ESPN+ Reviewed: The UFC Head Kicks UFC Fight Pass, and it’s Fatal

I knew the ESPN partnership was firing up in 2019, but I didn’t quite grasp the extent of it…that the UFC would completely destroy the value of being a Fight Pass subscriber if you only watch UFC content and live in the USA (as I do). I don’t have cable TV, don’t watch UFC PPV fights live (too much $$$), and completely rely on UFC Fight Pass to watch 100% of my UFC content. So imagine my shock when I went to watch new fights and everything is blacked out and only available on ESPN+. There’s no reason for me to remain as a UFC Fight Pass subscriber from what I can see so far. Anyone else feel the same? My thoughts so far on the ESPN+ experience replacing UFC Fight Pass are below – I’d love to hear from others here how they are finding it. I used the service for five days before writing this.

The Good

The video quality of fights on ESPN+ is superior to UFC Fight Pass – it looks like it’s 1080p and at a much higher bit rate. I’ve always been irked at the crappy 720p quality of UFC Fight Pass, so I’m thrilled to see better quality on ESPN+. This is a big plus. And, well, that’s about the only good thing I found about it so far.

The Bad

The biggest negative I’m finding so far is while the UFC Fight Pass app was laid out logically – I’d always go into the UFC section > replays and find the event I hadn’t yet watched – the ESPN+ app is, by comparison, an ugly mess. I don’t care about other sports, so it takes some digging to get into the MMA section. That’s not a big deal – the big deal is that once you are into the MMA section, there’s just a long horizontal scroll of UFC content mixed together. About one third of it is Ariel Helwani shows, which I don’t care about (no offense Ariel).Taking a “dumping ground” approach to organizing UFC content is absolutely the wrong approach. It’s messy, it’s confusing, and the fact that they don’t use even show the name of the event makes it so much worse. In order to find the event I hadn’t watched yet, I had to go into UFC Fight Pass, find the event name and date, then go into the ESPN+ app and find the “Sat 2/2 UFC Fight Night Prelims” event. ESPN needs to work with an information taxonomy specialist because this is a dumpster fire right now.

I’ve never seen cameras lose focus though during a UFC fight, but three times during the first Feb 2nd prelim event the shot went completely blurry – did ESPN hire interns to shoot this? Lots of amateurish video production as well – weird fades to black, goofy cuts, etc.

I was surprised to see an ad during the round break, and a bunch of ads before the decision – I guess even though we’re paying for ESPN+ it’s still mostly ad-supported? If I’m paying for something I don’t like see ads, but at least they can be skipped. There are a LOT of ads though – I’m unclear what I’m paying for, honestly, with this many ads.

The Ugly

It doesn’t look like UFC PPV events will ever be viewable for free on this service. I’ve been searching for a firm answer on this, and couldn’t find one so reached out to ESPN+ support and this was their answer: “We don’t know what the future will hold, at this time there are no plans for this”. So it’s looking like the new owners of the UFC have decided that they are going to squeeze fans for more $$$ to watch these events.

The ESPN+ app is extremely buggy and unstable on Apple TV. On the Apple TV, once you pause it pressing play/pause won’t unpause the video – you have to back out (via the Menu button) and go back in to watch it. The more I use this app the more bugs I find. At one point the fight audio was playing while the video was a grey blur – I had to kill the entire app do to anything. It also doesn’t do progress tracking as you watch; after I killed the app when I went back into the fight it started over from scratch.

There’s another bug where, after pausing, pressing menu and going back into the fight, the play/pause button no longer works – neither does the menu button or the dpad, so you can’t skip commercials. The only way get out is to kill the app. The ESPN+ software QA team is not doing their job – I haven’t seen a commercially released app this bad in years.

The Bottom Line

This is a huge step backward for anyone who was a UFC Fight Pass subscriber. The UFC has delivered a huge eye-poke into the eyes of UFC fans who relied upon UFC Fight Pass to watch UFC content. Maybe someday ESPN+ will mature into a suitable replacement, but it’s certainly not that today. For the first time ever, people outside the USA will have much better content and access to UFC content via UFC Fight Pass (for now).

