I've been a football fan for as long as I can remember. But my first memory of the game is set on the other side of the world, in New Delhi, India, where I grew up. It involves me, bleary-eyed and wearing a wedge of Swiss cheese-shaped foam on my head, huddled next to my dad on the couch.
We woke up at sunrise to watch Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers.
The big guy wasn't some fair-weather fan. He grew up in Milwaukee, about a two-hour drive south of Titletown, U.S.A. And since he was a Packers fan, cheering them on as the greatest team in the world, who was I to argue? (Steelers fan will point to their six Super Bowl trophies and claim Titletown is in Pittsburgh, but don't be fooled: The Packers not only won the first Super Bowl, and the next, but also have racked up 13 league championships.)
Over the years, we've watched so many NFL games together (and sometimes via text)—too many to count. On that salmon-colored couch (or was it blue?) in India, in the basement of our next home outside Washington, D.C., and even shivering with our butts on the metal bleachers that circle the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.
We celebrated the Packers' Super Bowl win over the New England Patriots together in 1997 (Desmond Howard is fast and Reggie White is the G.O.A.T) and, eventually, picked ourselves up after that heart-rending loss the next year to John Elway's Broncos. In February of 2011, Dad capped off Green Bay's 31-25 win over the Steelers by popping the cap off a decade-old beer he'd been saving for a special occasion—a championship counts. (I don't live with many regrets, but not taking a sip of that grog is one of them.)
So, you can imagine my excitement when, way back in April, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that 10 of the League’s 16 Thursday Night Football games this season would be streamed live on Twitter. Two of my favorite things, football and hot takes, in the same place!
While the rollout wasn’t perfect (more on that below), it was clear last night during the clash between the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets that the social network turned news platform was ready for kickoff.
There was import in the final score, as both teams took the field with 0-1 records—and only 12% of 0-2 teams make the playoffs. But there was media significance to the gridiron battle, too, as News10NBC’s Chris Horvatits pointed out: a Bills versus Jets game in 1998 was the first NFL game broadcast in high definition; now the same matchup was the focus of a sprint into a live-streamed future.
Twitter’s broadcast had everything a sports fan like me could ask for. First and foremost: a clear HD picture.
The video stream actually seemed better than your average HD stream (it wasn’t, having compared it to the same stream on my NFL Mobile app, but still: shiny new internet things are exciting!). Buffering was infrequent and not at all disruptive.
Of course, the online stream wasn’t truly live, but on a slight delay from the TV feed on CBS and NFL Network, but that’s to be expected. ESPN's CTO told Fast Company’s Harry McCracken that it's basically impossible to stream live events as quickly as broadcast TV, but they are working on it.
Tuning in was easy, as a long-time Twitter user: "WATCH LIVE" was marked in red in the NFL tab hovering in my Moments menu (which I rarely use). A feed of curated tweets appeared under the video stream and any 140-character contributions were wisely auto-populated by the official #TNF hashtag (with accompanying helmet emoji). Player status updates, quick commentary, and fan-driven rah-rahs were all there. The stream even shared tweets about Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo’s starting quarterback, being knocked unconscious—and being allowed back into the game—after being sandwiched by several Jets defenders. Didn’t expect that.
With a tap of my screen, I was able to expand the video stream to full size or minimize without interrupting the broadcast. Also cool: rotating my (non-explosive) Android device from my standard portrait-style tweeting position to landscape expanded the video to fullscreen automatically. That’s nice, because, let’s be honest, the video stream sitting atop a waterfall of tweets was a little small for my taste. And I watch a decent amount of sports on my mobile device: NFL games in seasons past, Premier League matches almost every weekend, and NBA action (the Wizards, mostly, I’m embarrassed to admit).
To be clear, even in portrait mode, the video stream is not prohibitively small. Like, you can still see everything you want to just fine—from whatever is being displayed in the chyron to the expression on a coach’s face. (It helps that, when streaming, I hold my smartphone a few inches from my face, as you surely do, too.)
While the tech and the football action were better than I had expected (most Thursday-night games last season were snoozers), I was frustrated by a few things. I had big plans to watch the game on Apple TV, but the NFL on Twitter experience was only available to fans with the latest hardware, which my girlfriend’s apartment was not equipped with. Workaround: I watched most of the game on Twitter dot com. But beef: Clicking on a tweet froze the video stream (not the case when replying to tweets), which didn’t resume playing unless I clicked the little play button in the lower left-hand corner. That was annoying—as if Twitter users can’t tweet and chew gum and make dinner and watch TV at the same time. More annoying: I wasn’t able to check my mentions without leaving the #TNF page altogether, which meant I found myself missing the action on a handful of occasions while reloading the broadcast.
Overall, however, the experience was great. Plus, the curated tweet stream, with this one exception, was free from inappropriate language, harassment, and NSFW images. Even when the eggs—infamous for racist, sexist, Islamophobic, and homophobic tweets—started showing up midway through the third quarter.
The eggs weren’t deplorable at all. In fact, they were on point.
Blue egg @puzzlernj192 tweeted: #TNF thank you twitter thank you NFL what a game and watching this overseas at 11am."
I followed up with a few of them. For example, I asked orange egg @Biddy_32 (born Art Bidlack) if he signed up for Twitter just to watch the game. "I did lol," was the quick response. This was followed a minute later by "I think I’m hooked bro." Bidlack, a Hulu and Netflix subscriber, doesn’t have cable, so Twitter was the only way for him to watch the game at home.
Purple egg @JacobBrizuela1, whose first-ever tweet was about the football game, told me he signed up for Twitter to complement his recently launched YouTube channel. "I'm just a young guy who loves and knows a lot about football," he explained in my mentions. By the end of the game, Brizuela, who hopes to be an NFL reporter someday, had tweeted more than 50 times.
Looking forward, I hope that Twitter will improve the stream of football-related tweets. While I read many of them, and engaged with a handful of common-interest strangers, I found myself missing my own timeline—and ended up running TweetDeck in the background. There are only 11 minutes of athletic competition during an NFL game, and during stops in play, I wanted to read takes from the voices I trust, as well as learn about octopus arms in operating rooms, see the best Twitter memes (which are different than the ones seen on Instagram), and catch up on all the crazy stuff Trump said earlier in the day.
At the end of the day, as pro athletes love to say, Twitter scored a lot of points during last night’s 37-31 shootout (the Jets won). The broadcast did a lot to answer the question so many Americans still ask: What the heck is the point of this Twitter thing? Everyone who visited tnf dot twitter dot com was watching, and talking about, the very same thing in the same digital space. Some focused on the huge hits or long touchdowns, while others commented about wide receiver Eric Decker’s handsome mug.
The NFL wins, because Twitter will attract more eyeballs to its on-field product. But Twitter should move up in the popular standings, too. The internet is where people are, not just something that people do, and live-streaming events will help make Twitter a go-to destination. It won people over. And consider this: Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that the average Twitter user spends just one minute a day on the platform.
This NFL rollout wasn’t for me—I’m on Twitter almost all day every day, and I’m buying the idea of watching a live event on my favorite app (even if it’ll cost me a few dollars in the future). The broadcast, which fits with Twitter's big bet on video (the platform's fastest growing media type) was an attempt to connect with potential users. And the try was good—right down the middle.
"Twitter broadcast was awesome, very few glitches at all. And no I don't have cable. #BrokeCollegeStudentLife," @BamBam_OSA told me (he's another egg who signed up for the service to watch the game).
"Waiting on next Thursday!"