The last two years of media analysis have been dominated by discussion of a handful of issues: real time media, multiscreen and mobile, and the effect of both things on the TV content we love.
Whilst everyone else was wondering how best these technological behaviours might be leveraged, Heineken, in conjunction with AKQA
, have rolled up their sleeves and done it. Heineken Star Player is an iPhone app designed to let fans interact in real time with the nail-biting action of the UEFA Champion's League. It launched in time for the first leg of the Manchester United vs. Schalke semi-final on 26th April, and might just be the most nauseatingly exciting bit of advertising we've ever seen... Fastest Finger First /
The way it works is simple. You fire up the app and create a simple profile for yourself (nothing more than a gamer handle). Ten minutes before the game starts, it opens up for play. When the whistle blows, the game timer syncs automatically with the time on the TV, and the action begins.
Throughout the game, you're given eight tries to accurately predict whether either team will score within the next 30 seconds. A correct guess wins big points, with the first to take the plunge scoring more highly than those who call it closer to the goal time.
Free kicks or corners result in a quick decision making prompt, with each outcome - goal, miss, save, clear - offering a score in proportion to the likelihood of that outcome. Other ways to score include infrequent 'pop quiz' moments at slow moments in play, when a Heineken- or general knowledge-related question pops up on the screen and a quick, correct response can garner more points. Players can also opt to use one of three 'power-ups' throughout the match; either an additional goal chance, a chance to double up on pop quiz points, or a 50:50 style hint when answering questions.
Heineken has capped the number of point scoring opportunities that can be offered per game - presumably with a view to leveling the playing field, and building a giant Star Player league in which games, and high scorers, can be weighed against each other. Clever. Leagues & Competition /
Through the app, players can enter themselves into a league with friends. A small button at the bottom of the screen ensures that your friend's scores - updated in real time, of course - can be checked against your own.
Meanwhile, after each corner, free kick or pop quiz question, a stats button enables you to see how everyone else in the world using the app voted, so you can judge your own instincts.
And, as a final colourful element, correct answers can win you different badges, also visible through your profile. 'Free kick hero', 'goal master' and 'corner king' are mini trophies to be picked up for a particularly accurate winning streak in any of those facets of the game. Facebook Connect
functionality enables you to publish your results, and those of your league, to your Facebook wall for bragging and/or shameless mickey-taking. The Facebook prompt pops up immediately following the full time whistle.
Heineken, and AKQA, are adamant that the app is meant to enhance the action on screen, and not detract from it. 'Three out of four of our target audience, those watching the match, were doing so at home on their sofa and texting or tweeting their mates at the same time,' explains Floris Cobelens
, global head of digital at Heineken. 'There was a general feeling that TV viewing was going to go down as internet penetration went up, but we're actually seeing real time interaction driving involvement in event TV, like the Champion's League, to new heights. We began to wonder what we could do to get those passive, yet still multiscreening viewers, more involved. Star Player is the result.' Beyond Badging /
In football terms, Star Player is the equivalent of Heineken scoring the decider in the final seconds of stoppage time. It passes the two most simple tests, namely: would my parents understand what it does, and would my friends outside of advertising be interested in it? Yes, and yes.
At the moment, details of how the app will be promoted outside of PR are not forthcoming, but we are told there will be a traditional and digital media push to support the launch. The most powerful connection, however, could yet be forged through Heineken's existing sponsorship of the Champion's League, in place since it took over from sister brand Amstel in 2005.
A small aside on the peculiar psychological effects of Star Player. The app falls somewhere into the uncanny valley between watching an unadulterated match on TV and playing a console simulation game. In the former case, you may yell and scream at the screen, but you know, ultimately, there's nothing you do to affect the outcome. In the latter, you are the outcome. You play better, you win; you suck, you lose. When Contagious was using Star Player in the Manchester United match, we wasted a bunch of goal chances on near misses in the first half, and immediately started to assume this was because of our own lack of ability as a player (and not the United players' inability to locate a net in a fishing boat). However, listening to the half time commentary, and the pundits expressing their bewilderment that United weren't five goals ahead, revealed the complexity of the reaction, namely: it makes you feel like it's YOU, and not the players, controlling the game, with all the disappointment and triumph that that implies.
'This is not prediction,' says James Hilton
, founder of AKQA. 'Prediction happens months in advance. It looks at stats and figures, and makes the most reasonable assumption in a very dry way. This is about anticipation - about trusting your instincts to make the right call in the moment, just like a Champion's League footballer. We wanted to put people into the game.'
Much research has been done into the effects of gamification mechanisms on human behavior, but it's still spine-tingling to see it in action. Top marks to Heineken for taking sponsorship WAY beyond traditional badging to prioritise both engagement and reach; and to AKQA for making something very complicated feel very simple.