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ESPN Plus review: A must-have for some, but not all, die-hard fans


For many NHL, MLS and UFC fans, ESPN Plus is the best — and in some cases, the only — place to watch their favorite team or fighter on a regular basis. As a Washington Capitals hockey superfan living in Maine, I would be unable to watch more than a handful of my team’s games during the regular season were it not for ESPN Plus. For many other fans, however, ESPN Plus is a nice add-on but hardly a necessity. It all boils down to which sports you watch and where you live. 

Like

  • Lots of live sports including NHL, UFC and MLS
  • Tons of ESPN original content
  • Pick your favorite teams and have their content centered
  • Inexpensive, especially as part of the Disney Bundle

Don’t Like

  • No live games from NFL or NBA
  • NHL and MLS games subject to local blackouts
  • Lacks watch list
  • Doesn’t always remember where you left off watching a show

ESPN Plus is the new home of all out-of-market National Hockey League games, replacing the league-owned NHL.TV package at a much lower price. Fans like myself, who root for teams that aren’t based where they currently live, need ESPN’s streaming service to watch their team’s action this season. Unfortunately, the service won’t be of much use to fans of the home hockey team. Local games are blacked out on ESPN Plus so you’ll need access to your regional sports network through cable or a live TV streaming service in order to watch them.  

ESPN Plus is also compelling for soccer and fighting fans. It offers a large collection of out-of-market action for the MLS (although local games will again air only on your regional sports network), as well as other soccer leagues around the world. It hosts exclusive UFC matches and pay-per-view events, such as UFC Fight Night and the upcoming featherweight championship rematch of Usman vs. Covington in UFC: 268 (for additional fees).

ESPN Plus doesn’t show live NFL or NBA games, however, and while its vast library of original programming is impressive, it’s difficult to navigate. While the $7 a month service is best suited for die-hard fans of the sports it covers well, more casual fans might find themselves with an ESPN Plus subscription anyway through the Disney Bundle, which also includes Hulu and Disney Plus for $14 total. Getting the bundle saves $8 a month over the cost of each individual service, so in essence, you get ESPN Plus for free. 

ESPN vs. ESPN Plus

ESPN Plus is a stand-alone streaming service that’s completely separate from the ESPN channel. I like to think of it as the side salad to ESPN’s main dish. Additional content not offered on ESPN’s main network includes those live NHL games, UFC combat events and MLS matches, as well as LaLiga and Bundesliga soccer games throughout their respective seasons. ESPN Plus also hosts a library of on-demand ESPN original content, including all of the critically acclaimed 30 for 30 sports documentary series. 

ESPN, on the other hand, is a television channel that is the home of sports, highlights and talk shows. It broadcasts MLB, NBA and NHL games, NFL Monday Night Football and NCAA college basketball and football, along with hit shows such as SportsCenter and Pardon the Interruption — none of which are available on ESPN Plus. Right now the only way to get the ESPN channel is to subscribe to a cable or streaming package that offers it. The cheapest streaming service with the ESPN channel is Sling TV Orange at $35 a month.

Both ESPN and ESPN Plus content is accessible through the main ESPN app, which is available on all major streaming platforms, iOS, Android and ESPN’s website. 


Sarah Tew/CNET

What’s on ESPN Plus?

In the fall and winter of 2021, it’s basically hockey, soccer and UFC fighting. This past spring, ESPN became the new home of the National Hockey League, with ESPN Plus taking over all of the NHL’s out-of-market streaming services. The site recently announced that it will also air games from Russia’s top hockey league, the KHL, as well as NCAA hockey coverage, which makes ESPN Plus a hockey lover’s dream.

ESPN Plus also has a lot of domestic and international soccer, but not all. It hosts up to 350 out-of-market Major League Soccer games and has recently partnered with LaLiga from Spain and the German Bundesliga to air many of the games from those leagues as well. ESPN Plus is also the home of the FA Cup, the Carabao Cup and the Community Shield, along with the EFL Championship — which is the league below the Premier League. 

The catch for NHL and MLS games is that phrase “out-of-market.” As mentioned, NHL games on ESPN Plus are subject to local blackout restrictions. For example, New York Rangers hockey fans living in New York City will still need the MSG channel through a local cable provider or live TV streaming service in order to watch most Rangers, Islanders or Devils games. Those teams are considered in-market, so they’re blacked out on ESPN Plus in New York City.

It’s worth mentioning that NBC has the rights to the English Premier League, which streams on Peacock, while CBS has the rights to the UEFA Champions League on its Paramount Plus streaming service. 

In 2019, ESPN Plus became the exclusive US carrier of all UFC pay-per-view events. This includes some matches for free as part of the ESPN Plus subscription. It’s also where pay-per-view matches will live, usually for an extra fee. For new customers, ESPN offers some bundles including one that allows you to get UFC 268 and a year of ESPN Plus for $90, as opposed to spending $70 on the fight and another $70 for a year of ESPN Plus on its annual plan.

