Hoops junkies now have a good option for watching National Basketball Association games on the go: The new League Pass for iPhone application from MobiTV delivers near-live broadcasts and recent replays to Apple's mobile device.
I tested League Pass for the iPhone, which is available for $40 for the full NBA regular season via the iTunes App Store. For the same price, the application is also available to Android users via the Android Market.
After launching League Pass for iPhone, the user is immediately placed into the Live panel, which presents a series of boxes showing the current day's games and their upcoming start times or progress indicators (including score and quarter). For in-progress games, users can click on a game box and, within seconds, see a nearly live broadcast of that game (typically delayed by less than a minute from a true live broadcast).
Broadcasts via the League Pass application are subject to the same blackout rules that pertain to League Pass broadcasts on cable TV or via the NBA.com Website. Users therefore should not expect to see their home team in action unless they are travelling out of town (or the game is not on local TV at all), nor will they gain access to any games shown nationally via ESPN or ABC.
The game video is presented in landscape mode on the iPhone, but only in one orientation (with headset connector to the lower left). Unfortunately, the broadcast is of a 4:3 aspect ratio feed, so there will be some letterboxing on the sides of the screen. I used the iPhone's video zoom button to fill those bars on the side. This cuts off a small portion of the top and bottom of the screen, but not any of the on-court action or the broadcast's scoreboard.
I was pleasantly surprised with the video quality when using a Wi-Fi network connection, given the speed motion on screen. Over a fast Wi-Fi connection, I typically experienced a sharp picture when players weren't moving around a lot and only minimal blurring while the game was in progress. The video was certainly watchable on the iPhone's small screen.
Users with a 3G connection may also be able to view the games depending on network conditions, although the picture will typically be much more blurry or jagged when available. I liked that in limited throughput conditions, the application will automatically downgrade the user to an audio-only transmission instead of continuously attempting to deliver choppy video.
However, I did not find the application very good at upgrading back to video once throughput improved, forcing me to exit and re-enter the game to reacquire the video feed. (The League Pass application covers up the iPhone's signal strength and connection indicators, so there is some guesswork as to when the network performance would be better without exiting the application.).
Tapping the screen while a live game is playing brings up the onscreen controls, providing limited playback options: I could pause the broadcast, skip to live or jump back 30 seconds at a time. However, there is no easy way to skip back to the beginning of the in-progress game.
I could also bring up an overlay box that presents limited player statistics for both teams or league-wide scores for that day's games. I could also log into Facebook or Twitter directly from League Pass to send score alerts to my friends or followers. While I could edit the message somewhat, I found I could not delete the little advertisement added to the end of the message.
League Pass provides the option to turn on a notification alert using Apple's iPhone Notification service to announce when an upcoming game is about to start. From the Live panel, users can set up alerts either for one particular game or every forthcoming game for a given team. For single future games, users can move over the schedule panel to see what upcoming games will be shown via League Pass and schedule the notification.
The notification feature did not work at all in the initial version of League Pass for iPhone, but the feature was fixed for the 1.1 release that showed up in the App Store on Nov. 16. Notifications typically are delivered to the iPhone 2 or 3 minutes before the game (about 12 minutes before tip-off, normally), provided the phone has network connectivity to receive the alert.
Users also have at their fingertips limited access to replays of games already played. From the Replay tab, I could watch any game played over the last two days (again, subject to blackout rules and regulations.) On the Replay tab, users can choose whether to see the score for games already played.
On-screen controls differ slightly for replays. Users will see a timeline scroll bar, allowing them to quickly navigate to a particular part of the game. Certainly this skip-ahead feature makes it easier to zero in on specific parts of the game, but I'd like to see MobiTV enhance the feature further by adding hash marks for significant time milestones, such as the beginning of a quarter.
Lastly, for bite-size consumption, League Pass offers a somewhat boring Highlights panel that features three prepackaged highlight collections. The packages include a daily Top 5, a rundown of a day's games called the Daily Zap and a semi-regular package called Nightly Notable (which seems like a Player of the Day showcase).
Down the road, I think there is definitely room for MobiTV to add more game-by-game highlights and analysis for those who want to get an in-depth take on a game without watching the whole thing. I'd also like to see late-breaking news and fantasy basketball analysis (provided via NBA.com's association with ESPN) for some added hoops appeal.
Senior Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at email@example.com.