Utilizing Fan Feedback, ESPN Unveils Revised Video Player

By Carolyn Braff

ESPN is always looking for feedback from its fans, so, when users of the ESPN.com video player began complaining about the user experience, ESPN’s product-development team went to work. This week, ESPN.com released a beta version of a video player that offers enhanced functionality and easier-to-use controls that should silence those fans’ complaints.

“We regularly get a lot of feedback from our fans complaining about various issues on our site, so we took that into account in creating a better video player and a better user experience,” explains Ernie Cheng, director of product development, digital video, for ESPN.

The upgrade improves the flexibility of the controls with an on-screen menu, enables viewers to pause and play the video by clicking anywhere on the screen, and now offers a full-screen option. The new player is also intended to give control to the fan, so a high/low bandwidth toggle allows viewers to smooth out their video playback and all of the controls are larger.

“Another big item was increasing our distribution,” Cheng says. “What we did with our end card is, we now allow users to embed our player externally on social-networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace. We can post to pretty much any major site that’s out there.”

The social-sharing widget that appears with each video enables users to post ESPN videos to a number of Web platforms, including Facebook, MySpace, Windows Live, and Digg.

“In the past, it was a little bit more difficult,” Cheng says. “Now it’s two-click access to post to any of those sites, so it’s very easy to use. If we can get more viral distribution and just make that whole process easier, we believe that we can really see a pretty big up-tick. If you talk about sites like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube — we want to be in all those places.”

While the video player was developed in-house, through shared infrastructure with the Disney Interactive Media Group, third-party components were leveraged to enable the social-networking embedding.

ESPN also is hoping that the new player will drive added advertising value.

“We’re trying to create new revenue streams,” Cheng points out. “What we’ve done in full-screen mode and with our social-networking embedding is that we allow for advertisers to follow us onto those outside sites. So we have bigger ads play in those external video players, and we have banner advertising available in full-screen mode.”

The beta version of the player, which was in production for about three months before this week’s rollout, is a revision of the current version, so Cheng’s team was able to leverage the existing infrastructure and repurpose certain components.

“It was not a complete rewrite by any means,” he says, “but it did take a fair amount of time to develop.”

The beta phase is intended to last about 30 days, just long enough for ESPN to gather qualitative and quantitative user feedback.

“We’re still going through a round of bug-fixing, and then we want to gather some initial feedback on what users think about the design and whether it’s easy to use,” Cheng says. “We want to make any tweaks we can before we open it up to the larger public and show it to the world.”

Through an opt-in on ESPN.com, any visitor to the Website can use and evaluate the new player, and ESPN officials are hoping that the most avid fans will try out the player and comment on the experience via SportsNation. Promotion for the new player is embedded throughout the site, editorially as well as in video-heavy places like the front page and video hub.

“We’re moving towards a model where video is more contextual to the experience on ESPN.com,” says Cheng. “We want to give users more control over their experience. In this new player, users can now get into the controls of the player and do what they want to do as quickly as possible.”