Page last updated at 11:11 GMT, Sunday, 11 October 2009 12:11 UK

What's it like watching football on a computer?

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

As England's players faced up to a rare defeat against Ukraine, the fans reflected on their first experience watching the team exclusively on the web. How was it?

If this really is to be the future of television sport, then someone needs to think about cushions.

Tom Geoghegan at home
A desktop PC makes for uncomfortable viewing

A wooden Ikea chair is not made with two hours of football viewing in mind, which meant that by the final whistle, I was longing for the comfy sofa.

How many other fans paid between £5 and £12 to watch the match live was later revealed to be close to half a million. Some were angry about being asked to pay anything.

There was a lack of enthusiasm in my peer group, partly due to the fact that England had already qualified, but also because a 20-inch computer screen does not have the same appeal as a 40-inch plasma.

Millions of people view programmes in this way on the iPlayer, but watching a live event for two hours would be a new experience for many.

Original broadcaster Setanta went bust
England qualified for World Cup in September, so this match not pivotal
Swiss firm Kentaro owned the rights
Internet sports broadcaster Perform were chosen to provide the coverage

Even with a laptop sitting in comfort, or viewing the web on your television via a PC, the picture will not usually be approaching high-definition quality.

So for most people, computers can't yet offer the modern football experience. What they are good at, however, is forcing people through mundane processes of registration.

Finding the official Ukraine v England website was an ordeal, with a quick Google search throwing up many others that also promised a live stream.

Rather wary of getting a hand-held camera peeking out from a duffel coat in the crowd, it required a double-check on the BBC Sport website to make sure this website was the real deal.

Then there was a number of hoops to jump through, starting with a demo video to check the technical capability (the basic BT broadband package passed with flying colours), then the creation of a PayPal account to pay the £10 charge.

'No technical problems'

There was a further hold-up as PayPal remembered that five years ago, I once used eBay to sell something or other, so I still had a PayPal password. What it was I didn't know, so there was another delay as it emailed me the answer.

England fan
Some England fans were angry the only live broadcast was on the web

Eventually I was in, clicked "pay" and we were up and running. Half an hour before kick-off, I logged in and the live streaming sprung into action effortlessly.

There in the studio was James Richardson, known to Channel 4 viewers as a classy presenter of Italian football, and Sven-Goran Eriksson, who used to manage Mexico and one or two other teams.

If this really was a test case for web broadcasting, the major success was there were no technical problems. The picture didn't buffer or freeze once, but the quality was not great, more akin to watching footballers in a computer game.

There's the little fella (Lennon), passing it inside to the gangly one (Gerrard), on to the pale, chunky guy (Rooney).


Costume dramas and nature programmes you might watch on iPlayer have lots of close-ups. But the action in a football match like this is streamed and is so far away that trying to make out the small figures is difficult. Certainly, faces, shirt numbers and names is hard to identify.

Laptop in a pub
Pubs were not allowed to show the match

One of the most interesting differences with the television experience is the distraction of the mouse.

The equivalent of channel-surfing was to flick on to gmail or Facebook or Twitter, when the action on the pitch got a bit dull.

It's a good opportunity to engage in the kind of banter you'd enjoy with mates if they were on your sofa.

One emailed me to say: "Didn't even notice Stevie Gerrard. It got so bad I found myself online banking."

Another said on his Facebook update: "Missing my TV remote."

So, there is a dimension to webcasts that televisions can't match. But no number of humorous tweets can make up for the joy of five friends on your sofa, munching pizza and watching a big match.

And until web viewing through TVs really takes off, strange days like this for football fans may prove to be an isolated and quirky experiment.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

This sort of thing is obviously the future. But until I can watch it in high definition via my big screen telly I'm not interested. As I also pay my TV licence fee and my broadband bill I fail to see why I should pay out yet more money to watch it.
Chris Taylor, Warrington

Very poor quality when put up to a 22" full screen. Luckily I pre-ordered so it only cost £5, but still it wasn't worth the money. I expected the quality to be at least that of iPlayer, but was disappointed. Shame there wasn't a HD stream available. The stream was steady, but just not good enough.
Will, Kidderminster

Some of us watch almost all of their television via a computer - I'm in a non-Freeview area (yes, despite being in a city) and so it's the only way to get BBC3 and BBC4, among others. The only irritation in this case should be that it required payment. I found the lack of a picture accompanying a text commentary frustrating at first, but I wasn't too bothered that I couldn't watch this match once I found that highlights were going up on Youtube only a few minutes after anything had happened. I watched coverage of the penalty perhaps five minutes after it had happened; I didn't have to wait for post-match highlights.
Jenna, Bath

I don't understand the outrage, the rights were sold to Setanta, they went bust and nobody else was prepared to buy it so another method had to be used. It's quite simple either it's worth 4.99 or 11.99 on the day to watch this match. As it turns out, my decision to do something else instead was brilliant as this match was not worth 1p. It's just football that's all, and watching something on a computer will be the future, there will be a vast reduction in licence fee payers and people will just use their computers to download/stream stuff instead.
Spoontown, Cheltenham

