Something Different: A NHL Gamecenter LIVE Review

The last few days have not gone well for the New Jersey DevilsThey lost their last three games with some common problems and disturbing trends across all three games.  Patrik Elias is now out with concussion symptoms.  Dainius Zubrus will return to skate soon, but Paul Martin and David Clarkson remain out.  Prospect Patrice Cormier has been suspended indefinitely after throwing a vicious elbow at an opposing player's head.  The last Devils performance can be best described was something awful.  There hasn't been a whole lot to cheer for in recent days for the Devils.

Rather than get down about it and/or move on to the next game, let's talk about  something else: NHL Gamecenter LIVE, the online streaming program of hockey games both live and as far back as the 2007-08 season.  In the interest of full disclosure and complying current electronic media law, I was given a free account to NHL Gamecenter LIVE for the purposes of this review.

Currently, NHL Gamecenter LIVE has slashed it's prices down 30% for the rest of the season and the people behind it are interested to get other people's takes on their platform.  So I gave it a go. I haven't used NHL Gamecenter LIVE before, but I'd have to say it would be a very good purchase for any out-of-market hockey fan with a decent Internet connection.   Neulion did a great job with the interface and the online streams provide a great picture.  The ability to do picture-in-picture, watch archive games, and pop-out the feed are useful and intuitive, especially as playoffs come ever closer and other games become important for more than just the two teams playing.   There's only a few minor things I'd like to see changed on the service that could improve the overall product.

More details about my experience and thoughts with NHL Gamecenter LIVE after the jump.

For those who aren't aware, NHL Gamecenter LIVE takes a stream from a television broadcast (usually a local one) and provides that stream to the user.   The company behind the technology that makes it all happen is Neulion, who has done work with the NFL, ESPN360, and the AHL. Essentially, a game is being temporarily stored on your computer so you can go back to the beginning   For a now-reduced season fee of $119 or a monthly subscription of $23.95, you're able to use the NHL Gamecenter LIVE Video Player to view live and archived games as far back as the 2007-08 season.  According to their Video Player FAQ, here's what Neulion features with NHL Gamecenter LIVE:

  • Up to 40 games a week of live TV quality games online
  • Multi Game View – Watch 4 games at once!
  • Watch archived games 48 hours after the games are broadcast with no blackouts
  • Home and Away Stats, Chat, Play-by-Play, and Ice Tracker are all Drag and Drop Modules that can be dragged off the screen and placed in an area of your convenience.
  • DVR Functionality - rewind to review a great play or catch something you missed.
  • Start Over - if you miss the puck drop or a period you can start from the beginning of the game in one click!
  • 10 Second Rewind Button - review an amazing goal or analyze a crucial call in one click.
  • LIVE Button - if you rewind to review a great play go back to the live stream in one click.
  • Picture-in-Picture - need to follow your team's division rival, favorite player or fantasy player?  Now you can check in on other games, teams, and players with PIP.  Click the swap button to move the smaller screen view into your main screen.
  • Extended Highlights - watch a 10 to 12 minute version of the game the next morning at 8am ET.  Only available to NHL GameCenter LIVE™ subscribers.
  • Classic Game Archive - Go back in time and review a collection of select games from 1970 thru 2009 that have been selected by our NHL Editorial Staff.  Relive great moments in hockey history.  We will continue to release a few more Classic Games each month
  • Enhanced Video Quality - including HD when you add the plug in.

I've been using NHL Gamecenter LIVE for a week now for both archived, recently completed, and live games.  In nearly all cases, I've been more than satisfied with the audio and visual quality of the game as well as the ability to jump to prior events in the game easily.   When you drop in a new game, it takes a few seconds for the picture to be at the camera's resolution; but I found it to clear up in less than 5 seconds.  Even before then, the picture is still quite visible.  Because it is a stream of a broadcast, what the broadcast picks up is what you see.  When it goes to commercial, you see the commercial.  If there's an intermission segment, you see the intermission segment.  So on and so forth. 

Here's what a regular game looks like in the player:

Gamecenter_big_example_medium

It's only a little blurry because Manny Malhotra is busy torching Dion Phaneuf before driving in net to score. (Which he did. Poor Phaneuf.)   But that's as good quality on my computer as I would expect from an HD broadcast on my TV.  Again, if the broadcast is in HD, you're going to get an excellent picture.  

