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NHL GameCenter Live is Steadily Getting Worse

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We spent some time this morning outlining a lot of the problems with the way NHL Network takes over games and generally under-serves their customer base. Unfortunately, the NHL's GameCenterLive service is arguably even worse at serving its customers, and we're going to give a little bit of attention to the shortcomings that plague the service still today. Do a quick google search of GCL complaints, and the first complaint is always about blackouts. Blackouts suck - GCL will prevent you from watching any game that is currently on the TV set in your area. That means your local team, yes, but it also means any game currently on NBC, NBCSN, or NHLN. I'm not here to complain about the blackouts. There's a lot of reasons why at the very least the NHL shouldn't black out games that NHL Network has taken over, especially since NHL Network is easily the worst of the 4 major sports networks in the US. However, I understand that the NHL isn't currently in the business of accommodating cord-cutters, they're in the business of making money off your internet service provider. Even setting blackout rules aside, in theory the serivce should be worth it for the type of hardcore hockey fan that reads a hockey blog in their free time. Unfortunately, issues abound, and that's where the NHL really needs to get it together.

The biggest issue that has existed for years is the real-time lag. Do you want to use social media while watching the game? If so, GCL is 100% not for you. It would be one thing if the real-time delay was 10 seconds or so which is pretty standard for streaming services, but it's regularly 2 minutes or more. An in-game commercial break is less than 2 minutes, so you are more than a commercial break behind the live feed at all times. I have literally been spoiled on a goal that took place after commercials I haven't seen yet. It also lags behind the scoreboard at the top of the page (if you're viewing in a web browser), so you'll definitely get spoiled if you don't turn off score displays too. I'm an avid GCL user, but the lag is so bad that I have to shut off social media entirely if I care about the outcome of the game. I can understand a little bit of lag, because there's real technical limitations at play. That said, I've watched games from all kinds of services (NCAA, NFL, NBA, Twitch), and almost never is the lag anywhere near as bad as the NHL's official paid product. When you're charging $160 for a product, it has to be better than what a teenager with a laptop and a Twitch account can offer for free.

To make things worse, one of the core features the NHL advertised with this year's new rendition of GCL is enhanced social media integration. Anyone who has ever paid for the product before laughed out loud when they announced that feature. Social media integration is 100% useless for GCL given the previously mentioned lag. If only they would have spent their time fixing some of the other issues.

I wouldn't mind the above issues quite so much if the product wasn't so ridiculously buggy. Let's use a specific scenario to demonstrate. The game starts at 7:30, and you get home at 9:30. Rather than tune in for the last half of the 3rd, you decide you really want to see this whole game, and "full DVR functionality" is one of the core advertised features for GCL, so you decide to turn scores off and watch the game from the start on your PC. I've experienced this exact scenario dozens of times just because of my personal work schedule, and there's so many ways it can go wrong. You'll get most of the way through the first period, and the live game will end while you're still catching up. If you're lucky, you'll continue like nothing happened. However, there's a chance it'll bounce you to the end of the game, spoiling the result. If that doesn't happen, the more common problem is when you get to commercial break, it'll mute your sound and very likely bounce you to the beginning of the game. This means your only choice is to pause the game before the commercial kicks in, manually fast-forward through the commercial (you become an expert at fast-forwarding the exact length of a commercial break), and hope you don't break it in the process. This is a terrible issue for a supposedly mature product - basic product testing would have solved this, but the NHL was apparently too busy adding useless social media integration to fix this.

In theory you can avoid this if you use a device other than a computer to watch, but unfortunately the NHL effectively sabotaged their moderately popular Xbox app this year. I've used GCL on the Apple TV a couple times and it really is pretty good, but I don't own an Apple TV. I've got a 360 sitting around, so I use that. The 360 app used to be the best thing about GCL, but in last offseason's refresh, the app got so bad that it really isn't useful anymore. The first thing the app used to ask is if you want scores or not, which was a wonderfully useful feature. You can still turn scores on or off, but that initial option is gone. Sadly, this means if you left scores on last time. you can't turn them off without going past the home screen that has all the scores on them, which means you're certain to be spoiled anyway. They also removed the ability to switch between games without going back to a menu using the thumbpad and a menu that would pop up along the bottom of the screen, which also used to be a really great feature. Now you have to tab back to the league scoreboard and pick your game from there. This is a painfully slow process (the UI isn't exactly snappy), but it gets worse. That scoreboard almost never updates unless you kill the app and then re-launch it - it works as intended roughly 10% of the time for me. So a game starts at 7, you watch until 8:15. Some poor team is getting throttled 4-0 and you're not that interested, so you tab back to the scoreboard to see if any of the games that came on at 7:30 look promising, and you're disappointed to see that the app thinks none of those games have started yet. You curse at the NHL and pull up the league scoreboard on your phone/laptop to decide which game to switch to, wasting enough time that you wonder why you're paying for this supposedly premium product.

Oh, those DVR features? Almost completely removed from the Xbox app. No longer can you easily fast-forward or skip 1 minute at a time (normally perfect for commercial breaks). Does the NHL hate its customers?

Needless to say, I don't ever recommend GCL to anyone. I'm crazy enough about hockey that I've continued to pay for it for a few years now, but 1) I don't have any illusions that most people are as crazy as me to be willing to put up with the nonsense, and 2) the product is somehow getting worse instead of better. I'm not even sure if I'll pay for it next year at this point. The gist of the NHL's problem is they've spent a few years piling on "features" that you can't actually use at the expense of the product getting buggier, while also never fixing the core issues that have plagued the product for years. Unfortunately, "new features" sounds a lot better in a press release than "we made it suck less," but in this case, the NHL would really be wise to spend the offseason actually improving their product rather than making it worse. Maybe then it might actually be a product worth recommending. Until that happens, GameCenter Live is for masochists only.