By Stewart McCoy


A better way to organize pickup sports

Note: Keeping this post up for future readers, but I am no longer working on any pickup related projects.

Have you wanted to play basketball on a sunny afternoon when you didn’t have any work, but you couldn’t find anybody to play with and there were no games going on at your neighborhood courts? What’s funny is there are probably 100 other people that live nearby who would also love to play. You just don’t know each other and don’t have a way to get a game going. These days it seems like there’s an app for everything, including ones for organizing popular pickup sports like basketball, soccer, and ultimate frisbee.

What’s needed is a better way to help people play those games—in this case, a platform that’s focused not only on pickup as a unique kind of activity, but that brings together people who typically play pickup anyway, and would play more often if knowing about the pickup games in their area were made easier.

Apps currently on the market

Several apps have tried tackling the problem of connecting people for pickup sports:

  • PlayWith (playwith.co): “Play your favorite games or sports and socialize with others. Meet up with existing friends or make new friends. PlayWith helps friends and strangers get together to play the games they love. PlayWith makes it simple and convenient to play with other people! Find a game to play, right now or later. Anything from a game of football to a tennis match, on the pitch or on the couch!”
  • Sporty (sportyapp.com): “Play Sports with Friends and People Nearby! Sporty makes it incredibly simple to create and join sports activities in your area.”
  • Sporting Around (sporting-app.com): “Discover or offer sport activities (football, tennis, surf…) to share with friends and other sporting people around.”
  • Yes, We Play (yesweplay.com): “Sport with friends and people around you.”
  • Sportan (sportan.com): “Discover, join & play pickup sports instantly”. This team is located in Toronto and raised $24k on their Indiegogo campaign. My initial concerns are with their onboarding experience. If they don’t have a good UX for people who are already organizers, they’re going to have difficulty seeding their community with games. Their “Gamebar” concept is interesting, but it’s unclear to me how they’ll deal with their system automatically picking locations without knowledge of availability. (The Gamebar is this neat little widget that lets the app know you’re ready to play. Toggle it on, select the sport you want, and then get ready to play!)
  • NextGame (nextgamenation.com): “Find and post pickup games and recreational activities!”
  • Recess (goplayrecess.com): “Recess is a social platform to organize and discover participatory sports and fitness activities in your local community.” (There’s only a clickable prototype at the moment, but the demo site and video are very-well designed.)
  • Recess.io (recess.io): “Recess turns your lunchbreaks into playbreaks, connecting you with sports, games, and other fun activities nearby in the middle of the day.” (Games are currently curated by the founders; there is no app available as of Feb. 2014)
  • Dropsport (dropsport.com): An app for meeting up for events (beyond just pickup sports). Very similar product to JoynMe, and developed in Poland.
  • Get A Game (getaga.me): “A mobile app connecting active people looking for pickup games and sport play.”
  • InfiniteHoops (infinitehoops.com): “Find pickup basketball games.”
  • Fubles (fubles.com): “The easiest way to play soccer in your city.”
  • JoynMe (joynme.com): “We’ve created an application that makes it easier to get people together for spontaneous activities.”
  • Facebook (facebook.com): I’ve included them because of  Groups and Events, which are popular for organizing regular games.
  • MeetUp (meetup.com): “Meetup makes it easy for anyone to organize a local group or find one of the thousands already meeting up face-to-face.”

Problems with existing apps

However, the creators of these apps don’t seem to understand the mental model of pickup players and as a result there are several key problems with how these apps approach game organization:

  • These apps expect users to search for games (or start one themselves) when they launch the app and feel like finding a game. This is where all of the current apps on the market have missed the mark. If you download and use these apps it’s likely that if you even find a game for the sport you’re interested in, it’ll be empty or joined by only one or two other players. User adoption and achieving a critical mass is a huge hurdle for these types of apps. For first time users, logging into an app for the first time to see a bunch of empty games is not encouraging them to continue using it.
  • These apps (with the exception of MeetUp) use the “friends” model for inviting other players to join a game. Users are expected to import lists of friends from their social networks (i.e. Facebook and Twitter) and their address books on their phones. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have enough friends who play soccer, let alone enough who play and would also be living in the same city and have the same availability. It’d be awfully difficult to get even a 3v3 game going.
  • These apps also assume that activities like archery, bocce ball, inline skating, and lacrosse are activities that lots of people want to organize frequently and spontaneously. These types of games all require special equipment, unusual skill, and limited facilities, and are typically not thought of as “pickup” sports.
  • These games also assume games are planned days or weeks in advance and that they might be recurring. And while many games are organized that way, the nature of pickup is spontaneous, and organizing spontaneous pickups other than the traditional ways remains a missed opportunity. What about those people who have a random Wednesday off and want to get a game in at 2:00 p.m.? Or those who are traveling for business and want to play some ultimate on a Saturday at noon?