I'm currently operating on a cable modem, so a live stream has never been slow.  Even with a slower connection, the bitrate for the stream will adjust itself appropriately as long as it's set to the default adaptive rate.  A smaller bit rate doesn't result in as good of a picture, but it allows the stream to run live as an actual broadcast.  For live games, it can be set at 400, 800, 1600, and 3200 Kbps, which is good if you need to adjust it and you know what your connection is running at it; but the adaptive bitrate suffices.  I'm not as tech-savvy as I once was, but it's great that Neulion included this feature so the speed of the game is nothing to worry about. I can't emphasize how much I appreciate the adaptive bitrate function. Archived games are more limited in their bitrate come in at 800 or 1600 Kbps. While I haven't found that to be an issue from my use (800 runs fine),

Recent and live games are conveniently located at the top for easy access; widgets and video controls are at the bottom.  You do need to have some hard drive space free for the DVR functionality to work properly, but it's quite useful for reviewing plays, stopping action to get an easy screenshot (Print Screen works on this), or even to go back at the beginning in case.   Returning to live action is just as simple as pressing a button.  It's easy to pick up just from use, and the tutorial video - conveniently available every time you log in - does a very good job explaining what each part of the program does.

The most useful and important widgets are on the right side. PIP brings up a picture-in-picture screen where you can drop in another game to watch silently.  There's no modification to the size of the PIP window, but the window can be moved and be swapped with the active window with just the click of a button.  That's perfect when the game you're watching goes into commercial or if you notice something interesting in the smaller window.  Even if you missed it, you can rewind back by 10 seconds or by the pop-up timeline at the bottom of the screen.   

For the situation where you want two games with audio going at once, you can pop-out the game your watching into a re-sizable window. The standard controls appear at the bottom of that window when you mouse over it, which is a nice touch.  With some window manipulation, you can watch a game while commenting on a blog or Tweeting or doing some work real easily.   The Multi-Game feature allows you to drag and drop 4 games to watch at once.  Clicking on one of the games brings up the sound feed for that game and makes the DVR controls active for that game only.  I personally think trying to keep handle of 4 hockey games at once is a bit much to handle; but it is a nice feature to have if there's a lot of games you're interested in. 

Oh, but you can even go beyond the advertised "four games at once" feature with use of the PIP or Popout options.

Gamecenter_five_games_medium

In fact, there's seemingly no limit to how many popped-out games you can have running provided your computer can handle 4 or more live games running with audio and full functionality.  Even with a powerful laptop, five was really pushing it.  But again, I'm not sure how would I be able to watch that many games at once.

Live games are usually defaulted at the top, the Game Archive can be accessed in the button next to Live Games at the top.  You can look through games all the way back through 2007-08 either by season or by team.  You can find games based on a certain date or if you're looking for a particular matchup, you can find all .  All of this can be done without interrupting whatever you're currently watching, which is nice.  Like live games, you can drop and drag them into the main view, PIP, or Multi-Game views.   Admittedly, older games don't necessarily specify when goals and certain events (e.g. highlight saves) happen as they do in recently archived games.  Sometimes, the resolution isn't as good, but that could be a result of the initial broadcast to begin with.  Here's a screenshot from March 17, 2009's Devils-Blackhawks game:

Gamecenter_archive_medium

For those who can't see it so well, Travis Zajac does get a pass from Zach Parise there to score on a power play goal.  An excellent read since it was behind the Chicago PK.   Anyway, this is a bit hard to see by screenshot since the size of the game is considerbly smaller, but I assure you, the video is still of good quality when I'm watching it.  The archive is especially good for checking out entire games like that. I do wonder where the classic games are located, though. That and extended highlights are the only thing I haven't found yet on NHL Gamecenter LIVE.  I'm more curious about the classic games since with this program, I don't know what the benefit of extended highlights would be.  I can watch an entire game and/or just jump to whatever point in the game I want anyway. 

