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Product Review: NHL GameCenter Live

August 16, 2011

A screenshot from GCL. 

NHL GaemCenter Live: it will cost you a pretty penny. But is it worth it?

Farhad Manjoo is one of my favorite tech writers, and his weekly Slate pieces are often insightful and funny. He looks at web applications, phones, the works. In keeping with his practices, I thought I’d turn my attention to the NHL’s own online platform: NHL GameCenter Live. It is the NHL’s premier online platform for viewing out-of-market games. And today I re-watched game seven of the Finals to jog my memory of the event, and of the platform.

For starters, there’s a reason why around 15% of all questions that come into Gary Bettman’s “NHL House” are GameCenter Live-related. The questions range from “why is it in Utah I can’t watch the Coyotes” to “why is this game in French?” Gary et al. field them as best they can, but he usually relents and says he’ll “have [his] people take a look at it.”

I want to be straight before I pick it all apart, though: really, it’s a joy to be able to watch nearly the full docket of NHL action on any given night during the season. It was critical for watching the Bruins this past season while living in Chicago, in Blackhawks market territory. I received the package as a birthday gift last year, and it was one of the best birthday gifts ever. It let me watch the Bruins. It let me watch games after they’d ended, easily, whether it was the same night or next day. It enabled me to get into the Oilers, in a big way. It exposed me to more games, more announcers. I fell in love with RDS broadcasts in French. It’s been great. You can hop on any computer in the US and log-in and watch. And to its credit, it’s a relatively intuitive program. For the most part.

But I’ve have some qualms. I have spent so many hours with the program, it was bound to happen. I know its flaws like the back of my hand.

LOG-IN?

This is funny. But not. It’s the most basic thing in the world, right? Right? The log-in for GCL (I will use this abbreviation from here on out) is interchangeable with that of an NHL.com log-in. I got mine the same time I got GCL, so I don’t know if one can be transferred to another. But, it logs me out, all the time. This is without empty my cache or cookies or anything. Same browser, same session, mysteriously logged out. It’s frustrating when you toggle between sites and you are racing back to finish a game and you’re delayed. It’s also sort of pointless. Better yet, it will ask you log-in multiple times. Sometimes it strangely directs you to NHL Vault–a different thing entirely. Generally this URL works: http://www.nhl.com/ice/gamecenterlive.htm. Still, sometimes it doesn’t.

TECH SPECS

It’s clunky. It hurts my computer to run. It slows everything down. But I love hockey, and so, I endure. I am running it on a MacBook Pro, through Safari. All fine and good there, from what I can tell. There’s a quick download involved when you start, if I recall. Make sure you have a good amount of hard-drive to spare, as what GCL does for play-back is literally burn the game to a drive and then erase it. The bitrate function is somewhat deceiving: there are two standard settings plus one for “variable.” Variable is what I selected. However, this seems the quality of your feed is apt to change at any time. It will jump from blurry to crystal clear and back again. It is worse than low-def, and even worse because it’s unpredictable. GCL claims problems are resolved by using a LAN cable instead of wireless. I didn’t find this to be the case. It helps to shut down other browsers, maybe keep others from high intensity programs like Netflix or uploading photos or something. I don’t know for certain. This is probably my biggest gripe: when it switches to an extremely low quality stream. It is just a gray mass of ice with colored specks.

BROADCAST CHOICE

Sometimes you get commercials, sometimes you don’t. Regardless of which feed you watch. GCL claims that you’ll receive ads only if you’re watching the feed of the home-team. Eh, not true. The alternative is still photos of shop.nhl.com gear. That’s fine. I don’t mind. But again, it’s sort of half-baked what they do with ad-time. Broadcast choice is great. Really awesome. But switching between the two is tedious sometimes.

“LIVE” button

You’ll click it when you’re behind and it won’t work.

TOGGLING BETWEEN GAMES

At the top of GCL is a strip of available games, with their start times. It looks clean, neat. And simple. Don’t be deceived. GCL will freeze up 50% of the time when you toggle between games. It slows down. Also, and this is just a hunch, but more popular games (say, BOS v. MTL) are a heck of a lot harder to quickly latch onto and stream than NSH v. DAL or something. I spent one maddening hour getting a Bruins/Canadiens game going because it wouldn’t “initialize.” Their bandwidth gets overloaded. Something.

HIDE SCORE

You have to. Why? Because the live scoreboard at the top, on that strip, will UPDATE ITSELF with the score before the game you’re watching “live” actually gets to the goal. Why this happens, I’ll never know. Another hint it’s not really “live.” If you’re like me, you like surprises. There is nothing that sinks your GCL-heart like seeing the opposing team up a goal before they’ve even scored it.

