NeuLion Builds Mansion of a Video Center for NHL.com

When the NHL and NeuLion began discussing the possibility of rebuilding NHL.com’s video center for the second time in just 20 months, they focused on not only improving the overall video-watching experience but also integrating it with the rest of the site.

“Our idea was, we wanted to get you into this mansion called NHL.com, and then, inside that mansion, there would be a bunch of different rooms that you would want to hang out in: video, articles, photos, stores, all of it,” says Chris Wagner, EVP/co-founder of NeuLion. “As long as the mansion all looked the same, you would move from room to room seamlessly, and that’s how we can increase our engagement time with the fan.”

Unlike the old video player, NHL Network Online, which took users to a separate site called NHL.tv, the new NHL VideoCenter is fully integrated with NHL.com. The first version (also developed with NeuLion) was also designed using an entirely different template, which sometimes was disorienting for users who had just come from NHL.com.

“Because NHL.TV had a separate design template, it had a separate look and feel. We liked it, but it was very different from NHL.com,” says Wagner. “So it really felt like you were in two different sites. Now there’s a lot of common elements between the Video Center and NHL.com so you feel like you’re in one place.”

If NHL.com is a mansion, then the NHL VideoCenter is its extravagant theater room. Launched on Dec. 21, the new video player boasts features that include improved resolution; an expanded screen size; larger thumbnails of videos; several specific channels dedicated to themes like shootouts, breaking news, and classic games; and extensive social-networking capabilities using such sites as Twitter, Digg, and Facebook.

In hopes of prolonging user engagement, NeuLion increased the size of the viewing window to hold viewers’ attention. The new VideoCenter also relies on adaptive-bitrate streaming to give the user resolutions as high as 720p. In addition, spitting dasherboard advertisements have been replaced by simpler standard ads that create a less cluttered and more streamlined viewing experience while larger thumbnails allow fans to more easily find videos.

“It’s easy to say ‘Fill up the entire screen with a video,’ but you have to do some tradeoffs so you can still get the navigation that you want,” says Wagner. “Engagement time is not just watching the video; it’s also getting fans to click and go to other places as well as increase store and subscription revenues.”

Several channels can be selected to filter out specific types of video. In addition to basic channels like Game Highlights, Plays of the Week, and NHL Radio, the new Video Center features NHL Shootout Channel (NHL game shootouts in their entirety), NHL Press Room (breaking news and live coverage of press conferences), and NHL Library (classic games and archived video), as well as temporary channels created for special events like the Winter Classic or the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The NHL’s tremendous interest in social networking is illustrated in the new VideoCenter, which provides Facebook, Digg, and Twitter buttons in the bottom corner of the screen, allowing fans to instantly share or post the video they just watched.

“We went from a little bit of social networking to more than you’ll ever use,” says Wagner. “We’ve created direct links that actually take content into those social sites. You can take cool things that you like [from NHL VideoCenter] and bring them back into your Facebook page with a single click and then share them out with friends.”

The video-player upgrade was made in spite of the success of the first site, which registered a 98% increase in video starts in October 2009 from October 2008. The NHL and NeuLion, however, felt that an upgrade was necessary to meet fans’ demands and stay ahead of the drastically growing market that is online video.

“Fans constantly want to see new stuff,” Wagner says. “We’re always looking at feedback and things we can improve on. So it’s not like we’re fixing things that need to be improved; we’re just coming up with new ideas and want to implement them as quickly as possible. We’ve already seen some increased numbers as a result of all this.”