Live professional football made its debut on Twitter last night (Sept. 15). And it turns out watching the game stream through the social networking service isn't that much different from watching it on television — for good and for ill.
Earlier this year, Twitter won the rights to stream Thursday night NFL games for a reported $10 million. Thursday's contest between the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills was the first of 10 games that will appear on Twitter this season. Since the NFL season is 17 weeks long, that means there will be some Thursday night games that won't appear on the social network: you can see the full Twitter NFL schedule here.
I streamed the Jets-Bills game from Twitter's Web client on my Mac. And when I went on a food run during an early lull in the action, I caught a little bit of the game on my iPhone via the Twitter app. Twitter also released apps this week for Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Xbox One.
Overall, Twitter deserves some credit for a high-quality stream that looked great (albeit 30 seconds behind the live action), but it needs to make the experience feel more interactive and less slapped together.
You catch the live action — including pregame festivities — by heading to the the oft-maligned Moments tab on either Twitter's mobile app or on its website. (At last, Twitter seems to have found a way to get you to willingly select that feature.)
On the web, the game appears on the left side of the screen, with a stream of tweets using the #TNF hashtag scrolling down the right; Twitter's mobile app places the stream on top of the tweets. You can get a full-screen view of the game by going into full-screen mode on your browser or flipping your smartphone horizontally.
The coverage itself is merely a stream of the NFL Network's live broadcast, right down to the commercials. In that sense, watching a football game on Twitter is no different than watching it in the streaming apps offered by ESPN, Fox, or NBC. And that's good enough, if the majority of the people in the #TNF feed had anything to say about it.
But to me, football streaming on Twitter feels like a missed opportunity right now, with Twitter overlooking the very things that make it such a valuable second-screen app when you're watching sports.
Where Twitter missed the mark
Let's start with that feed of #TNF tweets. It doesn't appear to be curated at all — just a steady stream of 140-character thoughts from whoever happens to slap the appropriate hashtag on their tweet. That's OK, I guess, but there's not much insight to be gleaned from that random Jets fan grousing about a dropped pass or that equally anonymous Bills fan feting about Tyrod Taylor's passing ability.
One of the things I enjoy most about Twitter is using the app while watching sports. (The people who follow my account might argue that this is one of the very worst things about Twitter.) That's because I've carefully created lists of like-minded fans, informative and engaging sportswriters and even the occasional athlete or team account. Having this kind of highly tailored feed of tweets from people I know enhances live sports. Why Twitter isn't doing something similar with the feed alongside its live stream baffles me.
In fact, Twitter's implementation of the feed that accompanies its NFL stream feels half-baked. Clicking on a tweet to interact with it actually pauses the live stream, at least on Twitter's website and the phone app. You are able to reply, retweet and favorite without pausing, but you can't look up or follow other users without bringing the stream to a halt. Put another way, the live NFL broadcast on Twitter actually discourages you from using all of the service's features. That's lame.
Then there's the matter of stats — or more accurately, the lack of them. Twitter could include live stats alongside the stream that could update in real-time and augment your viewing experience. On the website at least, there's ample white space beneath beneath the streaming window, which is currently occupied by links to the accounts of both the NFL and CBS Sports (which, if you click them, will again take you away from the streaming video). Instead, the stats on the NFL Network broadcast are all you get.
The phone experience could also be better. Up top is the video player and beneath that just a list of tweets, and when you turn your device to landscape mode it's just the video. It would be cool to see at least some sign Twitter is involved layered on top in this view.
Who's going to love the NFL on Twitter
Still, you likely won't find many football fans complaining about having another venue — this one free — for watching their favorite sport. And there's definitely an audience for live sports on Twitter, particular as a growing number of people turn their back on live TV.
If the main screen you use to watch movies and shows is attached to either a phone or a computer, being able to fire up Twitter and watch an NFL game will be a welcome addition no matter what. And watching a game on the go used to require a subscription to either Verizon, which offers NFL Mobile, or DirecTV, which lets Sunday Ticket customers watch games on their mobile device. Having a game stream on Twitter means there are at least nine more weeks this season you'll be able to catch a game even when you're not around a TV set.
Who's going to feel underwhelmed
This isn't much of a boon to cord-cutters. True, you don't have to sign in through a cable service provider to watch the game on Twitter like you would for the ESPN or Fox Sports apps. But the Jets-Bills game was also broadcast over-the-air for free on CBS, meaning there's not any reason to watch the occasionally unreliable stream on Twitter if you've got a TV with an antenna nearby. The remaining games set to stream on Twitter will all either be broadcast on CBS or NBC as well.
And as nice as it is to watch games from your smartphone, make sure you've either got a Wi-Fi connection or a generous data plan. Streaming a 3-hour plus NFL game over a cellular connection will have you running through your data allotment like Matt Forte slices through defenses.