The Ongoing Search: What’s the Best Mobile Play-by-Play Service for Football?

NFL 2011 mobile app, showing play by play. Good clear screen, detailed info.

There’s a whole lot of folks telling you that you can keep up on football games by using your mobile phone — but how well do the services actually work? In an ongoing search that will probably last all season long, your MSR crew (meaning me) will perform random acts of mobility, following NFL and college games via mobile to see if these services deliver, or if they fall incomplete.

Monday night my dinner-making grill-master duties coincided with the Monday night tilt between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins, giving me a perfect chance to test out some of the mobile play-by-play services, like ESPN’s Gamecast, the NFL 2011 app, and Sprint (my cell phone provider’s) Sprint Football app. The early verdict says: go with NFL 2011 as your starter, ESPN as your backup, and leave Sprint Football on the bench.

Though the NFL 2011 app has a little annoying banner ad at the bottom of the screen (the ESPN and Sprint services also have banner ads), its play-by-play updates are generally more informative than ESPN’s, giving it the edge in a basically even competition. Both services suffered from an annoying lag time between play posts — which, if your screen is set to go dark to save power like mine is, means you may occasionally have to hard refresh the device to keep the app alive. I’d buy a beer for the first service to add a simple “status” banner that could tell you something like “play under review” or “game in TV timeout” so that you aren’t stupidly staring at the screen waiting for an update.

The Sprint Football app. Basically unreadable, so bench this one in favor of other services.

I ruled out the Sprint app after less than a minute — though it might be informative it suffers from a too-cute design that uses a screen shot of a football field as a backdrop, making its white type illegible when you are looking at a post that blurs into the lines of the field on the drawing. Seriously, Sprint folks — does anyone there look at these things? You can’t read it. Change it, please.

Both the ESPN and the NFL app, which have sensible, clear backgrounds, both suffered mightily to keep up with a fast, complex play — like the interception thrown by Dallas QB Tony Romo in the first quarter that ended with a fumble out-of-bounds call that needed replay review. The play by play apps were no help, basically stalling and never getting around to explaining what happened — they just both picked up with Washington running plays in Dallas territory.

ESPN's Gamecast app, not live but even this wrapup shows the clear black-on-white format that works well.

Having access to a TV set just a few steps away from the barbecue gave me the ability to see how well the online apps were keeping up — and the answer was, not well at all. Both the ESPN and the NFL apps were at least three plays behind the live action; if you watch the Internet version of Gamecast on your PC you can even see that the Twitter stream embedded in the app usually has info that is ahead of the Gamecast info. If I ran either one of these operations I would strip them back down to make sure that the play by play is as close to live as possible. Remember, fans may be using this service as a replacement for the TV announcers who annoy us all. So you’ve got to be faster than they are now.

The bottom line — neither of the top two services is satisfying if you are doing nothing but concentrating on the screen, since they don’t stay “live” enough to hold your attention or keep your phone’s screen lit. I will keep looking to see if there are other services that concentrate solely on play by play, as well as trying to cobble together a Twitter stream to approximate play by play because Twitter is fast. We should have a Verizon phone in hand soon to test out the NFL Mobile app, and we have also heard that Yahoo has a pretty good service so we will look for that as well.

Anyone else out there figure this out? Chime in below in the comments.

(all photos credit: MSR.)


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