That I'm not sure where they are is a problem, and I hope in future incarnations, they are easier to find.  Maybe a third selection for sorting in the Game Archive can be added for classic games, which I think would answer that problem. A button for archived games with highlights can be added for extended highlight video.   Honestly, those are the only two things I couldn't find after playing around with it for a week.  Perhaps I missed it, but going forward, they shouldn't be easily missed - that's my only fault with the interface.  Everything else, I was satisfied with.

Now, the widgets on the left side are good ideas that could use some improvement.  The Ice Tracker is neat to get a map of where shots and goals have taken place on the ice. The play by play is a bit simplistic, but it's another way to track when hits, shots, goals, and penalties have taken place, who was involved in those plays, and when they happened.  Those are OK, but I didn't use them all that much.  The team stats on the corner would be something I'd like to use more often, but they aren't complete.  Sure, they give the ice time, goals, assists, and PIM for the forwards; but it'd be nice to see shots on goal and hits considering those are in the Play by Play.  Moreover, there's no live stats for the goalies.  If I join a game in progress, sure I'll figure out who's in net and how they're doing; but the stats could easily state who's active and how they are doing.  In fact, I'd like to see something like the boxscore live.   I also didn't use the Chat function all that much. There's no real use for it for archived games and I'd rather comment on a blog (like the ones at SBN, of course) or a Tweet or some other function than a chat room for live games.   I hope Neulion and/or the NHL people responsible can shape these up to be more of use during live streams.

While I'm on the subject of improvements, I'd like to point out that it didn't take until today before I realized there was a FAQ/Help section.  This is a compliment in that I didn't need to use one.  However, it's also an area of improvement because it's the only place where the technical requirements are listed.  Now, I didn't doubt that my powerful laptop could handle it; but if I had an older machine, it would have been nice to know what's needed to handle NHL Gamecenter LIVE.  An even better idea would to have an application that would detect how well the program can be run.   It should be made available for any user, similar to what this online application does for PC games, this way they know whether they have to update their computer before dropping money on NHL Gamecenter LIVE.

The biggest improvement I'd like to see NHL Gamecenter LIVE include for future seasons is a listing of blacked out games.  I fully understand that local and national games have to be blacked out.  If they weren't, what would be the point of watching on TV, when you can watch a HD feed of anything you'd like?  I also fully understand that blacked out games aren't available for replay for 48 hours, since networks some have second showings of games.   If you try to watch a blacked out game, you'll get a screen like this:

Gamecenter_blackout_examples_medium

However, my complaint is that I have no advance knowledge of what is and isn't blacked out.  I live in central New Jersey, so I know I won't get local feeds of New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, and New York Islanders games. So how come I'm blacked out of a replay of the Minnesota Wild-Dallas Stars game (in PIP window)?  I'm in neither market. Was it on the NHL Network or Versus?  Likewise, I wanted to watch the Ottawa Senators-Montreal Canadiens game over the weekend and I was blacked out even though I'm not even in the same country as either team.   As I understand it, my IP address drives what is and isn't blacked out.  It would be very useful to know when logging in what games aren't available and why (e.g. local game, game was on Versus, CBC, etc.).  This way the user knows right away what they can watch at the moment, rather than being disappointed by that message.

Now, don't take my criticism too harshly.  If Neulion/NHL can hammer out those issues, then I'd have absolutely no complaints about NHL Gamecenter LIVE for games.  I was and continue to be impressed and satisfied with the audio and visual quality of the feeds.  Being able to watch other teams is excellent not only for entertainment, but to get an idea how a future opponent is doing beyond the stats and analysis.  The multiple ways to watch multiple games is well done and overall, I find the interface intuitive.   The programmers did a great job for the important parts, again, my criticism is aimed more for

If you're not in the local market for the Devils or and you have a decent computer, then I highly recommend NHL Gamecenter LIVE.   Yes, someone at the NHL gave me free access for this program, and that's how I experienced it.  However, when next season comes along, I would consider purchasing access - just to be able to watch other games with such high quality.   

Do you have NHL Gamecenter LIVE, and if so, are you satisfied?  Do you have any other questions about NHL Gamecenter LIVE or criticisms? Please leave all that and anything relevant to this program in the comments.  Don't worry, the next thing I'll write will be all about the Devils (and the Panthers - they do play tomorrow).

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