UFC Fight Pass is the Worst/Best Video Streaming Service There Is

UFC-Fight-Pass

Imagine with me for a moment if you were a Netflix subscriber, except it worked like this:

…there was no history of what you’d ever watched
…you couldn’t pause watching on one device and resume on the other
…there was no ability to tag content you wanted to watch for later
…there was no binge-watching, even when it made sense* (see more below)
…it was all presented in 720p instead of 1080p (and an iffy bit-rate that sometimes makes for blocky-looking video if there’s a lot of action)
…if you left the iPad app while your video was paused, it would reset to the app home screen instead of resuming, thus losing your place
…if you resume your laptop from sleep, playback won’t resume without a page refresh (thus losing your place in the videos because there’s no history)
…there were no keyboard shortcuts to pause, play, skip back, etc.
…it was $12 more per year if you paid monthly
…sometimes when you skip back while watching on a Roku, it would turn on the closed captions
…if you were watching a TV series, the commercials weren’t cut out, instead replaced with a static image for a several minute duration, like this, repeated over and over again throughout the event:

UFC-TV-commercial-break

I’ve just described UFC Fight Pass, a video streaming service launched in early 2014. Yet for all those cons, there are some great pros:

…it has a huge back catalog of content, perfect for catching up on what you missed
…there’s exclusive content only for Fight Pass subscribers
…if it’s aired anywhere on the planet under the UFC banner, odds are it will be available (though there are some blacked-out events)
…on browser-based playback it has a great timeline view that allows you to jump to specific parts of the event (walk-in, Tale of the Tape, knockouts, etc.)
…it’s available across a wide variety of platforms (Android, iOS, Roku, desktop)
…you’re getting to watch events that usually cost $60 (though a few months later)

*Binge Watching Where It Makes Sense: On the most recent Ultimate Fighter TV series, the winner fought on live TV and was given the belt on December 12th, 2014. Yet the UFC didn’t add the final episode of the season until January 9th…why not put them all up before the live TV event? It saps interest in watching the TV show when you know who has the belt already.

I’ve been a subscriber to UFC Fight Pass for several months now, and I’m fairly happy with the service now that I know all the rough edges I describe above. The inability to pause and resume from a previously watched point is the most painful – it makes it hard to watch an event in short sittings, forcing you to hunker down and watch everything at once. I also have to keep a list in Evernote of which events I’ve watched to keep it all straight.

The other main negative is how long it takes for UFC main cards to become available – as of Jan 18th, the newest UFC available is 178, which aired on September 27th. That’s almost four months of exclusivity, which, while I get the importance of protecting the juicy pay-per-view window, four months seems like an excessive amount of time. I’d guess the vast majority of PPV orders come within 30 days of the event and they drop off rapidly after that. If the UFC wants to keep Fight Pass subscribers happy, they should offer up the fights on day 31.

I’ll keep paying for UFC Fight Pass for now, but I hope the UFC improves the experience, gets rid of the pain points above, and makes it worth the $120 they’re charging per year for it.

UFC 91: Randy Couture vs. Brock Lesnar

Wow. That’s just crazy – Brock Lesnar is huge and powerful, but as his last fight with Heath “Crazy Horse” Herring showed, he doesn’t really know how to fight – on or off the ground. Randy Couture on the other hand has a wealth of experience. This is going to be interesting…or really embarrassing for Lesnar. I’m not sure which. Full details with press release here. And this is the first post in my MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) category – I think I might live blog the next UFC event. Might be fun. 🙂

This Is Why DRM Sucks

The short version of this story: a little over a month ago I signed up for a UFC video subscription that would allow me to watch an unlimited amount of UFC fights. This is a lot better than their previous model of $1.99 per fight where the fight timed out after 30 days. Who would pay for that? Paying $9.99 USD/month and getting access to all the content is a bit expensive, but for a real fan, not too bad. So I ponied up, thinking that the DRM (Digital Rights Management) wasn’t going to cause me too many problems. Well, it turns out that their system isn’t quite ready to work with Windows Vista. First I sent two emails to tech support with error details, only to have them tell me that they couldn’t help me, I needed to do a live tech support chat. Tech support told me to try a few different things – installing a DRM software update patch, digging through hidden folders looking for the DRM cache, etc. Every time I tried something new and then tried to watch a fight again, their “player” (which is just an IE window with an embedded Windows Media Player control) would take me away from the chat, forcing me to re-start the chat by filling out a tech request form. I wasted 45 minutes on this whole process before it was finally wrapped up in the chat below.

Welcome to the UFC Technical and Billing Support queue.
You have been connected to Zachary Richards.

Zachary Richards: Hi, Jason.
Jason Dunn: <sigh>
Jason Dunn: This is really frustrating
Zachary Richards: Yeah, I can see that you weren’t able to get a license.
Zachary Richards: You’ve been able to view before, though, correct?
Jason Dunn: On the UFC Help page, did you know that the “Live support” graphic is linked to a form that says “Leave a message”
Jason Dunn: and only the text link takes me to the chat?
Jason Dunn: they should really both link to the live chat, it’s very confusing
Jason Dunn: anyway, you see the error obviously
Jason Dunn: I think I was able to view on XP, but never on Vista Continue reading This Is Why DRM Sucks