Maybe “old” folks who resist the streaming evolution are onto something. That’s how my first evening with NFL+, the National Football League’s brand new streaming service, made me feel, anyway.
Announced back in July and rolled out in time for the 2022 preseason, NFL+ is a way for football fans to give the league a few bucks every month in exchange for access to some live games on their streaming device of choice.
The NFL is finally launching its own streaming service with live games. Here’s how it works.
Unfortunately, both the game selection and streaming quality are off to an unimpressive start.
What does NFL+ include?
The two tiers of NFL+.
Credit: Screenshot: NFL
NFL+ comes in two tiers — a basic $4.99/mo option and a “premium” $9.99/mo option. Here’s what you get with both:
Live preseason games from outside your local market on all devices
Live local market regular season and playoff games on a phone or tablet
Live audio broadcasts of every game, regardless of location
An on-demand library of NFL programming
If you choose to pay the extra $5/mo for NFL+ Premium, you also get both full and condensed replays of each game, as well as a “coaches film” view of games (using different camera angles from the TV broadcast to give you a fuller picture of each play), all without ads.
If you’re really into football and don’t have cable, this might look like an enticing offer on paper. Preseason games can be a little tricky to catch if you don’t live in your team’s local TV market, so as a Kansas City Chiefs fan living in New York, NFL+ does have one thing to offer me. Free access to all radio broadcasts of games is also a neat bonus, as sometimes you might be away from a TV and still need to know what’s going on in a high-stakes game.
However, thanks to performance problems, the product as it exists right now just isn’t up to par with what you’d expect from the NFL’s first foray into the streaming business.
How does NFL+ work?
All NFL+ streams operate out of the NFL app, which you can find on Android, iOS, and streaming devices like Chromecast and Roku. To be clear, you don’t need NFL+ to download and use the app, which has game scores, stats, and some videos available for free. NFL+ merely unlocks certain game streams. This is where the problems really begin and end: The NFL app just isn’t any good to use.
I streamed portions of two preseason games using the NFL app on a Chromecast with Google TV, one of the best 4K streaming devices on the market. I checked in on a New York Giants-New England Patriots matchup and a game between the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans. (In case you’ve never watched preseason football, it usually involves seeing backup players, many of whom will never touch the field in a real NFL game. And unless you’re super invested in one of the teams on the field, it’s generally not worth watching.)
The NFL app just isn’t any good to use.
The first problem I ran into with NFL+ was that the Giants game wasn’t available because I live in New York. Instead, I had to use a cable login. I know NFL+ doesn’t promise access to every preseason game, but still, paying for something and being locked out of a stream because of local restrictions is annoying. That issue didn’t apply to the Ravens game, but plenty of other issues did.
Frustratingly, the process of getting any game up and running on the NFL app is a chore. Simply moving the cursor around the main menu is a lurching, molasses-like affair on a streaming device that rarely has that kind of trouble with any other apps. It would frequently stall for 10 to 15 seconds at a time, and the response time between me hitting a button and anything happening on screen could last several seconds.
The NFL app’s mobile interface is simple, but slow.
Once you get a stream started, the problems are less severe but still noticeable. The frame rate was seemingly capped at 30 frames per second, which is half of what you would get out of a genuine TV broadcast of any sports game. Even laypeople who aren’t as eagle-eyed about frame rates as I am would immediately notice that something is off about these streams. Sports are supposed to look a certain way on TV and they have for decades; changing that can be disruptive to the viewing experience.
If you can get over that lower frame rate (and I can, having spent the last six years without cable), the stream quality is watchable but unremarkable. I noticed some light stuttering in the Ravens game, but it didn’t impact my viewing experience. And in case you were wondering, there’s no difference in stream quality between games watched with NFL+ and games watched with a cable login.
I also tried watching for a bit using the NFL app on iPhone to see if the experience was any different and it wasn’t, really. The streaming quality was the same and the mobile app’s interface was only marginally faster. After about an hour of watching fringe NFL players execute vanilla game-plans (teams generally don’t bring their best plays into a preseason game out of fear of showing their hands too early), I did what I always do during the NFL preseason: I got bored and played video games instead.
Amazon’s eating the NFL’s lunch
Real quick, I’d like to point out that NFL+ isn’t the only new football streaming offering this season. Amazon is the exclusive home of Thursday Night Football now, and the experience of watching games on Prime Video is night and day compared to the NFL app.
All that really needs to be said is that Amazon’s games broadcast at a smooth 60 frames per second, which makes them look like they do on regular TV. The stream is also a sharp 1080p, loading up quickly within the Prime Video app without much buffering or stuttering at all. You can pull up stats while watching the game and those will even update in real time.
In all, it’s a much better experience than what NFL+ provides right now, but a major difference is that Amazon only broadcasts one game each week, while NFL+ gives you access to at least two or three games every Sunday.
Amazon’s debut NFL stream passed the most important test
Old-school TV might be better
I wouldn’t call NFL+ completely useless or a waste of money, especially since $5 for one month would get you through an entire preseason — if that’s what you’re interested in seeing. But it was an inferior experience compared to watching games on regular TV in every conceivable way. It may be useful for out-of-market preseason games, but for the regular and postseason experiences NFL+ offers, you’d be better off buying an HD TV antenna and getting your local channels that way.
Who knew that the modern equivalent of bunny ears would be better than a shiny new streaming service from the biggest sports league in America?