ESPN baseball site: Flash for Flash's sake

Written by Adrian Holovaty on October 18, 2003

ESPN's World Series 100th Anniversary site is a classic example of unnecessary Flash usage. The site is almost entirely done in Flash, while every important piece of it could be done -- and done better -- in plain HTML.

Some problems:

  • Pages are either faded or slid onto the screen. This might impress the one Internet user who has never seen Flash animations. For everyone else, it's an annoying delay -- particularly after spending more than two minutes on the site. These gratuitous animations (the Flash equivalent of Tufte's "chartjunk") were novel in 1998. Now they're trite and make browsing tedious.
  • The text is not copy-and-pastable.
  • A Web browser's Back and Forward buttons don't work within the site.
  • None of the pages are individually bookmarkable; they do not appear to have distinct URLs.
  • The contents of these pages cannot be indexed by search engines.

For me to make these same, tired Flash criticisms is trite in itself, but it's clear such criticisms aren't being heard. ESPN should know better.


Posted by Simon Willison on October 19, 2003, at 12:28 a.m.:


An extra criticism: the text is too small, and Flash MX appears to have removed the "zoom" option so there's no way of making it bigger. Flash is simply a terrible tool for serving up primarily textual content.

Posted by Jason Long on October 19, 2003, at 2:35 a.m.:

Even more ridiculous is the fact that every article throughout uses Flash for the titles. For example, check out the article title on this page.

If typography is the concern, why not use plain graphics? made such huge strides with its recent CSS redesign, it's surprising to see such seemingly random uses of frivolous design techniques.

Posted by Vin Crosbie on October 19, 2003, at 2:47 a.m.:

I'm on the road today and tried to find out what Adrian was writing about. Well, the ESPN site is unreadable on MS Internet Explorer on my T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone. I had been able to access ESPN's baseball site on it until a few days ago, but no longer. ESPN's developers have falled into the trap called solipsism -- they believe that everyone who will visit their site is like themselves, deskbound and equipped with browsers that use Flash.

Posted by Simon Willison on October 19, 2003, at 4:19 a.m.:

Flash for titles!? That's bizzare whatever way you look at it, although to their credit at least they write the Flash link out with javascript and provide the real title within an <h1> in a <noscript> tag. I can only guess that they're using Flash because they want headings in a particular font for branding reasons but dynamically generating images using that font with a server side image processing script would be a much better solution.

Posted by Adrian on October 19, 2003, at 4:28 a.m.:

Jason, thanks for pointing that out about the headlines in Flash. That's absurd.

And there's a hole in their software that allows anybody to create any headline in their Flash font. I wrote a poem about it.

Posted by Jason Long on October 19, 2003, at 4:58 a.m.:

Classic :-)

I can see this being a popular game in the web design blogosphere this week.

Posted by Mike Davidson on October 19, 2003, at 7:37 a.m.:

For an explanation of why/how we use Flash headlines at ESPN, please read my comments on Adrian's next post here.

As for the PocketPC issue Vin brought up, when you hit our front page on a Pocket PC, you should be automatically redirected to our lite Pocket PC site. This is the best way to view ESPN on a wireless device currently as we work to make our main site compatible with all wireless devices (on some, it actually looks quite good).



Posted by Andrew DeVigal on October 19, 2003, at 6:37 p.m.:

I disagree, Adrian.

I’ve seen this gratuitous slider effect done needlessly in portfolio work. But demonstrating a passage of time, as this package does, has its merits. Movement over a geographic space would also be another. It gives a slight indication to the user that if you go from series 10-10 to 80-89 there’s a greater passage of time through the visual slider than if the user jumps from 80-89 to 70-79.

As for the delay, the fades don’t bother me. It could be slightly faster but I have seen Flash pieces which such a slow fade that it does hinder the experience. What does bother me is the fact that most news pages is so bloated with ads and website house references that it takes just as long to redraw a simple html page. I don’t mean to pick on but the fact that the ESPN package is presented without other references or ads gives a better experience than the Discovery Channel’s “First in Flight” is a good medium.

As for the other issues, copy and paste, navigational buttons, bookmarking and search engines, that’s true for most Flash pieces so I’m not sure if isolating ESPN’s package is appropriate. A work around for ESPN, in this case, would be to offer the same content simple HTML page list of. That should eliminate some of the issues.

The ESPN piece isn’t perfect but to resurrect a three-year old rant, I mean study, from someone who has never actually designed a website heads the conversation in another direction. (Like we didn’t know whom Zeldman was talking about).

ESPN, here are some take-aways:

1. Create a one HTML page that display the content and make that printable (by the way, your print page doesn’t work)

2. When a user clicks one of the decades (ie: 50-59), go ahead and display the first game of that decade (ie: 50) instead of forcing the user to click on the game. This would essentially eliminate the close box function. The decade bumper serves no purpose.

3. Increase the type size…as others have noted, the type size is difficult to read. Blue on that dark gray makes some of the type difficult to read. Develop type contrast between the teams and final score. Possibly develop some contrast to distinguish the winner. (You can also make the type HTML via Flash as you did with the full list but that’s to your own discretion).

4. The images can also be bigger. Or give an option to view a larger image.

5. Make the full list listings linkable to those specific games.

Posted by Wilson on October 20, 2003, at 4:53 p.m.:

A friend of mine showed me the flash poll widget on ESPN's front page a while back and said "ain't it cool?" Nothing that couldn't have been done without a plugin, and just as pretty. I would love Flash so much more if it stopped getting beat up and abused all over the place.

(Parenthetical aside: Even after a transatlantic flight, Simon's still the first post. Now, that's dedication.)

Posted by CLK on October 23, 2003, at 10:24 p.m.:

After reviewing the ESPN site I'm truly dismayed. Flash offers selectable text, and with the use of anchors within the timeline the browser back button will function. It appears this site was hacked together in a weekend without utilizing the user's manual. This type of ignorance cast undeserved scorn on a very useful application. For effective usage of FLASH see the work of Hillmancurtis and Juxt Interactive.

Posted by viktor on October 27, 2003, at 6 a.m.:


i see or try to see the website... but my connection 56kb dialup modem... don't fit the requeriments of the page....

the flash start download about 2 megs and nothing happens...


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