I'm more or less indifferent to UFC, but even I can tell that Microsoft is aggressively positioning itself as the best possible option for MMA fans to experience events, even if they're not purchasing the ticket themselves. Starting up the app, I was greeted by a slick welcome page with the current upcoming fight (in this case, this weekend's UFC 136) spotlighted, as well as extensive pre-fight coverage. Producer Mike Mahar and the UFC on Xbox Live team are working to make the app as pure a conduit to the UFC viewing experience as possible, and a big part of that is getting Live users as much information and content pertaining to a ticket as possible, in a way that's most accessible.
"At one point, just to prove a point, I tried to call up a fight on a friend's DVR after the event had happened," Mahar told me. "Eventually I found it, but you know, it was just text with the name of the event, no card information, sandwiched between Cantonese evening news and 'Adult Entertainment.'"
While the UFC on Xbox Live app is sadly devoid of Cantonese or Adult Entertainment, it's an intensely visual experience. The mystery is absent. As an example, for UFC 136, the official pre-fight portraits of Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard took center stage, and below, there was a wide selection of content like weigh-ins, press conferences, and other related content. "A lot of this is content that lives elsewhere, like on UFC.com," Mahar clarified, "but good luck finding it. And if your friends are over, and you're trying to watch some of that stuff while you wait for the fight to start, hooking up your laptop to your TV and that whole user experience just isn't ideal."
Mahar and team are cognizant of that social aspect of the UFC watching experience, which is emphasized by the Player Pick system. Similar to some of the features rolled out in last year's launch of ESPN3 on Xbox Live, Live users can sign into the UFC app and pick the fighters they expect to win for each bout of an event, even if they haven't paid for the ticket. Then you can check out the picks your friends have made, and even change your picks until the event starts (indicated by a slick ticker in the upper right corner of the screen). The UFC on Xbox Live app will track you and your friends' picks over time, popping up notifications when standings in your office pool -- I mean, your friendly, non-wager based arrangement of honor -- change.
It was implied to me as well that there will be scoring for players based on their picks, and that in fights weighted heavily in one direction, picks of the other fighter might count for more at some point in the future. Joking aside, there's a very Vegas odds-maker sensibility to things, which is smart. I can see it being really involving, despite my UFC ambivalence. There's a good amount of granularity to picks right now. You can choose between a knockout, decision, or submission for each bout. As for things like the round the fight ends, it's in the cards for the future, but inclusivity was high on the list for the app to start with.
It helps that the team can add new functionality to UFC on Xbox Live app without lengthy certification processes other apps suffer from, due to hooks built into the software. Mahar is hopeful for monthly revisions to the look and feel of the app based on user feedback and adding additional features.
All of this great and all, but the dealbreaker would obviously hinge on how well everything works. Pricing is identical to other providers, as that's determined by the UFC itself, but the app is tuned to know if your connection can support the more expensive HD stream (and won't let you purchase it if you can't). Microsoft has built a partnership with a video partner in Las Vegas tied to UFC that's enabled them to provide streams of up to 1080p resolution at 60 frames a second, with a data rate of 6 megabits, assuming your ISP supports that speed. There's an info widget designed to help with any service issues and Microsoft has committed to 24 hour, human support over the phone for the service, indicative of how seriously it's taking things. The team is in the process of stress testing the service at various numbers of users, ranging from 3000 to as many as 25000. "If we can hit 25000," Mahar said, "we can scale up to any number from there, basically."
I mentioned to Mahar that the shared demographics of Xbox Live's installed base and the UFC's major audiences seemed to suggest a lot of crossover, leading me to wonder if there's been any consideration of much higher numbers of concurrent viewers, given the North American install base for the Xbox 360. When asked if there was a question of quality of service and whether Microsoft would limit ticket purchases to ensure a full experience for all users, Mahar confirmed that they have the ability to do so. "We don't think it would be an issue, honestly. We can add more CDNs (Content Delivery Networks) and increase things on our backend to cover the load. But," he laughed, "that would be a really good problem to have."
UFC on Xbox Live will launch on December 1. A Gold Membership requirement has yet to be determined.