Yes, as John Pickavance notes correctly, and Chris Booth doesn't - it's the PROVIDER (or possibly your ISP's network congestion) that generally has the problem if the picture quality is low or the streaming not seamless. As long as your home equipment and your ISP is working efficiently, watching matches online can be a pleasant experience. However, forget paying unless it's HD and perfect! There are many peer-to-peer services out there - no provider's server overload to worry about as the load is shared between all the viewers. Picture quality is poor, but then it's 12p-worth of electricity you're paying, not £12...
Ben, London, England, UK

It's not the fact that the company were charging the English fans to view their own team that really bothers me or even having to watch it on the computer its the fact that they refused point blank to give permission for it to be shown in pubs. Surely the whole tradition of being able to enjoy an England game especially a World Cup Qualifier (regardless of whether we had already qualified or not) at your local with a pint and an amazing atmosphere is half the reason that many people bother to watch the games. I honestly do not think I would bother to watch any of England's games if they were all shown in this way. For me and I am sure many others a big game like that is all about the atmosphere and the people you enjoy it with and by enforcing such unfair conditions the internet company ruined that experience for a great many people.
Rosamund Moger, Dorchester

I connected my laptop to my TV via HDMI, and the picture quality was very poor. It was worse than a standard definition TV broadcast and worse than high quality streaming media from other internet sources such as BBC iPlayer HD. It was certainly not worth £11.99, and I was disgusted that subscribers were subjected to advertising at half time. This experience proved to be a retrograde step, and until broadband allows higher quality content to be reliably streamed to the masses, such broadcasts should remain on TV.
Chris Booth, Bristol

I had to wait for someone to post highlights on Youtube. It's not watching it on a PC that bothers me. It's having to pay to watch my national team playing the national sport. It's been said before but it's a disgrace.
Anthony Butler, Manchester

Well I think we'd better get used to it. As a proof of concept, it came across as vaguely successful, however there needs to be a better technical element attached. Many computers (including my own desktop) have a TV out line which can then be fed into a proper sized television (which is what I did). However, as a result of the low quality of picture being transmitted (probably because HD for example takes about six times the amount of data as even a normal high quality picture) the actual quality of picture was more akin to watching a cartoon in a cinema on a Saturday morning 20 years ago. If that makes sense. As media-centre style PCs become more popular, acting not just as a word processor but also a method of playing, recording and generally controlling all forms of media in the household, this will proliferate as time goes on. But the picture quality will need to improve, which will mean wider broadband capacity and bigger servers. Something of an implementation headache for the broadcasters one would imagine. Sleep tight Mr BBC reporter!
Matt Saunders, Bristol, UK

I think any proud England fan who is angry that 1) they had to pay to watch their team play an international match & 2) were disappointed about having to watch the game on the internet, should take a good look at themselves because the last time I checked we Scots are rarely given ANY game to watch no matter how important the game is. The fact that England had already qualified was good enough reason to pull the plug!
Richard, Edinburgh

It's usually very easy to plug a computer into your TV. My two-year-old computer has an HDMI port, older computers will have an s-video port, cables are cheap and easy to come by. Our fairly inexpensive three year old TV has inputs for both.
Jamie Kitson, London, UK

Some of us don't get our interests - sporting or otherwise - broadcast on television at all, so being pushed to the internet and getting whatever weak online stream you can isn't anything particularly new. Thus: I'm really not seeing the big upset here.
M. Kelly, Stockport

I've been watching the NFL like this for over a year now, and there is nothing "isolated or quirky" about it. As long as the stream is a HD stream and you're capable of streaming 1.5mbps, you can get a cable for £3 that you plug into your TV (the picture is BETTER than standard cable). Its just like watching TV with the added incentive that it's exactly what you want to watch, and there would be no other way of getting it. And yes, I have sat on a couch with 4 friends, munching pizza, and watching a big game. The problem is not with the form of media - with the right equipment the experience you attest to is moot. The problem is with the providers that fail to provide a reasonable stream quality and can't deal with excessive amounts of people all logging on at once.
John Pickavance, Leeds, England

I had friends visiting for the weekend and had no intention of sitting around my laptop to watch the game so we went down to my local pub where I knew that if there was any chance of legally or illegally obtaining the game on television, they would most certainly have it. True to form, I believe it was a Dubai station, they supplied the busy pub with normal England game viewing.
James Bradley, Manchester

Tom may not have enjoyed sitting on his Ikea chair instead of his comfy sofa, but supporters of teams the world over pay more than £10 to sit in the cold and rain on hard plastic chairs to support their team, and are happy to do so. Maybe being a real supporter rather than just a TV fan is a step too far for some.
Magnus, Edinburgh, Scotland

It's really not that hard to hook a PC up to a TV, in fact a lot of modern TVs (especially large screens) already have a VGA input. That said, I wouldn't have paid - on principle. But there is certainly no reason to sit on a hard office style chair watching on a PC/laptop screen.
Jon Cooper, Camborne, Cornwall

I didn't watch the game in question, so can't comment on picture quality. However, I do frequently watch computer generated film and sports broadcasts on line, and when I want a larger picture, simply connect my computer to my 42 inch plasma TV, A simple and cheap fix.
Pete, Leeds England

I didn't mind watching the England game on the PC as I also watch all the Premier League games on the PC also. The advantage of watching PC Premier League games is that you can watch any game you want for example all the Liverpool games and it's all free of charge. All I can say to the fools who paid to watch England games is that you are all fools as I watched the same game with no delays completely free of charge.
David Kelly, Manchester

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