capsule review

ESPN ScoreCenter for iPhone

At a Glance

A decade or so ago, I probably watched ESPN’s SportsCenter more than any other program on television. And really, why not? With a full hour devoted to highlights and scores from virtually every game played in North America that evening, SportsCenter was must-see viewing for any self-respecting sports nut of the mid-’90s. And, thus, it was must-see viewing for me. With few exceptions, it was the last program I watched before going to bed at night, and—on the occasions that I flipped on the TV before heading into work—it was the first show I saw in the morning. Gotta catch those highlights from the late games on the West Coast, you know.

So yeah—I was a SportsCenter junkie. I probably don’t have to add that I was a bachelor at the time.

My SportsCenter consumption has fallen off considerably since those bygone days, and no, it’s not just because the missus occasionally asks that we turn on something that has more storylines, characters, and dialogue than highlights from the Marlins-Braves game from Turner Field. In the opinion of this erstwhile SportsCenter viewer, the show moved away from its scores-and-highlights roots and seemed to focus more on promoting the greater glory of ESPN. SportsCenter became loaded down with forced catchphrases, relentless hype (usually of events that—surprise!—ESPN just happened to own the broadcast rights to), and unending shouting matches between talking heads who apparently equated making a loud argument with making a convincing one. SportsCenter became a bit of a drag.

Know the Score: ESPN ScoreCenter lists the scores of ongoing games in a two column format. Designate a team as your favorite, and they’ll be placed prominently at the top of each screen.

In a sense, then, ESPN ScoreCenter, the free iPhone app from the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports, marks something of a return to SportsCenter’s glory days. You won’t find any video highlights here—this is a free download, after all. But you will find scores—lots of them—and a few headlines that can give you a pretty good picture of what’s going on with your favorite teams right now. There’s no Budweiser Hot Seat interview where someone’s fawning over a star athlete, no Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser staging argument’s for the camera’s sake, and no disembodied head of Stuart Scott popping up on your iPhone screen and screaming “Boo-yah!” whenever the Phillies plate a run. ScoreCenter gives you scores and not much else.

It’s pretty sweet.

But just how sweet? Last year, I took a more-extensive-than-I-originally-intended look at some of the scoreboard apps for the iPhone and iPod touch. From that scrum, two consensus favorites emerged—Citizen Sports’ Sportacular and SportsTap’s eponymous SportsTap application. To properly assess where ESPN ScoreCenter fits into the scheme of things, I decided to take a second look at these established scoreboard apps for a better idea of just how the new kid on the block measures up.

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Let’s start things off with ScoreCenter. The first time you launch the app, it has to initialize, a theoretically painless process that kept failing for me until I disabled Wi-Fi and completed the task via a 3G connection. I had a few other editors around the Macworld office download the app, and none of them experienced the same problem. I mention it largely because, compared to other scoreboard apps, ScoreCenter seems prone to “Connection Failed” messages whenever I try to launch the app in places where AT&T’s network isn’t the most robust—at least, that’s been my experience.

ScoreCenter does take a little bit of time to load whenever you launch it, but ESPN cleverly helps you pass the time by serving up a “Did You Know” factoid. The “Did You Know” screen changes constantly and is usually tied to some happening in the sports world. A day after Jonathan Sanchez pitched an unlikely no-hitter for the San Francisco Giants, ScoreCenter was serving up some no-hitter-related trivia when I fired up the app.

The Devil (Ray) Is In the Details: ScoreCenter gives a thumbnail view of what’s happening at the moment, but if you want more detail, you need to launch an in-app browser.

That’s not the only way ScoreCenter keeps you abreast of recent sports news. The bottom of the app features a scrolling ticker of headlines, most of them pretty recent. (As I’m typing this sentence, for example, ScoreCenter’s ticker is reporting on the Phillies’ trade for Cliff Lee, a deal that went down hours earlier.) If one of the headlines grabs your attention, you can tap it to get more information from the ESPN MobileWeb browser embedded in ScoreCenter. The news ticker mirrors a similar feature in ESPN Zoom Deluxe (formerly ESPN Cameraman Deluxe) but with one critical difference—because Zoom Deluxe works in landscape mode, its ticker is easier to read and tap. ScoreCenter only offers a portrait view, so its headlines are cramped.

ScoreCenter offers extensive customization options—it’s perhaps the app’s greatest feature. For example, if an NBA game broke out in my living room, I couldn’t be bothered to turn my head to watch. No problem, ScoreCenter says, I don’t have to show the scores of any sport I have little-to-no interest in. Instead, I can use the app’s built-in settings to determine which sports I follow and the order in which they appear. (Each sport gets its own page in ScoreCenter, which you access by flicking from side to side.) ScoreCenter lets you select from 10 sports—good news, cricket fans!—with more promised in the future.

Within settings you can also select your favorite teams, which will cause their games to float to the top of the page for their particular sport. Both Sportacular and SportsTap offer similar features, but I find ScoreCenter’s presentation to be the best. Sportacular confines your favorites to a separate screen, for instance, while SportsTap merely highlights the game box involving your team. ScoreCenter gives favorite teams the treatment they deserve, stretching their games across the length of the iPhone’s screen. (Otherwise, scores appear in a two-column view.) You can add multiple favorites, though you’ll have to add them one at a time—I didn’t find this limitation to be a particular hardship.

(One thing you won’t find in ScoreCenter is push notifications—an omission I raise only because ESPN’s demo at the March iPhone 3.0 preview event may have some users expecting to find the feature in the current version. I don’t know the specific reason for the hold-up, but I suspect it has something to do with ESPN trying to find the best way to implement push notifications so that ScoreCenter isn’t constantly pinging you with updates. I can think of no hell fresher than my phone beeping out the SportsCenter theme every time a run scores in a Major League Baseball Game.)