That’s the thing about pickup: a lot of times it isn’t recurring and it’s not with friends. So, an important part of any app focused on facilitating the organization of pickup games is connecting people who don’t know each other for a one-time game.

How pickup typically happens

There are two ways pickup games happen:

  1. Someone takes the initiative to contact other friends about a time and place to play a game. Those friends reply and say they can or cannot make it, and then the organizer sends out a followup message to let everybody know the game is on.
  2. A field or court is known in a community to be a “pickup” field or court and people show up at times when it’s most likely other people will show up, such as after work or in the afternoon on the weekend, and then hope to get a game going.

For a pickup app to be successful, we need to find a way to translate these mental models into a user experience.

How pickup could be better

Expecting users to use search and browse methods for finding games results in most users not being aware that games are going on in their area. A user might not check the app at the right time of day or the right time of week. It means that there has to be some serendipitous time when an organizer creates a game and enough players just happen to think, “Hey, I want to play this afternoon.” What happens is a lot of missed connections. There end up being all of these games that sit passively waiting for people to launch the app and search for a game. But people are busy and often want to play at different times. And when they do think to check the app, all they see is a bunch of empty games, if they see any at all. This experience gives the user an impression that nobody is using the app, that it’s not going to catch on, and that they should find some other way to play the sports they love.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

When a person wants to organize a game, they actively send out messages to people. That’s what these apps are not doing. Instead of expecting users to search for games, let’s let them know they’re happening.

What an improved pickup app UX could be like

The following features, sports subscriptions and targeted notifications, are integral to translating the mental model of pickup organization to a successful app.

Sports subscriptions

When a user joins a pickup app, we should first ask them to subscribe to sports they want to receive notifications about—and limit the number that are available to the games that lots of people will want to play, which certainly is less than six. (I’m also assuming a predominately U.S. and Western-world market, which means limiting the options to popular games like basketball and soccer).

Multi-channel, location-based notifications

Once they’ve subscribed, we should ask them to indicate how they’d like to receive notifications about games. This is the critical part. We should be telling everybody who is nearby and interested that there is a game happening and then ask them if they want to play. So, for example, it’s a Wednesday and you’re at work, you might get a push notification, an SMS, or an email, depending on your preferences, telling you there is a game planned that night at 6:30 p.m. at the public park. It’s just like a friend texting you and asking if you want to play. This takes the serendipity out of game organization. We’re explicitly asking all potentially interested players in the area if they’d like to play. Once you reply with a “yes” text, or click the “yes” link in the email, or tap “yes” in the app, and the minimum number of players has been reached, then you and all of the other players that joined the game will receive a confirmation notification.

An important part of receiving notifications is location. You don’t want to be receiving notifications for games in Los Angeles when you live in Seattle. At the same time, you might not want to miss out on games happening when you’re traveling.  Will you be in D.C. for two weeks for work? If you’ve enabled geolocation for the app, then, by default, we’ll send you notifications based on games that are happening within a 25 mile radius. For those who are more willing to travel to get in a good game, they can change the default notification radius to 50 or 100 miles in their preferences.

Other concerns

  • Reducing no-shows
  • Pre-populating sport-specific venues
  • Allowing for the creation of a not-listed venues (e.g. parking lots for street soccer)
  • Pairing player skill levels without the users needing to worry about it
  • Allowing for a limited number of sport-specific game options (i.e. bring dark and white shirt, bring street shoes, bring cleats, need a ball, bring cash for the venue fee)
  • Limiting the number of notifications a player can receive in one day
  • Still need  to be able to browse and filter games
  • Still need a map view
  • Still need a game agenda to retrieve details of games you joined
  • Still need social sharing options to help spread awareness about games
  • Users still need to be able to schedule games for weeks in advance
  • Need a class-act visual design because with the exception of Recess, I’ve yet to see one for a pickup app
You should browse more of my posts and find what's worth reading