ESPN streaming service

Sarah Tew/CNET

ESPN Plus doesn’t show any live NBA basketball or NFL football games, but it does offer coverage of Wimbledon and the US Open. During the MLB baseball season, the service carries select out-of-market Major League baseball games as well as unlocking the MLB Archives of classic games. It also offers some NCAA football and basketball, as well as the Little League World Series for fans looking to watch up-and-coming athletes. 

ESPN Plus is also home to exclusive shows, such as Peyton’s Places starring Peyton Manning, and the vast 30 for 30 library. Additionally, an ESPN Plus subscription removes the paywall on the ESPN website, giving you access to all online articles and reporting.

What’s it like to use? 

The ESPN app houses all content for both the ESPN channel and the ESPN Plus add-on (there’s no dedicated ESPN Plus app). If you subscribe to both, you’ll need to sign in twice — first with your ESPN cable login credentials and then again with your ESPN Plus account. If you have ESPN Plus, you can customize a list of favorite teams across sports and the app will automatically display the games, scores, and programming right when you sign in. 

I tested the app on Roku as well as Google TV, Apple TV and iOS, and the experience was similar across streaming devices. Launching the ESPN app brings you to a Featured tab that lists a row of your team’s live games-in-progress. A second Also Live row lists a mix of less-popular live sports, as well as live highlight shows and talk shows. Scrolling farther down the screen displays a list of leagues, such as the NHL and LaLiga. Clicking on these icons brings you to a hub of league-specific action including current live games, on-demand replays and on-demand league shows such as LaLiga Live. There are also classic games available to watch on-demand and other league-related content. 

You can also browse content by sport. For example, clicking on Football will show you upcoming college football games on both ESPN and ESPN Plus, along with short highlights and clips from press conferences or hot-takes from Stephen A. Smith.

ESPN streaming service

Sarah Tew/CNET

The main homepage also has a row for Featured Episodes of top sports shows, including Debatable and Fantasy Focus Live!, as well as a section dedicated to a Films Spotlight, where you can find the 30 For 30 movies. 

Better for live sports than on-demand shows

While the ESPN App feels similar to other streaming services such as Netflix or Disney Plus, it lacks some important features that could have helped me better enjoy ESPN’s large catalog of original programming. There’s no way to add programs to a watch list so you can see them later. I found this to be a real problem when I was trying to remember a featured 30 For 30 episode from the day before that looked interesting, for example. 

But the biggest omission is the lack of a “continue watching” section in the app. Do you ever need to stop watching midstream and need to pick it up later? In ESPN Plus, you’re pretty much out of luck. There’s no way to easily find your half-completed shows without searching for them again. And if you do, the app might not remember where you left off. 

I tried watching the four-part 30 For 30 documentary, The Life and Trials of Oscar Pistorius. Each episode is well over an hour long and there were times when I had to pause mid-watch. Not only were the episodes not readily shown to me in order, but my progress wasn’t saved across devices. I started watching on my iPad and later switched to Roku only to find the app had no memory that I’d even started the documentary. I often found myself not wanting to even bother with ESPN’s original programming when I knew it was going to be such a hassle to watch. 

ESPN streaming service

Sarah Tew/CNET

I found it much easier to watch live sports. I found the NHL viewing experience pleasant enough, but it was missing some key features from the NHL.TV days. You can still pick either the home or away feed of the games, but there’s no multi-game mode where you can watch a few games at once. Overlaid statistics are also gone, as are in-game goal replays. This is a bare-bones version of NHL.TV, meaning that you get to watch the games themselves and that’s about it. 

All versions of the app have a setting that can hide current scores from you if you’re looking to watch a replay and don’t want to spoil the results. This works as a system setting across all sports, so you also won’t see the latest soccer or basketball scores along with hockey and whatever else is playing that night. 

I liked ESPN Plus best on the iOS app for iPhone and iPad, where all aspects of ESPN coexist seamlessly as one. The app will automatically start playing video–including your team’s games if they are on–and will also lead you directly to top news stories from the website. The ESPN Plus tab within the app also has an extra Articles section that takes you to a stream of the latest ESPN Plus-only online content. The iOS app does an admirable job blending news, exclusive written content, and video in one place. 

ESPN streaming service

Sarah Tew/CNET

Should you get ESPN Plus? 

ESPN Plus has unrivaled NHL coverage and is a must-have for hockey fans who care about global hockey and NHL as a whole. The same is true for UFC fans and for soccer fans who are interested in leagues other than the Premier League and Champions League. I wouldn’t recommend the $7 individual subscription to a casual sports fan, but if you subscribe to Hulu and Disney Plus already, getting ESPN Plus for “free” via the Disney Bundle is worthwhile. 



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