Pistols At Dawn: Microsoft’s ESPN Strategy

At Theory of Gaming, we sometimes run into an instance where two writers passionately disagree about a game or a topic. Occasionally, those arguments escalate and we’re unable to find common ground. For those instances, we’ve created the “Pistols at Dawn” series, in which two authors with vastly different opinions duel it out in writing. As with all content on Theory of Gaming, the arguments are intended to better inform developers from a player’s perspective.

Without further ado, we draw our verbal guns regarding …

Microsoft’s ESPN Strategy

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The duel – whether or not apps should continue to be supported on 10 year old hardware.

Josh: A recent article on Gamespot confirmed that the ESPN app, a popular fixture of the Xbox 360 and Xbox One consoles, is being discontinued on the Xbox 360, with Microsoft urging fans of the app to check it out on the Xbox One instead. When I first read this news, I have to admit that I wasn’t too bothered by it – in fact, I argued that this was a great move on the part of Microsoft, as now they could spend more time and resources working on their current home console and less time on one that’s over ten years old. But I was surprised, Nick, at both your reaction, and how quickly we resorted to dueling with pistols. My question is – why are you so against what I see as progress? Is this not progress?

Nick: Microsoft is dumb and they’re getting dumber. Sure, ESPN canceled support for their app on Xbox 360, but Microsoft let them. Which, honestly, was pretty f’n dumb. People are still making games for the Xbox 360, other companies still provide access to their streaming apps on Xbox 360. The Xbox 360, despite its age, still offers a better “media streamer” experience than it does a gaming platform. Honestly, the Xbox One doesn’t seem like it really improved the “media streamer” functionality from the Xbox 360. To allow ESPN to pull the plug was dumb. ESPN has proven repeatedly how dumb they are. Combined with Microsoft, they made one giant dumb party and dumbed us all to death. Does that seem like progress to you, Josh?

Josh: You will get no arguments from me here on the stupidity of ESPN, and Microsoft continues to make me question their level of intelligence. But I do see progress here. You say that the Xbox 360 is a great media streamer, and that the Xbox One doesn’t seem to improve greatly over the 360. A few things – I agree that the Xbox 360 is a perfectly fine media streamer, but I disagree that the Xbox One is relatively the same. I rarely used my 360 as a media streamer, preferring to use my PS3, but Microsoft really upped their game with the Xbox One. Maybe it’s because I embraced Kinect 2.0, but I can do things with the Xbox One that were simply not possible with the Xbox 360. Which leads me to my third point – if both Microsoft and ESPN want to make their Xbox One experiences even better than their 360 experiences, they’re going to need to devote more resources to accomplishing that. And continuing to support the outdated version, which isn’t going to get any better, slows down that progress. Developers, publishers and console manufacturers at some point will have to let go of supporting old hardware and software – isn’t that how the industry progresses?

Nick: The fact that you used the PS3 over the Xbox 360 as a media streamer is … weird. The PS3 didn’t have an ESPN app. Or Showtime, FXNOW, or a litany of other channels that the Xbox 360 offered. If all you use is Netflix or Hulu then I get using the PS3, but otherwise it’s pretty disappointing as a media streamer. As far as using the Xbox One over the Xbox 360, that’s all fine and dandy assuming they’re connected to the same TV. But once I got my Xbox One, the first thing I did was move my Xbox 360 to a different television so that I could have access to all those streaming channels in multiple locations. In fact, one of my favorite things to do is fire up the ESPN app on the Xbox 360, put on a random sporting event, mute the system and put on a record to listen to and relax. I can’t do that with the Xbox One as the record player isn’t in the same room – it’s in the same room as the Xbox 360. As far as supporting “old hardware,” I’d agree except that you can still buy a brand new Xbox 360 at just about any retail location that sells video game hardware, publishers still make games for the system, and just about every other streaming channel is still available. Microsoft publicly stated after launching the Xbox One that they’d support the Xbox 360 into 2016, and as of this debate they still are – why let ESPN, a company that made $10.8 billion in revenue in 2014 weasel out early? Maybe I’m complaining about 3 months of support, but as long as the console is being supported, so should the streaming channels. The reality is, this decision accelerates my purchase of a Roku or Apple TV which will push me out of Microsoft’s ecosystem, which is bad business.

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Plenty of apps continue to see support on the Xbox 360 – why can’t ESPN continue their support?

Josh: To be fair, I did use my PS3 mostly for Netflix and Hulu (and maybe to stream not-so-legally obtained files from an external harddrive), but their versions of those apps were better than what the 360 offered. But now I use all of those apps (and plenty more) on the Xbox One, a console which is outpacing both the 360 and PS4 in terms of what it can do. And right now what it can do that almost no other media streamer can do is run the ESPN app. Yes, this is most likely a business move – force people to upgrade to a system earlier than they would like, but it’s also not an uncommon tactic. We see it everywhere in the tech world – tech companies tend to make more money if the consumer is buying more of their product. Is that fair to the customer? Maybe it isn’t, but the catch is that this is how we get upgraded tech and progress. Which leads me to Microsoft’s support for the Xbox 360, a point you’ve made a couple times now. While technically supporting the system, the number of titles releasing on the platform is dropping fast. As of this writing, VG 24/7 lists a total of 11 games being released in 2016 for the 360, and one of those is the spring update for Destiny, which shouldn’t qualify. Just to put that number into perspective, the same list has approximately 102 titles coming out for the Xbox One. Developers and publishers are at least moving away from the console, and so is Microsoft, in their own unique way – their backwards compatibility program is really taking off, and right now I find myself using my Xbox One to play 360 games more than I am on the actual 360 itself. Microsoft is giving me plenty of great reasons to abandon my 360 altogether (better functioning apps, more apps, all of my games in one place), and I’m benefitting from the move. Of course, you could argue my case is a unique one – not everyone spends the amount of money and time I do sitting in front of my TV defeating the Reapers for the twelfth time. But your example of using two TVs is just as unique. I understand how the loss of the ESPN app might be disruptive to you, but both Microsoft and ESPN have to look at the bigger picture here, and the painful truth is that your specific setup is just not common enough. I only have one TV, and when my wife is using it to watch Vampire Diaries and Monday Night Football is on, I do what many people currently do – take my viewing to a second screen (in this case my iPad). That’s the modern living room, and Microsoft is building and evolving their tech around that.

