Gamepass: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The NFL’s premium OTT (Over The Top) product, Gamepass, was re-launched with a new supplier just before the start of the season.

As outlined in the linked article the transition wasn’t a smooth one and although there have been many sought-after improvements in the product’s functionality, there are still ongoing issues with reliability.

“We made a change because we wanted to make Gamepass, in the immediate next few years, a really bright and brilliant product.” – Alistair Kirkwood

Talking about why a change of supplier was necessary Alistair Kirkwood UK Managing Director for NFL UK said “We made a change because we wanted to make Gamepass in the immediate next few years, a really bright and brilliant product.  The backend of the product that we’d been using for a few years was serviceable but it wasn’t really flexible.”

With a quarter of the regular season gone, it’s time to take stock.

The Good

They are listening: In interviews and subsequent discussions with OverTier (the company tasked with managing the new service) I focused my attention on getting some selected enhancements as top priorities. First I knew that users wanted to be able to watch games on catch-up without having to sit through the endless US adverts (or worse a holding screen!). The whole point of watching a game with VOD (Video on Demand) is to get the content, without having to waste an hour or more watching truck or food ads!

I was Initially met with resistance on this issue and the new CEO of OverTier Sam Jones told me in an interview that ads won’t be removed as user demand has been to provide the “American Experience”. It took a while to change their opinion, not least because to remove them would mess with one of their new features, which was fully integrated stats. In concept, this is a great idea, as the stream progresses all stats are updated interactively in the background. If you step forward in the video, the stats keep up with the show.

Whilst some may want that enhancement, the overwhelming majority of those that expressed a preference would gladly sacrifice that feature for the time saved.

The second feature that users craved was easy and responsive controls to be able to step back and forward through the videos, whether watching on the apps, desktop or when watching via Chromecasting. This is mostly there now, however, the company can do far more to educate users on what is available in the different products. This is not helped when the implementations and features differ depending on the technology in use on different browser platforms (Flash Vs HTML5).

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In the previous version of the product, users had control over the streaming rate (how much data is brought down each second to make up your picture). In the past, it was sometimes necessary to set this manually to ensure a stable stream. The new product on the other hand only uses automatic streaming based on what it sees as the quality of your broadband connection. As yet the new company hasn’t allowed this to be changed, however, they have listened to users and allowed games (and now other content) to be downloaded to the apps in different quality (size) settings to suit users needs for controlling bandwidth or device storage limits.

Gamepass provide condensed versions of games with everything removed except the plays themselves. These normally last between 30 and 40 minutes (although Gamepass refer to them as Game-in-40). These are great for watching on a daily commute (let’s hope you are a passenger or on public transport!). In the past, these games weren’t available early enough for people to use them this way. Mostly this has improved, however, when it goes wrong it can go spectacularly wrong, like week 3’s Monday night game which wasn’t even available until 3pm.

The Bad

Whilst great strides have been made in the overall quality of the apps and the User Interface (UI), what most fans want above all else is to be able to watch the content in an uninterrupted fashion. Unfortunately, users are still experiencing serious issues with access, with many having to re-start viewing or being logged out of the service.

It is difficult to tell if this is an issue related to the methods used to balance demand or glitches in the products.  What is certain from monitoring NFL UKs own forum and Twitter is that it is happening way too often.

What is annoying many users as much as the issues are the apparent indifference of the NFL or NFL UK to the concerns raised by users. Despite NFL UK being copied into irate Tweets, the majority go without response.

I’m sure the NFL are very aware of the issues being experienced by users but they need to do more publicly to manage what is turning out to be a PR disaster for them.

“This hedgehog is now coming out” – Alistair Kirkwood

In a recent live fan forum, UK Managing Director Alistair Kirkwood addressed questions about the service.

“The first problem we had is we’ve had faults with the product and the second one is that we haven’t explained, a) what the issues are and b) what we are going to do about it”.

He issued an apology to those there and effected, this is what he said.

He went on to say, “Through this week we will be much more open and transparent.”

This was during the first London game weekend. I haven’t yet seen any further public comments from Alistair despite further serious issues last Sunday and beyond.

I expect to see more comment from the NFL this week especially as issues with the service are now getting attention from mainstream journalists such as the BBC’s Mark Simpson.

In an interview with him Thursday, Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice-president of international and events said: “The product is actually running at about 99.3% stability and efficiency.”

