Review: MLB.tv

mlbtv

For reasons not fully known but likely explained by a slow afternoon at work, I found myself casting online votes for Rick Porcello and Justin Upton to fill out the final spots on this year’s AL and NL all-star squads. Neither made the team, but all was not lost, at least for me.

A few days later, I received an email from Major League Baseball thanking me for voting and offering me a no-credit-card-strings-attached free trial of MLB.tv, the league’s online, live-game-streaming service. I said yes please sir and thank you m’am.

I had used MLB.tv before. Every day, they offer one game as a free game, which feels like an especially nice bonus when it’s your team’s game. Based on that sporadic experience and more consistent use of the service during my free trial, which ended yesterday, I’ve reached the following conclusions:  

Pros:

  • High Definition: High-def streaming video, and that can’t be beat.
  • Interactive Features and Information: PITCHf/x sidebar overlay, twitter sidebar overlay, highlight clips from your game and others on demand and updated live, box score and game summary information available on screen.
  • Game Selection: Almost any game available, live and on-demand. Switch between live games. Watch multiple live games at once on a customized split screen.
  • Audio Selection: Select which network’s broadcast you want to hear. Listen to or overlay radio broadcasts. (Note: I tried the separate radio stream, but not the audio overlay feature.)
  • Multiple Platforms: Although I did not try this, MLB.tv is supposed to be available seamlessly on tablets, smartphones, and televisions as well as computers.
  • No Commercials: See image above. (Radio stream excepted.)

Cons:

  • Cost: It isn’t free, and the roughly $120.00 annual price is a significant amount of cash. I know that nice things cost money, but I think this service is too expensive, for me anyway.
  • Blackouts: No, not that thing you do every Thursday-Saturday. For $120.00, you’d think you’d be able to watch every MLB game, and you’d be wrong. Most critically, all local games are out. The program detects where you live and blocks you from watching any of your local team’s games. Like the price, this alone feels like a deal-breaker. (Even if you’re a displaced fan, chances are you’re going to want to use this service to watch the local boys when your main squad isn’t playing.) In addition, I discovered that certain other games (e.g., the ESPN Sunday Night Game of the Week) are blacked out on MLB.tv too, regardless of the teams playing. There may be other restrictions as well.
  • High Definition: HD was both a pro and a con in my experience. It obviously is pretty and pleasing when all is flowing smoothly, but I found the streaming disruptively jumpy on a not-infrequent basis while watching at home. Even my plugged-in work computer dropped frames during occasional lunchtime viewing. In my opinion, this is another fundamental strike against the service. If I’m going to pay a steep premium for a service, it needs to work, more often than not, flawlessly where I live. Right now, the basic quality difference between MLB.tv and the alternatives (more, but not much more, on those later) is not so great.
  • Other Restrictions: For at least three of the games I watched during my free trial, I was unable to switch to my preferred broadcast audio source. This is one of MLB.tv’s basic features, and its inexplicable unavailability was as surprising as it was confounding. Use of the service also noticeably impaired simultaneous browsing on the same device, and vice versa. Finally, simultaneous use of social media is not really possible due to a time delay in the streaming, which makes Twitter one big spoiler.

I appreciate that some of my negative experiences may have been due to deficiencies in my own equipment, but I would counter that such considerations are not relevant within a band of reasonably capable equipment (e.g., computer, internet router). In evaluating services, consideration of the user’s subjective experience is appropriate and common. What I have found in MLB.tv is an intelligently built structure for the way modern fans consume the game. What I did not find was anything that meaningfully (or $120-ly) separated MLB.tv from its infinitely more affordable European, ahem, alternatives.

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