Nick: First, multiple TVs isn’t a “unique situation.” In fact, more than half of U.S. households have three or more TVs. Three or more! So yeah, if you want to watch whatever thing you watch when the wife has control over your one TV on your iPad, more power to you. On top of which, the close nature and small screens of iPads and their equivalents aren’t too great for your eye health when used for long periods of time … you know, like watching TV or sporting events. So I’ll stick to my second TV which brings us back to the root issue: Microsoft and ESPN trying to force me into buying a second Xbox One to keep watching live sports, in a misguided attempt at “good business.” The reality is, that’s not happening. As I mentioned earlier, I’m much more likely to buy a Roku or other streaming device which can be had for as little as $35 (Chromecast) which readily supports ESPN, counter to your claim that Xbox One can do what “… almost no other media streamer can do [which] is run the ESPN app.” Why would I spend $300 or more to get a second Xbox One to watch ESPN on a second television, when I can get a new Roku for $100 and get access to hundreds of more streaming channels than the Xbox One supports? Especially since Microsoft’s history of decision making leaves a little something to be desired (see: Windows Phone, Windows Vista, Zune, Kinect, etc.). Again, if Microsoft has a planned date for ceasing support of the Xbox 360, fine, but ensure that ESPN stays involved until that time – letting them back out early pushes people out the door and likely out of Microsoft’s ecosystem, which is bad business. As for the 11 games set to publish on Xbox 360, it hardly matters the number so much as the simple fact that with games set to release for the system, Microsoft is still supporting it. Either sunset the console in full or don’t – being forced into a half-assed system only serves to turn off users like me, and when you already significantly trail your primary competitor in sales, turning off loyal users is a bad strategy.

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Moving the ESPN app to the Xbox One is a business move – but in the end, is it a smart move?

Josh: I’m aware at how many TVs the average household has (and also how bad it is to keep your eyes glued to a screen all day). But I feel my point still stands – Microsoft is simply trying to move their user base onto a new platform that will offer a better user experience, while phasing out support of one that’s never going to get better. It’s a good business move for them (maybe not for consumers) but progress is never easy or pain-free. And as I said, I am enjoying my Xbox One tremendously more than any other console at the moment, and a large part of that is Microsoft not supporting two consoles at once. It’s time to move on. I have a unique perspective on this, since I went a little crazy in 2014 and bought all of the videogames at once. When I first got my Xbox One, I was not too impressed with it – I used it to control my home theater system, and that was about it. The PS4 was leaps and bounds better than the Xbox One. This early lead Sony built for the PS4 over the Xbox One is what has led to Sony being the leader in sales this generation, but I’ve noticed over that time that Sony has done little upgrading while Microsoft has made some amazing changes to the Xbox One. Although analysts predict the Xbox One will never catch up to the PS4, Microsoft has gained ground on Sony, and both consoles are outselling their predecessors at this point in each generation’s cycle. It’s no stretch to attribute Microsoft’s decisions on how to best support the Xbox One and phase out support for the 360 to the sales figures in the Ars Technica article linked above. And at the end of the day, the people benefitting from Microsoft’s position in the videogame arms race are the same people who you feel are being cheated by the lack of last-gen support – gamers. That’s my biggest takeaway from this news – that Microsoft is making what right now seems to be an unpopular choice, but in the long run it will be the right choice. You mention that your confidence in Microsoft isn’t sky high, and that’s understandable. But I still see the same company that succeeded to an overwhelming degree with the 360, and so far with the Xbox One my faith in them has been rewarded.

I’ll give you the last word on this one Nick – but my stance is that Microsoft is doing the right thing here, even if the short-term effects aren’t positive.

Nick: Succeeded to an overwhelming degree with the Xbox 360 almost in spite of itself – how many of their illustrious consoles have you owned because they kept breaking? 10? (Editor’s note – the number is indeed 10). Which begs the question: does Microsoft count you once in their sales figures or all 10 times? So yeah, you’ll have forgive my scepticism in their decision making and my reticence in investing another $300 in a second Xbox One. But that’s not even the biggest issue at play here – ESPN could have easily continued their support for the Xbox 360 app and appeased the millions of people who still actively use their system; it’s not a binary situation. Support isn’t necessarily either on or off. ESPN could have stopped putting resources toward development and advancement of the app while allowing it to remain active on Xbox 360 consoles, while funneling their resource towards the development of their apps on other systems. That seems like a perfectly reasonable solution; sometimes, it’s best just to leave well enough alone. But perhaps we should take that bit of advice to heart and call this debate here, since it seems we’re never going to agree.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch MLB.TV on my Xbox 360 … which still works just fine.