Since launching in 2017, YouTube TV has mostly been positioned as Google’s answer to Xfinity. It’s a way for cord-cutters with internet access to get cable channels on phones, laptops, and even their TVs without all the pesky DVR boxes and annual upsells that add $5 here and $15 there until your cable bill can be mistaken for your mortgage.
And while that’s still true, today YouTube TV is evolving in a dramatic way. The platform is incorporating an inaugural third-party app into the viewing experience: NFL Fantasy Football. You could almost say YouTube TV is getting its own, very mini App Store, baked right into its core interface. That means watching television could soon incorporate some of your favorite parts of your smartphone.
“In building YouTube TV, we wanted to reimagine what it meant to watch TV, not just that you’re sitting, staring at a screen at the expense of your involvement,” says Kathryn Smith, the product lead. “We’ve spent a lot of time with TV viewers, sat in living rooms and watched them watch TV. People aren’t just sitting there watching a game, they’re on their phone, laptop, checking sports and scores, following a fantasy team, texting about the game.”
YouTube isn’t the first company to think about more interactive sports television—live sports are considered by many to be the most valuable programming on TV. Microsoft put considerable effort into integrating real-time NFL stats and fantasy platforms with its Xbox One interface. Xfinity has its X1 Sports app (a special column on the screen) that’s like a mission control for game day. Even Amazon has added extra options to its NFL streams, like allowing you to switch out commentators.
I’m a recovered fantasy football player myself (won my league back-to-back the last two years it ran, NBD). And watching football on Sundays while juggling a fantasy app on my phone and texting friends was a game unto itself. Watching your players earn points can put you in a low-key dopamine frenzy, with every pass feeling like another pull of the slot machine. And when both your fantasy team and your real team wins? Jackpot.
But if people are already using more than one screen to watch football, why would YouTube try to butt in?
“We’re thinking about it in terms of the overall experience watching sports. [Viewers] very well might have their own fantasy app they are checking, but we’re trying to make it seamless,” says Esther Ahn, YouTube TV’s head of design. “It’s a little simpler, opening the [YouTube TV] app and being able to follow key players in your league.”
To set up fantasy sports on YouTube TV, you tap on Fantasy, then you’re asked to log in to NFL.com. Assuming you have a fantasy team set up on the service, it will then suck in your team and current matchup. While watching the game, you can tap on the Fantasy tab and pull up your players’ scores, while the video window shrinks to a take up a small portion at the top of the screen.
The data presentation is bare-bones—a simple list of player names and scores that’s pretty typical of fantasy apps—designed to be clear but not too distracting from the actual media you’re watching. You cannot trade or sell players; the information is read-only. But you can toggle multiple fantasy accounts. Furthermore, the fantasy players that you have in the game you’re currently watching will be pushed to the top of the list, highlighted when they score. And when you switch channels to another game, that list will adjust accordingly.
This fantasy update will be notable to a lot of YouTube TV’s sports audience, but what does it mean to the platform as a whole? Again, including the NFL’s fantasy app is the first time that Google has ever included a third-party app in the YouTube TV experience (generally, YouTube TV has built its own apps, like for your family DVR or play highlights). But the NFL is only the beginning of something new for the platform.
“We’re excited to start with NFL.com for the launch, but are interested in working with other partners to bring more apps to the platform in the future,” Smith says.
Does that mean we’ll have hit games like Candy Crush or Fortnite incorporated into YouTube TV? Probably not, because the team doesn’t want to just re-create the apps you have on the television screen. They want to incorporate those apps into the content itself. But the doors are open for any app that could make what you’re watching more clear or engaging—and make YouTube TV feel like a more evolved version of cable. “It’s really about augmenting what these other apps do,” Ahn says. “For us, it’s about making this the most exciting sports experience . . . on TV.”