ESPN really wants to be on your phone's homescreen. And today, it's taking a pretty big step to get there. The company is relaunching its core apps for iOS and Android through an update coming to the App Store and Google Play. ESPN has spent months working on a cleaner, faster experience for the millions of sports fans who've made opening SportsCenter part of their daily routine. But no one's going to be doing that anymore, because the "SportsCenter" app name is being retired. It's getting pushed out the door in favor of a simpler approach that ESPN probably should've taken from the beginning: the app is now named after the company itself. Not ScoreCenter. Not SportsCenter. Just plain old ESPN.
You'll still feel at home
Open up the new ESPN app on iPhone and you won't notice any radical changes from what was there before. On iOS, the design has been tweaked with a new red banner at the top, which looks way better than the black SportsCenter emblem in the previous version. The general layout is the same when you swipe between the app's Scores, News, and Now sections, but fonts are lighter, space is used more wisely, and everything's a bit less cluttered and in your face.
The iPad app, by contrast, is completely new and perhaps the thing that ESPN is most proud of with the relaunch. Development of its apps used to be handled by outside partners, but more recently everything's been brought in-house so that ESPN can take full control of its own mobile roadmap and build the cohesive, consistent, and intuitive experience it's always sought.
ESPN has finally arrived on ipad in 2015
In an interview with The Verge, John Kosner, ESPN's executive vice president of digital, said that the company is striving to create a user experience that's "fundamentally similar in terms of the look and feel" across mobile devices and on the web. ESPN.com doesn't resemble the smartphone app right now, but a major redesign is scheduled to launch on April 1st — the website's 20th anniversary. When that happens, ESPN will feel pretty familiar no matter where or how you're accessing it. Kosner said that ESPN is trying to take after Netflix in making software that's intuitive regardless of platform. "Our challenge is not identical to theirs, but the level of ambition and hope for quality is," he said.
ESPN on the iPad follows the same general approach as the smaller iPhone version. But getting where you want can be much faster — especially when it comes to tracking your favorite teams. "We wanted to create some efficiencies that we just couldn't on the phone," said Andrew Machado of ESPN's product team. As one example of that, the iPad's larger display size allows for a favorites bar at the bottom right corner of the screen. It's always there, letting users instantly swipe through and tap on a chosen team to see news, scores, and other data. Getting to the same information on the phone requires more than one tap, but Machado insisted his team is constantly working to speed things up and cut down on the number of steps necessary to get somewhere. "What happens if you have 20 favorite teams and you have 30 seconds to spend with us? How do we get you right into what you want?"
The "Now" panel has also seen a ton of focus on both phone and tablet-sized screens. Whereas the middle "News" column is updated with the day's top stories and game recaps, Now gives ESPN's editorial staff a chance to constantly feed users more images, more videos, more high-resolution graphics that aired on TV moments earlier, and more tweets from teams and sports stars.
Twitter is ESPN's lone partner for social media at the moment, which is perhaps appropriate since Now feels like it's been heavily influenced by Twitter cards and the video snippets that ESPN already tweets out regularly. But according to Kosner, posts from Instagram, Facebook, and other sources might well start appearing there eventually. One thing you won't see is redundancy; Now isn't going to become an echo chamber. "We are making an effort here to edit this ourselves," Kosner said. When ESPN.com gets its own redesign, Now will be an equally big priority on the website. Updates fly in at a much higher frequency than the main news column, giving ESPN the freedom to share headlines with the world just as the latest trades or major news happens. The full article can come later. "You really have the benefit of everything that ESPN knows about anything in sports to that second," said Kosner.
The goal, according to ESPN's executives, is to get fans viral videos, breaking news, and analysis without the delays that were once unavoidable. Just as ESPN's TV operation has become a well-oiled machine that can put highlights on the web almost instantly, ESPN wants its app to surface the content sports fans want without making them go hunt for it. "A lot of the stuff that you see in the middle lane, editorially, comes from Getty and those things," said Machado. "Items in Now are spontaneous, really interesting; you can find videos there that are more off-the-cuff and fun."
The app's 'now' section is basically twitter for sports news
As we mentioned earlier, the new ESPN app is nicer to look at, but not a huge departure from what people were using yesterday. So why the move away from SportsCenter? "SportsCenter means a lot here. It doesn't mean as much when you get out of the United States," said Kosner. He also explained that calling the app SportsCenter in some ways limited what consumers might expect from it.
"There's a desire for fans to have a much broader range of content, tools, and services," he said. Now, they'll simply look to ESPN for all of that content. With one central app in place, ESPN is also planning to cut back on the number of extra offerings it's got crowding up app stores. ESPN Radio, which hasn't seen the kindest user reviews anyway, could eventually be phased out since the company streams live audio through the main app. "If you focus on getting people to listen out of a radio app, you're only reaching a small portion of the audience that might be interested," said Kosner.
A major redesign of ESPN's website is coming apriL 1st
One app that's not going anywhere is WatchESPN, the critical piece in ESPN's TV Everywhere strategy that lets cable customers watch live broadcasts from ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN3. (Some programming is available to stream without a cable subscription.) With today's relaunch, ESPN's primary app is much better about keeping you aware of what games are happening at any given time ("We've added the whole plethora of ESPN channels and programming," Machado told us), but tap to watch one and WatchESPN opens automatically. So at least in that regard, ESPN is still a few stops shy of an all-in-one experience. Some article links will also trigger an in-app web browser rather than displaying natively — or inside the nice split-view on iPad.
Ads are of course still present, and can prove annoying when they pop up and interrupt the flow of navigation or get in the way of your Now feed. We've also noticed some graphical issues near the status bar when scrolling quickly; it's unclear if this is a beta glitch or something that'll be resolved in the official update. Even if not, Kosner and Machado expect to deliver updates and new features quicker now that ESPN's own people are leading all development.
Speaking of which, it's worth nothing that the Android side is moving a bit slower than iOS. The new ESPN app is launching on Google's operating system starting today, but it's not quite the total makeover you'll see on iPhone. There's no tablet version on day one, either. Machado hinted that both of these things will eventually be rectified in the weeks and months to come.
Android's tablet app is coming later
What's next? For now, ESPN seems content that it's marching towards a singular user experience — especially once the website makeover hits in April. When ESPN.com, ESPN the app, and ESPN the TV network are all working better together, it could open up some massive second-screen potential. "In the future, then you can get into synced-type things that could be quite interesting. A Shazam-type experience that could be interesting," said Kosner. "For instance, you opt in and we know that you're watching First Take. Because we know that about you, we can say 'here's more information.'"
"There's one element today that I think will be a lot better than it has been, but it opens up many more possibilities," he said. And that about sums it up. Today's relaunch makes ESPN's app a step up from what we were all refreshing yesterday — though not necessarily a huge one. At least it's finally optimized for Apple's latest iPhones, reason enough for most people to tap the "update" button. (The new ESPN is available on iOS 8 only; users still on iOS 7 will stick with SportsCenter.) And it's finally got a name that makes perfect sense.