The MLB Network came to life in the States on Thursday, giving our American friends a channel that provides them with coverage of their favourite sport twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.Â
As the network is currently limited to America, the multimedia content on MLB.com will remain the most important part of the MLB broadcasting suite for those of us outside the U.S.Â It’s therefore a good time to look back at the internet-based content they provided in 2008 and to look ahead to what may be in store for us international baseball fans over the coming months.Â
MLB.com was one of the major websites to embrace Microsoft Silverlight in 2007 and in 2008 it became a dominant part of the design of their site and the way in which they delivered multimedia content to users.
The first real look we got at the new “enhanced” Silverlight media player came during March and it produced a mixed reaction, with some people seeing it as a positive development and others calling for MLB.com to revert back to the old media player.Â This is a common response to any such development: if you change a popular product, you have to accept that you won’t please everyone.Â Â
Throughout Spring Training, MLB.tv subscribers were able to use the Silverlight player and the additional graphics that made it stand out.Â A score strap line figured prominently, even if it didn’t update quite as it should have done, and various â€˜widgets’ could be selected and moved about in the main window.Â It was therefore a surprise when the regular season came around and the additional graphics suddenly disappeared, never to return.Â The disappearance and (occasionally) the re-emergence of features was a recurring part of the 2008 MLB.com experience.
Away from the additional graphics, the major talking point with the new Silverlight player was the â€˜full-screen’ picture that it displayed.Â A number of people headed over to this blog to vent their frustrations over the fact that they could no longer set the video stream to completely fill their 4:3 ratio monitor screen.Â Justin Shaffer from MLB.com kindly offered an explanation for the change, stating that a decision had been made to switch to what we would call a â€˜widescreen’ view.Â
The change undoubtedly upset some MLB.tv subscribers, but MLB.com based their decision on solid reasoning.Â It’s rare to find a 4:3 ratio monitor in the shops nowadays and the new picture does look great on a 16:9 screen.Â I experienced both sides of the debate, being annoyed right at the start of the season with my 4:3 monitor and then very happy when I replaced it with my new 16:9 monitor.Â
MLB.com prompted much joy when they announced that the 2008 subscriptions would cost the same as they had in 2007.Â The new service streamed games at 400K, 800K and 1.2MB with the NexDef plug-in supposedly helping you to enjoy games at the highest quality.Â Giving users a choice of different feeds allows the majority to find a good match for their PC/Internet set-up.Â This extra choice also included the ability to pick the home or road feed for a game (when both were available) during the final month of the season,.
Personally, I spent most of the year watching games at 400K simply because the picture quality is perfectly watchable and the buffering problems are kept to a minimum.Â The other feeds certainly produced a much better quality of picture, but I could not stay with them for too long before everything started getting choppy (invariably during an exciting moment).Â Your own PC/Internet set-up has a crucial impact on how well the feeds will display, so it’s quite likely that other users out there with higher speed internet connections than me enjoyed the superior picture quality provided.Â
Away from the main MLB.tv live games, MLB.com mystifyingly took away two useful features at the start of the season that many fans had come to rely on.
The clickable linescores on the main scoreboard page were an excellent way to navigate through a completed game, allowing you to select the specific half of an inning you were most interested in, but this feature was nowhere to be seen until it miraculously reappeared at the start of June.Â
The same was true of the â€˜condensed games’ feature, although this was much more of a contentious point as it had previously been a part of the MLB.tv subscription package, only to then fail to materialize once the 2008 season began.Â Their mid-season return was hailed by many international fans as the condensed games are the best way to follow your chosen team every day.Â They strike a perfect balance between the short highlights available (not providing enough of the action for a keen fan) and the full game (it would be great if we had the time to watch the full game every day, but not many people are that lucky).
It was assumed by many that the condensed games feature was elbowed to one side by the introduction of the new Daily Rewind Game Recap feature.Â Every MLB game had its own highlights package, generally lasting around three minutes and including an intro and wrap-up segment.Â This replaced the half-hour Daily Rewind show that was such a great addition to MLB.com during 2006 and 2007.Â
There were clear benefits in moving from an overall highlights package every day to focusing on individual games.Â Day games or contests from the east coast could be published without needing to wait for the final west coast game to be completed.Â The user could also pick which games they wanted to watch highlights from, rather than sitting through the whole lot.
I welcomed the move when the feature was first launched, but as the season wore on I began to wish that the old format was still around.Â The Daily Rewind had a substantial quality to it, meaning that I regularly made a point of setting aside thirty minutes to watch it.Â With the Rewind Recaps being so short, I often found myself not bothering to watch any of them and I’m sure I missed out on a fair amount of action as a result.Â You could recreate the old Daily Rewind format by manually selecting each game, but more often than not this led to frustration with some of the clips refusing to play and the sound level fluctuating from one clip to another.Â Overall, the minuses of the switch to the Rewind Recaps format outweighed the pluses for me.
However, my video Daily Rewind frustrations meant that I discovered the joys of the GamedayAudio Rewind, which you can download and put on your mp3 player as a perfect soundtrack to your lunch break.Â And let’s not forget that all of the Rewind content is available for free.Â You can’t complain too much at being able to enjoy free highlights of every single game.
MLB’s Gameday application has undergone considerable change over the past couple of years and the version available at the end of 2008 was almost unrecognisable from the one many baseball fans were glued to just two years ago.Â A host of new features were added during 2008, most notably superior 3D graphics that allowed users to control the view and the introduction of video clips of all the important moments flashing up in the application a few minutes after they had taken place.Â
The one knock against the all-singing, all-dancing Gameday is that some fans believe it contains too many flashy features (both from a visual perspective and in terms of optimum performance on their PC).Â For those who yearned for a more stream-lined Gameday, MLB.com once again came to the rescue with the launch of the Gameday Mini.Â This little application immediately became a favourite of mine and it gets my vote for being the best MLB.com development of 2008.
What will 2009 bring?
2008 showed that MLB.com is always looking to improve its output, so we can expect further developments in 2009.Â The emerging presence of the MLB Network could play an important role in determining what these developments may be.
The MLB Network will not negatively affect the MLB.tv subscription packages, as may have perhaps been feared by international fans when news of the channel first broke.Â It will only broadcast a small number of live games (one per week, by the looks of it), so MLB.tv will still be the primary way in which MLB sells its live game action.Â
The Squawking Baseball blog notes that the potential revenue generated by the Network in 2009 will be less than half of what the MLB Advanced Media core will bring into the coffers.Â MLB.tv and the rest of MLB.com are definitely not going to be neglected.Â Don’t be surprised if a few extra features are added to the Silverlight player this year, perhaps with some of those â€˜widgets’ wriggling their way back into the fold and allowing the user to customize their viewing experience.
Most importantly, the MLB Network is designed to complement the features available on the website rather than replace them.Â We’ve already seen clips from the Network programming pop up on MLB.com and that’s likely to be a growing trend.Â The MLB Network could well lead to more free content, in terms of studio analysis and original programming, being made available to MLB.com visitors, which can only be a good thing for international fans.
Lots to look forward to
As noted previously, British fans are going to be paying considerably more for their MLB.tv subscriptions this year even if the retail prices stay the same.Â However the price for access to 2,430 regular season games (plus Spring Training, the World Baseball Classic and the postseason) is still going to be a relative bargain and we may have some additional features to enjoy for our money as well.Â With so much varied and high-quality content also available for free, MLB.com looks set to continue to be a complete godsend to international baseball fans.