Whenever I discussed the merits of USL with my friends who hadn’t heard of the league (of which there were one or two) one of the first big benefits I’d bring up was how easy it was to watch the games. The league might struggle with its identity at times, but at least you could easily stream all of the matches live on YouTube. Not only that, you could bring the streams up later to rewatch at your leisure. It just made it so convenient to be a fan of the USL.
That’s exactly why I was concerned when the big announcement came earlier in the year that all USL matches would be moving to the newly launched ESPN+ going forward. It was always so easy before, would it still be that way under the new streaming arrangement? Other people have debated the merits of the complete ESPN+ package, but for USL fans the choice is simple. You either get ESPN+, or you can’t stream any more live matches. And since it’s not in my budget to follow Penn FC down to North Carolina or Florida, I signed up.
Rather than going through an app, I figured the best place to start was going through the ESPN website on my computer. Sure enough, a nice big ESPN+ button had appeared on the top of the page. Pretty easy so far.
The first bump came when I entered my info to sign up. It turned out, I already had an ESPN account assigned to my email. I had no recollection of this account that I apparently created seven years ago for no reason. Luckily my email was the same, so one quick password reset later and I was back on track.
With this old ESPN account already in place, all I needed was to select my payment method to finish signing up. For the people who sign up right away, you’re able to get a 30 day free trail period. After that, I went for the $49.99 yearly option just to save a little bit on the monthly rate of $4.99. And with that, I was ready to stream all of that sweet, sweet sports content.
Except that there wasn’t really anything good on the live streaming options when I logged in. There were a few replays from earlier in the day, but the main active event at the time was some collegiate tennis. Since that’s not really my thing, I decided to get my ESPN+ apps running.
Here’s when I ran into bump number two. You see, there is no ESPN+ app on any devices. It’s just an added portion to the ESPN app itself. Since I didn’t currently have that app on my devices, I started the downloads for my Android phone and my Amazon Fire tablet.
Both apps bugged me to select my favorite teams, but because I was in a hurry I skipped through all that. The ESPN+ content wasn’t as prominent as it was on ESPN’s website, but it wasn’t hard to figure out. But much like with the app itself, the ESPN+ content is mixed in with the rest of the ESPN content, most of which isn’t available to me.
For example, if you’re in the ESPN+ portion of the app and you select the Schedule, it defaults to the complete ESPN family of networks schedule. You have to filter down to just the ESPN+ content alone. There doesn’t seem to be a way to save your favorites, so get used to manipulating a lot of dropdown boxes to select “ESPN+” and “Soccer.”
But there was no time to fret over things like that, I wanted to see what the new home of USL soccer was going to be like. So I went search for the USL section and I found it under “more soccer leagues” along with NWSL and Dutch Eredivisie. Just because ESPN has added USL to its streaming services, don’t expect a lot of added coverage. There’s only a handful of USL stories for 2018. More importantly, teams like Penn FC and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC have outdated logos while new teams like Nashville SC don’t have any logos at all.
Well that’s okay, I wasn’t planning to get my USL news on ESPN+ anyway. The only other thing I had to worry about was getting it connected to my TV so I could prepare to watch my Penn FC away matches just like I used to do on YouTube. So I fired up my Xbox One and learned...ESPN+ was not available on Xbox. That was a bit of a let down.
I went online to see if I was mistaken. Surely they wouldn’t launch a sports focused streaming service without support for video game consoles? But alas, it was true. No ESPN+ for consoles yet, but presumably it’ll be coming down soon.
But there was one person who managed to find an easy workaround. All you had to do was open up a web browser app on the Xbox then go to the ESPN+ website. Then enter all your info on the website just like you would on your computer and you’re in! Eventually. For fans of 30 Rock, the whole process reminded me of Dennis Duffy’s coffee machine.
If you’ve read down this far you’re probably wondering, how is it? Is this new streaming system really worth my $4.99 per month?
Well the content is certainly worth the value. For soccer fans, you’ve got tons of MLS and USL for starters. Then you throw in some of the English lower leagues and some international matches and there’s your money’s worth right there. And that doesn’t even count other sports they have available like MLB and NHL or the ESPN content they have like all of the 30 for 30 episodes.
But the one issue I kept coming back to is that, for a streaming service, it’s not all that convenient for streaming right now. Most streaming apps like Netflix try to minimize the amount of work that goes into streaming the content. They’re designed with big, bold tabs just begging to be watched. ESPN+ still makes you work for it to find the content you’re looking for. It’s also lacking some sort of watchlist that you can create for yourself to save your preferred programs. So if you were hoping to queue up your streams ahead of time, you can’t right now.
Ultimately, there’s plenty of room for improvement and additions going forward. The sign up was completely painless, so no complaints there. Hopefully ESPN keeps working early on to smooth over some of the rough edges of the service. But if they want to make ESPN+ a “must have” streaming service for people going forward, they’ll need to work on making it more (and this might not be an actual word) bingeable. Give it a separate app, let us build a watch list of our favorite teams or leagues, and let us watch some sports without all the extra clicks and menus. It’ll make it a more enjoyable experience for everyone.