SHOW SCORE/HIDE SCORE

The follows the same pattern. You have the handy option of showing or hiding scores–it just doesn’t always work, even for games you’re not watching. However, when games begin after the time of the one you’re currently watching, their scores will appear. For example, say you’re watching Tampa v. Philly, EST, at 7pm. A Detroit v. Columbus game starts at 8pm, EST. The score from that game will appear.

TERRITORY

I think the NHL GameCenter Live is best viewed as complementary to, rather than instead of, a full TV cable package. The reality is that Versus (soon to be NBC Sports Network) and NBC proper carry some of the best games or at least most vaunted games on their networks. Ergo, blackouts for GameCenter Live. You’ll want a TV. But that point actually doesn’t relate to territory matters. GameCenter Live reads your IP address.  And, naturally, if you want to watch a Hawks game while in Chicago, you won’t be able to. You will need to pop on over to Comcast Sports Net on the television. Again, that’s fine. But more and more people are relying on streaming TV over the internet as their primary source of entertainment. Some are passing up television altogether. It makes loads of sense for the NHL to be pioneering and enabled customers to view the content when they want, WHERE they want. So, if you can’t watch it on TV, or someone else is watching something else (god forbid) you can slink into your bedroom and watch on your laptop. Isn’t that what this should be about? Offering what customers want? The NHL has created live apps for Blackberry devices and iPads. So why is getting in-network, in-territory games online such a disaster? TV rights. Oh, right. Can the NHL get out of that? Or is that 10-year deal set in stone? The current model is technologically regressive.

CUSTOMER SERVICE

Essentially non-existent. For all the money being paid out for this service, the customer service is an embarrassment. I was extremely hard pressed to find an 800 number this winter. I eventually did one night. They’ve since updated the FAQ page to include it. Each time I’ve called it, I’ve been on-hold upwards of an hour. An hour. I gave up, both times. So, I’ve never even talked to a live human. Beyond that, the FAQ section is anti-customer in the sense they lay most issues on your doorstep and don’t provide any recourse or very many troubleshooting options when their suggestions do fail. They also don’t reply to emails. So, again, you’re on your own.

VERDICT

If you watch loads of hockey, and love to watch any game, regardless of who might be playing: YES. If you are a diehard fan of a team far away and intend on watching as many of their 82 games as humanly possible: YES. If you live in the TV market where your favorite team plays and you really only want to watch them: NO. If you have a miserable internet connection: NO. If you are an impatient person: NO.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. OddyOh permalink
    August 24, 2011 06:33

    Thanks for the details, I haven’t had GCL before, so it’s good to hear about any problems, big and small. I have the NHL apps for PS3, iPhone & iPad, but I just watch highlights on there.
    If Bettman were here right now, I would tell him for me GCL is definitely not worth getting; I live in Saskatchewan, central Canada, and for some bizarre reason the NHL considers me part of not only Calgary Flames territory, but also Edmonton Oilers…AND this year Winnipeg Jets territory as well!! How can I be part of 3 teams broadcast zones? Do they know there are only 7 Canadian teams? Why does the NHL not want my money?

  2. Sasha permalink*
    August 24, 2011 10:55

    That’s wild–part of three team broadcast zones?!? Between TSN, CBC and Rogers are you able to get all the games of these three teams? I don’t know who drew up the broadcast zones, because many of them are truly confounding. Saskatchewan being in all three is crazy. I don’t see it changing any time soon. Yeah, GCL probably isn’t worth it.

    I don’t know whether the GCL cost will remain stable this year. I think was around 200 USD last year. Not cheap, especially because you’ll have to be paying for cable TV and internet to make it really all work. And again, you don’t get the live content when you want, where you want. I am sure more people would be willing to pony up if it was better. And hopefully there will be more tech improvements. I don’t know if you have Netflix in Canada, but it’s the number one online movie program, for $10 a month you get access to a huge movie database. They are constantly tweaking the quality of playback and image and controls. GCL could learn from them.

  3. OddyOh permalink
    August 27, 2011 07:42

    Hi Sasha. Yes, it’s truly strange, re: broadcast territories. I don’t have cable or satellite, and GCL is definitely a “complimentary” service.

    On a happier note, yes we have Netflix in Canada, I’ve been signed up for the past 6 months or so. Making my way through Mad Men and Arrested Development, as well as movies of course.

    That said, the selection on there pales in comparison to the US Netflix, mostly because of all the red tape to licence content outside the US…and also because our national telecommunications commission, the CRTC (similar to the FCC in the US), is extremely protectionist whenever anything cool comes to Canada. The CRTC is in bed with our national cable companies and broadcasters, they collude to keep all the best American content away from Canadians, so you have to sign up for cable/satellite. Ugh, don’t get me started. 🙂

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