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Xbox One rewards cord keepers with live NFL games

Back in May 2013, when the next-gen Xbox One gaming console was revealed to the world, the sports-loving Internet exploded over the news that Microsoft had entered into a deal with the NFL that would bring pro football to the new hardware in the 2013/2014 season and beyond. Little more than that was revealed at the time, and before we knew it a whole summer’s worth of games-focused trade shows came and went with barely a word on the subject.

Now that pre-season football is winding down and EA Sports’ yearly Madden NFL game is out now, gamers are thinking football. With the season’s first matchup between the Denver Broncos and the Baltimore Ravens set for this Thursday, there’s no better time for Microsoft to give football-lovers a peek at what’s to come on the Xbox One and show us what that NFL partnership entails.

Cable subscribers enjoy the added benefit of streaming content from ESPN and ESPN2 in the app.

At long last, an official NFL Network app is coming to a Microsoft platform, but this one requires a cable TV subscription that includes NFL Network. Once that’s set, users will be able to access NFL Network content, including Thursday Night Football and NFL Redzone coverage. As many had suspected after the initial announcement was made, there’s not a lot of content if you don’t have a cable subscription. You’ll be able to check out highlights and other content available at NFL.com through the app, but a cable TV subscription is necessary to watch full games.

The app’s design resembles many of the other reference apps that we’ve seen for Xbox One so far. A content bar at the bottom of the screen offers quick access to any games that may be underway and other, related content. You can scroll through video highlights and stat sheets on a per-game basis, and send the content you’d like to check out to another bar, located at the righthand edge of the screen. Fantasy football fans that have NFL.com-hosted leagues can have a team’s stats automatically tracked. Support for additional fantasy providers is coming in 2014, but everyone will have the option at launch of manually telling the app which players to track. You can, of course, also make these bars vanish and have whatever game you’re watching occupy the full screen with nothing else to pull your attention away.

Microsoft expects the NFL app to make an even bigger splash in the 2014/2015 season. The NFL partnership was very young when the Xbox One was first announced, only a few weeks old at that point. That’s why there was nothing to see at June’s E3 trade show in Los Angeles, and that’s why nothing surfaced in any subsequent announcements. Until now, of course, as a new season looms. The expectation with the Xbox One releasing in November is that enough performance and user feedback will be gathered to have a new and improved experience ready by the time the 2014/2015 season kicks off.

The ESPN app that is currently available for Xbox 360 is also getting a makeover for its Xbox One release. It shares a similar layout to that of the NFL app, just with content pulled from a much broader spectrum of sports. Most users of the app will be able to access any of the content on ESPN3; this includes a significant number of college games, multiple tennis and golf majors, and more. It’s a little bit of everything. The catch is that your Internet provider has to have a deal in place with ESPN, though we’re told that all of the major ISPs are locked in.

Cable subscribers enjoy the added benefit of streaming content from ESPN and ESPN2 in the app as well. Much like the NFL app, bars on the bottom and righthand sides of the screen fill out with additional content. The bottom bar is broken into multiple channels. ESPN Trending, for example, streams in brief packages that are pegged to some major happening or another in sports news. You’ll see stuff here like Top Ten Goals or an update on Miami Heat storylines. Then there’s myESPN, a user-tailored channel that populates with content based on which sports and teams you follow; the easiest way to set that up will be through your login at ESPN.com.

The cable subscription requirement continues to be a sticking point for those of us that prefer to enjoy televised programming from other sources, but Microsoft’s upcoming sports apps for Xbox One certainly deliver on the promise of enhanced TV-watching that the original console announcement nodded to. Now if only we could subscribe to NFL Network content without paying for a larger cable package…