We’re in a relative dead period on the American sporting scene, with only the baseball season in full swing. But I imagine ScoreCenter presents scores in much the same way across multiple sports—they appear in two columns in white text on a blue background. The color scheme makes it particularly easy to see scores at the briefest of glances.

It’s much harder, however, to get a quick look at who won a game. ScoreCenter doesn’t do much to differentiate in-progress games from those that are already in the books. There’s a “Final” in tiny type at the top of the box, of course, and a small white arrow next to the winning team. That’s fine if you don’t mind studying the screen to figure out who won what, but ScoreCenter should follow the lead of its competitors. Sportacular, for example, uses color coding—green for live games, blue for completed ones, red for postponements, and gray for games still to be played; the winning team’s name is also highlighted.

There’s one other minor annoyance with how ScoreCenter displays scores, but it only affects those of us here on the Left Coast. The app lists two day's worth of scores—a helpful feature for seeing not only today's game but upcoming match-ups as well. But ScoreCenter doesn’t alter its two-day outlook until noon local time. If you’re in the Pacific time zone that means yesterday’s scores will still be at the top of the page—even as afternoon games are well underway back east. East Coast Bias rears its ugly head once again.

Both Sportacular and SportsTap also do a better job at providing more detailed information about specific games than you’ll find when you tap on a contest in ScoreCenter. Say the Red Sox-A’s game has piqued your interest; tap on it, and you’ll get the score and inning bookended by logos of each team. Below that, ScoreCenter lists the balls, strikes, and outs, who’s pitching, who’s batting, and what happened in the last at-bat. There’s also a diamond that shows you how many runners are on base, plus a inning-by-inning line score.

Pretty detailed, right? Sure… as long as you have no interest in how Oakland scored those five runs in the first inning or how Jason Bay is faring in that game. To get that kind of data, you’ve got to launch the in-app browser, which takes you to a slightly more detailed view of what you’ve just seen. (It adds pitcher and batter stats, and tracks pitches of the current at bat.) But you were looking for a scoring summary—you’ve got to tap on a separate tab to get that and yet another tab to confirm that Jason Bay is O-for-1 with a strikeout.

To be fair, SportsTap and Sportacular don’t cram all that information into a single screen. But they also don’t force you to launch a separate in-app browser and then fumble around for tabs to find the information you’re looking for. Tabs for scoring summaries and team stats are visible from the main game page in both apps. I suppose ScoreCenter’s GameCast approach makes it easier to get live updates as they happen—the browser view periodically updates—but the price you pay is a cluttered interface that makes it difficult to find what you’re looking for.

Hey Look—The A’s Actually Scored: SportsTap takes advantage of the iPhone 3.0 update to offer in-game alerts.

When I looked at scoreboard apps last year, I gave the edge to Sportacular, though many of my colleagues here at Macworld are full-throated fans of SportsTap. I have to admit, I’m gradually inching toward their way of thinking. I still find SportsTap’s interface a little too spartan for my tastes, and I don’t care for its behavior of automatically launching to the last page you had open, even if it’s a game that was completed yesterday. (In fairness, you can go to Settings to turn off the Last Viewed Page feature, but that means you land on the home screen each time you launch—during baseball season, I’d like the app to open on the baseball page.) But I absolutely love SportsTap’s use of the iPhone’s Location feature—a LocalTap icon shows you the scores of any team located in a 50-, 100-, or 200-mile radius.

What’s more, since my last review, SportsTap has added an alert system that helpfully lets you get notifications when games start, stop, and change scores. You can set alerts for specific teams or that day's games. (The feature is limited to in-season sports leagues—Major League Baseball and the Canadian Football League—but SportsTap promises to add NFL, NHL, and NBA alerts in the future.)

The implementation is not exactly perfect: I can’t seem to find a way to alter the notification so that only a text alert pops up instead of the default alert featuring both text and a rather loud chime. (Update: As noted by a helpful reader below, you can do this, though not in the App itself. Instead, go to the iPhone’s Settings, tap Notifications, and then tap SportsTap. You’re given the option of turning off Sounds, Alerts, or both.) Also, I tried turning off the alert feature once, but it didn't take the first time; I had to go back and disable it again. These hiccups aside, score alerts are a great addition to SportsTap—one other apps should adopt themselves. The feature really bumps up SportsTap in my estimation.

Score Keeper: Sportacular still does a great job of providing a lot of game information with a minimum amount of taps. Just ignore the Chat and Picks tabs.

Sportacular, on the other hand, has taken a few steps backward in the past year. I still love its compact interface and its drop-down menu for jumping from sport to sport. But in the past year, the developer has added a number of social networking features. One such feature allows you to pick the winners of games, with Sportacular monitoring your handicapping skills. Pick the right games and you win… bragging rights? Personal glory? A hearty handshake and a laurel? I really don’t see the point of it. Game screens in Sportacular now feature a Chat tab that, via Facebook Connect, lets you post comments about the game. These comments are largely of the “My team rules; your team drools” variety, and, thus, not worthy of the attention of any self-respecting adult.

Sportacular is still my app of choice when it comes to finding out the score of a ballgame. But SportsTap is gaining on it—and with a few tweaks to the way it presents information, ESPN ScoreCenter could make some headway, too. Sportacular’s developer should pay heed to the lesson SportsCenter learned over the past decade—bells and whistles are nice, but in the end, when it comes to sports, the score’s the thing.

ESPN ScoreCenter and Sportacular run on any iPhone or iPod touch running the iPhone 2.2.1 software update. SportsTap requires the iPhone 3.0 update.

[Macworld.com executive editor Philip Michaels would like it to be known that his team rules while your team, in point of fact, drools.]

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