The ability to watch live streaming games via MLB.com's At Bat 2009 upgrade is a home run,
even if this pictured video quality is well out of reach at this time.
Ever since the launch of MLB.com’s At Bat application in July of last year, with each subsequent upgrade, the application has continued to improve. Whether it was the addition of Gameday, a live graphical representation of the batter-pitcher matchup, including a running play-by-play and identifying data for every pitch thrown (location, pitch type and pitch speed) generated directly from every Major League ballpark, or Gameday Audio, which allows you to listen to the home or away radio feed without blackouts for every game being played, or the addition of condensed game video, it seemed each major release was an early holiday gift.
With the latest release of At Bat 2009 that coincided with Apple’s 3.0 OS upgrade for iPhone and iPod Touch, the bar is pushed to its highest point yet with the addition of live game feeds, making it the MLB.TV for mobile devices. With a free upgrade price, or $9.99 for those that have yet to purchase that package that runs for the rest of the regular and postseason, it’s a great deal. But, as we’ll see (or not, depending on your point of view), there are still some technological hurdles to overcome with the video quality.
To start with, the upgrade requires having OS 3.0 for iPhone and iPod Touch installed. The upgrade is free for current iPhone users, with iPod Touch users having to drop $9.95 for the latest OS upgrade. I upgraded a matter of minutes after the download was available, and within approx. an hour, iPhone’s App Store widget notified me that the upgrade for 1.2 of At Bat 2009 was available.
Once installed and launched, a banner reading Watch LIVE Video Tomorrow was displayed. Clicking on it gave a listing of two games each from Thursday to Monday. But, by Weds. evening, notification from MLB.com informed us that they were up a day early with games in production, streaming the Yankees-Nationals game followed by the Dodgers-A's game. MLB.com has said that a full slate of games, such as are available via MLB.TV, the online out-of-market package, should be available shortly. No hard date has been released as to when that might be.
Picking which games are available out of the At Bat 2009 menu is as easy as looking for the “TV” button to the right of the game listing menu. Once selected, MLB.com’s patented geolocation functionality kicked in thus pinpointing exactly where you are located for blackout purposes (see MLB television territory map for details). If you are outside of the blackout territory for a given game, a splash screen notifies you that the game is about to start being streamed.
I was late taking in the Yankees-Nationals game, but was able to catch all of the A’s-Dodgers tilt. As the image above shows, the simple controls allow for DVR-like functionalities such as rewind, pause, and “reset to current” buttons that dissolve after a few seconds or by tapping the screen. A slider is present for volume control that can be accessed from the screen, or by using the volume control on the side of the devices.
A key under-the-covers aspect of the app deals with leveraging standards-based http streaming technology with the video stream rate having an adaptive bitrate depending on whether your device is accessing WiFi, or carrier networks such as G3 or Edge.
We tested the application and streaming quality using a second generation 8gig iPhone with G3, both in a single location and while in transit between cells. Buffering of the game only occurred once when in transit.
As for the picture quality using G3 networking, the picture was, in a word, dithered. Reading the scoreboard bug was nearly impossible, and knowing what players were on base by reading jersey names and numbers was difficult from centerfield camera shots. Given the adaptive bitrate, we assume WiFi will be better while Edge networking with older model devices could be worse.
Video Quality Aside, a Great Upgrade
For those that already have At Bat 2009, the upgrade is nothing short of fantastic. While the ability to watch games live on the devices shouldn’t be considered a substitution for MLB.TV, it is, none the less, impressive. The functionality is a fantastic value-added piece that could take the edge off any evening train commute, or fill time waiting in line at the grocery store.
As for the compression quality for the video stream, this seems a technological hurdle that will soon be overcome. Much like the early days of online video streaming that saw dithering, that seems a far off memory now as video streaming online nears broadcast quality. The only real downside is having enough battery life to get full games in. The next generation of iPhones (3G S) are expected to have increased battery life that should allow one to watch an entire game without recharging. We very nearly made the entire A’s/Dodgers tilt before hooking up to the laptop for some added juice.
What is clear is that MLB Advanced Media, through MLB.com, is light-years ahead of other sports leagues in providing rich content. The ability to stream live game video to mobile devices, while talked of for several years, has, up till now, not fully come to fruition. In that sense, the latest At Bat 2009 upgrade is a pioneer of sorts, pushing the boundaries and showing what the future will bring for sports fans. The biggest challenge for MLBAM will be to outdo this version. From a functionality perspective, streaming video places the app in a near nirvana state when considering all the other bells and whistles such as Gameday Audio and Condensed Games that are available. What could be on the horizon? Since every other function available to MLB.com has been rolled into At Bat, why not Pitch F/X? Nothing seems impossible anymore for the award winning app, and one of the top selling apps for iPhone and iPod Touch.
NOTE: Thursday will see the Chicago White Sox-Chicago Cubs in an Interleague Play matchup from Wrigley Field as the first game to be streamed at 2:20 p.m. (EDT), with the Detroit Tigers-St. Louis Cardinals game from Busch Stadium at 8:15 p.m. (EDT). All games subject to blackout restrictions based on geolocation.
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He is contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and is available as a freelance writer. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.
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