Now we all know the danger of statistics, so I would be intrigued to know how this is being measured as it doesn’t at all reflect the experience of everybody I have talked to about the service.  For example, is this measuring the product running, even if at some stage the feed stops?

Mark also said that he was not ruling out compensation, however, they would look at this on an individual basis relating to how the specific users are affected.

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As it is accepted that the service is not living up to expectations, it would not be unreasonable for users to be offered some form of compensation. This has certainly happened in other territories with similar issues with the OTT services such as Canada, where new supplier DAZN offered the equivalent of one month’s refund when their service experienced issues.  There is currently an online petition with over 300 signatures calling for a refund for UK users.

Update: Following a severe outage during the start of Sunday’s games, there was a statement made that Gamepass refund policies are going to change and users compensated.

The other major factor that irritates users is when they inadvertently discover the result of a game when or before they begin watching. They may have avoided office discussions and hid their eyes from social media feeds before sitting down to enjoy the previous night’s late game, only for a glitch in the app or stream to spoil the whole evening for them. The latest of these is a change in the UI that whilst not displaying the game score highlighted the winning team in a different colour!  Thankfully in today’s app updates this “feature” has been removed.

The Ugly

The new service is being provided by a company called OverTier, however, the development work for the app is managed by a company within the same parent group called Deltatre. Their new apps on Google Play and Apple’s App store have been receiving very poor user ratings.

What struck Twitter user Drew Nixon and outlined in detail by Equinoxx was a series of 5 star reviews recently left for the product on the Google Store. These all seem to have been left by people who are employed by Deltatre!

I asked the NFL for comment on the allegation. They passed me over to an executive of Bruin (the ultimate holding company of the Gamepass relationship) and I was due to have an interview with them yesterday.  For an unknown reason, they failed to call at the planned time and have so far not managed to schedule a follow-up.

Update: Since my original article went live, it has been reported by The Independent that they have seen a copy of the internal email from Deltatre’s International Markets Managing Director, Stefano Rigat where he asks:

“you (and your relatives, family, friends – just spread the word!) to:

  • Download the app on Apple or Google stores (please ask for NFL Game Pass Europe – check the publisher is deltatre) in the store where you are registered (mainly Italy, UK and Germany)
  • Rate with five stars
  • Leave a meaningful (positive) comment. If you have nothing meaningful to say just write something like “Great app!!” or “Works really well”.

Important: the app offers In App Purchase – you don’t have to subscribe or to be a subscriber to be able to vote – you just need to download and rate!”

This certainly goes against Google’s policies which state:

“Developers must not attempt to manipulate the placement of any apps in Google Play. This includes, but is not limited to, inflating product ratings, reviews, or install counts……..”

NFL executive vice president Mark Waller said in a statement on Friday:

“We are very disappointed that Deltatre employees were asked to post their own positive reviews. This activity is inconsistent with our own NFL values and behaviors and we have clearly communicated this to Deltatre. We are pleased by the swift action they have taken and are now focused on continuing to improve the service being offered to our fans.”

Where To Now?

Unfortunately, I believe it to be unrealistic to go back to last year’s provider as some have requested. So for now, we have to push on with getting Deltatre to make the changes necessary to ensure reliable streaming.

It is positive to hear OverTier CEO Sam Jones say that users are signing up in record numbers and that Gamepass converts 70% of those taking a trial into paying customers.

Sam also says that customer service response times have been halved between August and September but he thinks they can still do a better job.  Unfortunately, he didn’t say what the response times were then or now.

Mark Waller told the BBCs Mark Simpson that they always welcome feedback both good and bad.  He told people that if the issues are on a more generic basis, they can email enquries@nfl.com  Every email gets read and dealt with, it was announced.

For Gamepass specific issue, use this contact form.

The NFL needs to make a public statement about what are the issues with providing the service and outline a timeframe for bringing the product to a satisfactory level.  They then need to put in place a plan with Deltatre to move the product forward quickly.  It is unacceptable for a significant proportion of the users to be unable to watch a reliable stream.  Despite the claim of 99.3% reliability, frankly, this is not reflected by most users’ experience.

In yesterday’s BBC interview Mark Simpson gave a platform to the NFL and OverTier with the question “The NFL has let them {fans} down on this one, what would you say to these fans”.  From the many comments I have seen, users expected some contrition and sincere apology, what they got was more marketing about how good the product is.  Either they aren’t willing to accept the issues or don’t see that they are there, either way a change needs to happen if they want to keep those Gamepass users

 

For the full interaction with Alistair at the NFL Live Fan Event:

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