initial setup comes via an activation code that your console provides. Input that into a special URL, and you’re ready to go. The main navigation page is a little busy and a bit cumbersome for those unfamiliar with the PS3 controller, but the HD video is stunning and the clickable linescore can be pulled up and navigated more easily with the PS3 controller than, say, the Apple TV remote. The audio overlay option, which lets you pipe in the radio feed over the TV broadcast, is a welcome option that’s only available here, on PC/Mac, and Roku.
Best of the rest
MLB.TV on Xbox 360 is new this season and in direct competition with the PS3, although the Xbox 360 does feature split-screen video (an option only available on Mac/PC). On the downside, there’s also no clickable linescore or audio overlay option here yet and video streaming requires an Xbox Live Gold account, which starts at $5 a month. Video streaming on the PS3 does not require any additional cost, beyond your MLB.TV Premium subscription.
Roku also enables MLB.TV Premium streaming and features the audio overlay option that’s only available elsewhere on Mac/PC and PS3. It also offers a slightly cheaper hardware option compared to, say, Apple TV.
There’s also an At Bat 12 app for BlackBerry, as well as a Windows Phone 7 version, which was slated to arrive at the start of the season but was still not available as of Opening Day. Neither option is compatible with MLB.TV Premium, but you do get score updates, radio feeds, and select video highlights.
As for Web-based options, Yahoo Sports offers MLB Full Count, a video player that promises live look-ins of games and in-progress video highlights. It’s not a dedicated option like the other MLB.com offerings outlined above, but it could do when you need a quick fix of baseball action.
Erik Malinowski is the night editor of Deadspin, a frequent contributor to Wired, and a long-suffering New York Mets fan.