An app to revolutionize watching the big game?
FORTUNE — Sports games may be better with friends, but are they also better with an iPad sitting on your lap the whole time? SportStream, a new app with the motto “games are better with friends,” thinks they are. SportStream launched late last week just in time for Game 2 of the NBA Finals. Though not perfect, the app addresses the current lack of the ability to filter out certain tweets and posts on Twitter or Facebook.
In March, on the occasion of Twitter’s sixth anniversary, Fortune offered a wish list of functions the site still lacks; among those was a refined filtering option (something better than the current search bar, which is a bit clunky and shows you tweets from everyone on Twitter, rather than people you follow). Users need a way to hide all tweets about, say, the new Game of Thrones episode, so as to avoid spoilers, and they need the inverse function: seeing only tweets about, say, “The Bachelor,” for when you’re watching live and want to see friends’ reactions.
SportStream essentially does this, but in a separate forum. Its basic function is to allow you to follow a game and post to Twitter or Facebook about it, but the added bonus of the app is its internal chat rooms (called “sections” so as to push the idea that you’re at a game) in which users can spout off back-and-forth on the action. Engagement with the chat function will be crucial in its success moving forward.
Will Hunsinger and Bob Morgan, of social reader service Evri, created SportStream with $3.5 million in funding from Paul Allen of Vulcan Capital. Though Hunsinger and Morgan are in San Francisco, Evri is based in Seattle and was incubated at Vulcan. Allen, the billionaire owner of the Seahawks and Portland Trailblazers, declined comment for this article, but it’s easy to guess why he felt this app was worth it. Team executives with money to blow are keeping a close eye on the intersection of sports and social media. And Allen, who founded Starwave (which ended up creating the platform for ESPN.com) and purchased The Sporting News in 2001, is an avid Twitter user. As Hunsinger, CEO of SportStream and of Evri, acknowledges, “Paul is so aware of it all, sees his athletes tweeting, knows that sports media is exploding right now. So in we walked with this concept, and he was extremely enthusiastic.”
A stat that analysts and press have cited often in the past few months is that, according to Forrester, 85% of U.S. tablet owners use theirs while watching TV. And 30% of all tablet usage, Nielsen says, happens in front of the TV. But one wonders, more anecdotally, if SportStream hasn’t limited itself by not offering the app on iPhone from the moment of launch. (Hunsinger and Morgan say it’ll be available for iPhone at the start of the NFL season.) Using something like SportStream for every minute of the game may be fine at home, alone, but it’s cloistering, and wouldn’t appeal to anyone watching with friends. Anyone out at a sports bar is unlikely to bring along an iPad. The SportStream guys are aware of this: “The genesis was that when you couldn’t be with friends, then you have this,” says Morgan, SportStream’s VP of product and marketing. “For me, I have two young kids and my wife doesn’t let me go to the bar.”
We tried SportStream Thursday night during the OKC Thunder vs. Miami Heat NBA Playoffs game. Before you do anything, it asks you to log in via Facebook. Depending on your social media tastes, that may annoy, or it may seem like second-nature. (Scores of apps, from Spotify to videoconference platform Airtime, require Facebook login.) An option to use SportStream only with Twitter would have been nice; you can turn off Facebook posting from within the settings, but you still must log in to Facebook first. Morgan defends it thusly: “We decided to start with Facebook as a core part of the experience because it would allow you to find your real friends quickly. But we’re open-minded about it. We’ve already got feedback from users that want to see an alternative option.” Hunsinger adds that they wanted to “avoid the troll factor… If you look at sports message boards during a game, you get all kinds of garbage. When people have to raise their hand and be a real person, it encourages a more civil dialogue.” And yet, users will eventually be able to create private chat rooms for their friends, in which civility will surely be optional.
As do most apps that require Facebook authentication, SportStream will post to your wall for you unless you tell it not to do so. And when you post publicly from within SportStream, the default setting is for your post to go on both Twitter and Facebook.
