Sports Nut

Eight Games a Week

Turning my living room into a sports bar with DirecTV’s SuperFan package.

When I was growing up, my family started every New Year with two rituals: going to Catholic Mass and perching a second television atop the larger TV in the basement so we could watch more than one college football bowl game at the same time. The arrival of a new big-screen television with picture-in-picture technology in the 1990s did not end this holiday practice. Instead, it empowered us to watch an unprecedented three games at once.

This year, DirecTV has bestowed upon me a technology that surpasses even my dad’s invention (sadly unpatented) of picture-atop-a-picture-within-a-picture. The “SuperFan” package, which costs $99 on top of the $239 yearly fee for the NFL Sunday Ticket (that’s the cost for new subscribers—renewals get a discount), allows you to watch two “Game Mix” channels that show up to eight games on the same screen. Slate threw down the $99 for me this past weekend. Now, I can watch half the league without changing the channel.

Several of my friends provide complicated accounting justifications to their wives for the expense of Sunday Ticket, noting how much they would spend on average at a sports bar over the course of 16 games. SuperFan complicates the calculus by bringing a better bar, with more TV screens, into your living room. (Next year, DirecTV promises digital taps, waitresses, and an annoying guy in a Donovan McNabb jersey.) The question the DirecTV subscriber must ask: Is the package worth an additional $5.82 per Sunday over a 17-week season? Let’s assume you’ll miss three or four games because your favorite team has a bye or a night game, or because you visit your retrograde Sunday Ticketless family for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now, you’re up to $7.60 a game. Would I have paid $7.60 for SuperFan this past Sunday? Probably not.

You really shouldn’t bother with SuperFan unless you have a large-screen HDTV paired with the right kind of DirecTV receiver. Part of the package’s appeal is that, in addition to the Game Mix channels, you get more than 100 games in HD. No such luck for me—I’ve got an old-fashioned, non-HD tube. And since I don’t have the special “D10” interactive receiver, I’m also missing some crucial labor-saving features, such as instantaneous scrolling among audio feeds.

Most important, size matters. Sure, I get eight pictures on my 32-inch box—they’re arranged in two rows of four games apiece—but thanks to the large DirecTV graphics surrounding them, each game measures only about six inches from corner to corner—it’s like watching eight video iPods. I tried to sit close to the set, but at close range each miniscreen is so pixilated as to be almost unwatchable. Game Mix tries to make up for the small pictures with some functional graphics—scoreboards that turn red when a team has a ball inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and turn green when someone scores. There’s also a little arrow that shows you approximately where the ball is. I would have gladly jettisoned the bells and whistles for eight slightly bigger screens.

If you bore in on a tiny sector of the screen, you can figure out if somebody caught a pass or made an interception, but it’s impossible to make out who missed a tackle or made a block. It’s also disappointing when you realize you’ve missed a game-changing interception in the lower-left corner because you were zoning in on the upper right. Not surprisingly, watching eight games at once turns out to be impossible. It would be better if you could select the four games you want and double them in size, or at least dump the blowouts that aren’t worth following. Of course, missing exciting plays from around the league happens all the time when you’re watching a single full-screen game. But with Game Mix, the whole point is to catch all the action.

The other major problem is redundancy. Ever get annoyed when James Brown pops up every five seconds for another one of Fox’s “Game Breaks”? On Game Mix, you get to watch each in-game highlight package four or five times as it cascades across the mini-screens. There’s also an irritating scroll at the bottom of the screen that gives you the score of any games that don’t fit on your eight-screen cornucopia, as well as who’s playing in the late games. Why do I need a scroll? I’ve already got eight scrolls.

For all my carping, there were times when Game Mix was a godsend. Cowboys-Giants and Steelers-Jags went into overtime simultaneously, just as New Orleans drove in the fourth quarter to tie its game with Atlanta. Thankfully, I didn’t have to choose. Take that, Barry Schwartz!

SuperFan provides subscribers with a few more perks. At midnight each Monday, you can start watching “Short Cuts”—games in 30 minutes or less. That’s every snap, every play, every flag—including occasional replays of turnovers, touchdowns, and key injuries—in half an hour. Finally, someone has figured out how to turn football into basketball: free-flowing action and a running clock, plus the players get to wear pads and tackle each other. There’s also a “Red Zone Channel” on game days that’s supposed to cut to the best plays as they happen. Like CBS during March Madness, the execution isn’t very good. RZC took me to the Falcons-Saints game just in time to see a defensive holding call. I don’t see the point. With Game Mix, I can make my own lackluster decisions about what game to jump to next.

Now that my Chiefs are playing on Friday night because of Hurricane Wilma, I’m considering TiVo-ing Game Mix this weekend while I watch Chargers-Eagles. That way, I’ll have all seven 1 p.m. ET games on tape—at least in miniature—if I want to click over and rewind to watch a key play or drive from another game. The real test will come when there’s not one game that I’m really interested in. I can see myself watching Game Mix for a while after kickoff and before the final gun, when several games are competing for my attention.

If that becomes a habit, SuperFan will have achieved a remarkable feat: persuading me to watch live television again. For two NFL seasons, I’ve started watching my game of choice about a half hour after it actually starts. That way, I can fast forward through all the ads and the halftime show and catch up in time to watch the last few minutes live. With SuperFan, however, I watched three and a half hours of live TV, with barely a pause or a fast forward.

As a consequence, I saw more TV ads on Sunday than I have in a year and a half. What did I get for $99? More Simpsons promos! More Bridgestone tire ads! More pitches for the Batman Begins DVD! For this turn of events, Fox and CBS should be paying me.