Long gone are the days of Jimmy Hill and the videprinter. In the 21st century, football is all leveraged buyouts, snoods and multi-screen interactive digitainment. To whit: Heineken Star Player, a free new Facebook and smart phone app that you play against your friends as you watch the Champions League. It's the future, and it's very shiny.
The idea is everyone has their phone on or Facebook open while they're watching the football -- because, whisper it, football isn't very exciting for much of the time -- so as the game unfolds you earn points by correctly predicting what happens.
When there's a free kick or a corner, for example, you click on cleared, or goal, or saved, or missed, and earn points if you guess right. You can also predict a goal will be scored in the next 30 seconds and answer trivia questions when nothing much is happening.
Those points are tallied up instantly in your league, so you can see how you're doing against your friends as each match unfolds. It's easy to set up a league and Heineken is encouraging pubs and the like to run Star Player leagues and give away prizes. You needn't all be watching the same matches, but it only features games in what used to be called the European Cup. Still, if you support Swindon Town, it makes the football they do show on TV more interesting.
We played with the app watching Manchester United cruise past Schalke last week and it certainly added an extra element of competition and interest, with spectators cheering madly when free kicks went straight over the bar and corners were cleared (and no, they weren't all Liverpool fans). The app is very smartly presented, with lovely dark green animations and big, easy to press buttons. Your phone vibrates when there's an opportunity to earn points, so you shouldn't miss any.
We found there was ambiguity to some of the point-scoring opportunities. This is because it's operated by a human being sitting in the offices of the app's London-based maker, AKQA, who's watching the game and initiating the different questions. They decide if the free kick was a miss or a save, for example, which drew loud disagreement from some of the people we watched the game with. It's all part of the fun though, and doubles the number of opportunities to scream at someone who can't hear you.
One problem we found: it murders your battery. It overrides your screen lock so it's always on, and is constantly downloading data during the match. Over the course of 90 minutes our iPhone 4 lost half its charge. You'll also need a steady data connection, which might not be available in your local boozer. We also wouldn't want to have our phone out all the time in the nasty joints we frequent, but no doubt your haunts are more salubrious.
We didn't enjoy some of the trivia questions, which were thinly disguised marketing blather for the Dutch beer, and none of the ones we've seen were related to football. Champions League history would be a better subject for this feature than random Euro trivia. It's also rather limited: free kicks, corners and penalties don't come up that often, so some more predictions would help -- maybe how many yellow cards in a half, or what the final score will be.
Heineken Star Player is available to download now for free from iTunes for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, and is on Facebook too. Heineken promises there'll be an Android app in time for next season's Champions League group stage in September. There are three more games to play along with this season: tonight and tomorrow night's semi-final second legs, and the final on 28 May at Wembley.