How ESPN Brings Big Plays To The Small Screen

In 2013, Apple’s app store hit 50 billion downloads, and total app sales across all platforms may surpass $25 billion. Some all-stars on how they helped build the boom.

Ryan Spoon

SVP, product development, ESPN Digital Media
The onetime venture capitalist helped nurture startups including TaskRabbit, Instagram, TurnTable.fm, and WordPress. Now Spoon applies his Silicon Valley savvy to ESPN’s app experiences.

The Corporate Hacker

“Focus on the best screen available. At ESPN our mission is on the back of our business cards: Serve sports fans whenever and wherever they are. That’s our official way of saying mobile first—to program for the best screen available, you start with the smallest screen and work your way up. Four years ago, the app ecosystem didn't even exist, so maybe the best screen was my beautiful, 60-inch TV at home. Today with sports, though, it's likely to be what's on my 5-inch iPhone or 7-inch tablet. This is why ESPN is so special: To marry the TV and mobile and Web experiences—that's a profoundly important and challenging and fun opportunity. From the TV world, you have the talent, the video assets, the rights and so forth, which allows us to think about digital and ask, ‘How do these things work together? How do we make sure each is designed to “sing” in their given environment? So for example, I’m a Duke football fan.

Last night, I was able to watch the Duke scrimmage because of ESPN’s streaming college football coverage. I was out, so my best screen available was my iPhone, which is so small the experience has to be all about speed and quality. There’s no room for bells and whistles, you just want an unobtrusive design and content that works. If I move to the iPad, there’s more flexibility because there’s more real estate—there the user has more control. You still have the great streaming, but the user also now controls movement of supplemental scores, browsing other leagues, you can even watch two games at once, say highlights from last night’s game while still watching tonight’s game. Now the actual best screen in my house is still that 60-inch TV in my living room. Duke football isn’t available through cable, but with Apple TV and Airplay, I can program my iPad to stream that game to my 60-inch TV. If I do that, I’ve now got it on my actual best screen available—and now I’ve made another screen available. My iPad and phone turn into GameCast or ScoreCenter, which are another way to interact.

There are two really major opportunities: live and social. John Skipper, ESPN’s president, talks about this all the time from a content perspective: Sports is live and fans want to consume sports in a live window. Game of Thrones is the best TV show and you don't need to watch that when it airs. But if the national championship game is on tonight at 9:20 p.m.? You want to tune in during that live window. And if you can’t watch TV, what is that scores-and-stats user experience on your second screen? How do we make it a beautiful experience?

Secondarily, sports is inherently social. The reason you tune in at 9:20 tonight, for example, is yes, because it's a better viewing experience and because your phone will buzz and you'll know the outcome without it. But also, you won't have the back-and-forth banter unless you participate live, and that’s a huge part of what people love about sports. Take the last month of the college football season. Through our ScoreCenter and college football apps, which are both personalized to the teams and content you care about, we started delivering real-time video clips of key plays and scores through the applications, 7 to 10 seconds after occurring. So on the go, I’m standing in line at Starbucks when Duke does something interesting, and I'm getting that mobile alert. It’s happening now; it’s rich, interesting, personal content. That's the epitome of live to me. Now overlay social to it: We took live clippings of key games and brought it into Twitter. So if you follow @ESPNCFB, our college football Twitter handle, those videos, those highlights, appear in line with our Twitter feed, essentially in real time.

SportsCenter Feed was a direct result of an internal hackathon. It was a big success, so this year we did it again. Our staff had ideas submitted ahead of time so that if you were without an idea, you could join a team and still participate. This time, we also invited some friends and external partners to join our internal teams. Twitter, Social Flow, Facebook, and Klout each had their own outpost on campus, and our internal hackathon teams, we were all interfacing with those four teams. It was a two-day "onsite offsite," if you will. And with those four partners, we were very focused on live and social from the get-go. There were a couple ideas that came out this year around more engaging viewing experiences while streaming sports, that will be released in the near future. Then also, around how we supplement content and real-time data and social experiences to the live viewing experiences. They resulted in really interesting UI explorations that we’re developing now. We’ll tell you more about it when they’re ready.

I push our side to not want or have to deliver perfection on the Web. But we have to be closer on the application side. Your first experience has to be delightful. It has to be well understood what the user intent and function is—or they are gone. I would never dare say we are perfect or that we're chasing perfection, but I do think there’s a different bar with apps, a different level you need to reach with mobile in order for your audience to stay with you. With apps, the funnel is just very different. Download is one step, open is the next, and retention is the real issue. I used to say in my venture days: How do you get your app to the first screen? I don't care about downloads. I want to hear about opens and engagement.

Instagram launched as mobile first; they thought this through in real depth before first launch. They began as a location-based HTML5 web application similar to Foursquare, called Burbn. But they discovered what people were sharing most was photos. So they said, if that’s the use case we’re trying to solve, the best way to serve that experience is in the app experience—that became Instagram. And the first experience was, in fact, delightful.

Or take Message.me—a very social, very fast, instantaneous messaging app. They believed being mobile was the way to launch and that they had to be mult-platform. Not a lot of startups can do that, but they said if we’re to be the best messaging platform possible, you shouldn’t have to think about what device your friends are on. So they waited until they could launch on iOS and Android concurrently. And it’s a great first experience; you never have to question what it is, what it’s intended to do, or how to reach your friends.

Apps are critically important because they allow you to do things that can only be done natively, that you simply could not do in the mobile web environment. You need to make sure you are focusing on creating apps that take advantage of that. You want to think of the mobile web and apps as related experiences—they are related to each other and they move you around between the two. But they should not be redundant. You need to do in each what is particular to the platform that you are on. Watch ESPN couldn't exist on mobile without an app, for example. The streaming world is beautiful, complex, and it couldn't exist without a native app environment. So whether it's push notifications and alerts, different interfaces, different speeds. . . . What I push every day is, How do we make each environment and each experience specific to what a fan dictates at that moment. 

It’s crucial not to get caught up in things that are incremental, but focus on things that are transformational. I am constantly thinking about what touches the majority of fans, what experience has the biggest touch points, the most impact. There are five core ESPN experiences: scores and statistics, video and streaming (including everything that’s on air), audio and radio, fantasy sports, and reading everything that we publish. Now we could in perpetuity improve all those experiences. That’s where a lot of people live. But for me, it is the mentality of thinking about the experience and not spending six months making one of those incrementally better, but spending the next six months figuring out what the next great platform is for, say, Watch ESPN. What’s the next great user interface? What’s truly important, truly big? That's my challenge.”

[Photo by Ryan Pfluger]

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