The first in-app step is to tap your favorite teams, much like ESPN and other score apps allow. For now, SportStream offers baseball, basketball, hockey and football. You can scroll horizontally within each sport to see all the team logos, which looks and feels nice. Hunsinger says it will soon offer engagement with college football, European premier league soccer, and even golf, but curiously, not the Olympics in August: “It’s so fragmented across so many sports and athletes that it’s just too challenging. But we look very closely at these tweets-per-second records that keep getting broken. And I fully expect Twitter will go nuts during the Olympics.”
Next, you’ll see all the games happening in those sports, and can tap those that you want to “follow.” At this point it begins to feel a lot like Twitter, but if you’re an avid user of the blue bird, that’s comforting. What’s less familiar, and may be jarring at first, is that once you’re following a game you’ll immediately see posts by people you don’t necessarily follow on Twitter or know on Facebook. This is a curated feed of users SportStream has ranked as authorities—names you might recognize as players, bloggers, reporters, and broadcasters—as well as some average fans. The feed also includes play-by-play updates from SportStream and, occasionally, news stories. Of course, what many people might want is to only see posts from people they know, and the guys are aware of that: “We have considered allowing you to just see tweets from people you follow, and it’s something we might do,” says Hunsinger. Morgan adds, “We’re looking at the idea of having both, where you could toggle between—see everything being said about it, or just see what your friends are saying.”
Once following a game, you can “check in,” which will add you to a chat room (for example, “Section 101,” but for now the app is new enough that there was only one section for everyone watching Game 2; 46 people were in the chat room). Posts there are purely internal, and separate from the public posts you can make to Twitter or Facebook. If you have friends from Facebook that are using SportStream, you’re able to see which section they’re in, and join up. SportStream modeled this after social music service turntable.fm. “They’ve done a nice job of making it easy to go back and forth between different rooms where your friends are,” says Hunsinger. As for Twitter, when you go to post, the app offers you likely hashtags you might want to include. This is an idea that the partners say came from Twitter’s platform engineers themselves, which may be surprising, since Twitter has been known to discourage third-party apps from using its API. “There is that perception,” says Hunsinger, “but we sat down with them and they were very enthusiastic. What they don’t want is people just replicating the Twitter experience in a separate client, and providing the same functionality. But what we’re doing is effectively curating, and narrowing, and enhancing the Twitter experience for users.”
Indeed, there is the potential for SportStream, or someone else, to offer this kind of filtered experience for any and all live television events: the Oscars, say, or Oprah. But the risk for app-makers like SportStream is that Twitter will simply wake up and offer this itself. Morgan admits, “I worry about everything, just because I’m a paranoid startup person. But what we’ve got do is, as quickly as we can, provide the best possible Twitter/Facebook chat experience around games, and build a loyal following, and keep running ahead. If Twitter decides to go in this direction, we’ll have to deal with that when it happens, but hopefully at that point we’ll have devoted SportStream fanatics.”
SportStream isn’t the only app working in this space. Another new offering, Heckler, calls itself “the sports social network.” Hunsinger says they’ve looked at Heckler, but believe it’s more general and news-focused, whereas SportStream is about real-time, contextual discussion. “When we look at the competitive set, we think more broadly,” he says. “You have the 800-pound gorillas, like ESPN, but I think it’s difficult for them to leverage social media in an authentic way. It’s like, cross your fingers and if you’re pithy enough, we’ll respond to your tweet or read it on air. Then on the other end are startups, and a lot of those folks are spending time on games. We’re not trying to distract from the sports event itself.”
From the chat rooms, to the tweets, to various other options and boxes, the dashboard feels a bit busy. There’s a lot going on—probably too much. But if you’re enough of a sports nut that you will be spending much of the game on your iPad—even while watching your TV—and want the detailed box score and play by play, and want to be able to comment on it all immediately, this won’t feel at all overwhelming. SportStream would likely appeal to the same level of fans that are willing to pay the annual $120 for the MLB.tv streaming game subscription.
This app is marketing itself as the “ultimate social sports experience.” For most sports fans, the ultimate experience is probably sitting in a bar or living room with your real-life friends, rooting for your team face-to-face. But if you have to be alone, on your iPad, SportStream is a pretty good substitute.