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“Remote production is extremely difficult” | Inside the NHL Player Gaming Challenge

  • Players from all 31 teams, as well as Seattle, to take part in series of head-to-head challenges
  • Starting on April 30, the event will be aired on NBCSN, Sportsnet and numerous digital platforms
  • Competition seen as important means to engage fans and build players’ personal brands

The National Hockey League will this week become the latest major sports organization to initiate a players-only esports competition in an attempt to stay relevant and keep fans engaged amid the global Covid-19 pandemic.

In partnership with esports organization ESL Gaming and the NHL Players’ Association, the NHL has created the inaugural “NHL Player Gaming Challenge”, which begins on April 30.

The competition includes player representatives from all 31 NHL teams, as well as the Seattle expansion franchise, which is scheduled to join the league in the 2021-22 season.

The 50 participants, who will be streaming in isolation from their homes, include avid gamers Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators and Zach Hyman of the Toronto Maple Leafs. NHL Seattle will be represented by Seattle Seahawks tight end Luke Willson, who played ice hockey growing up in Ontario.

They will take part in 16 head-to-head matches on EA Sports’ NHL 20 game using Sony PlayStation 4 gaming consoles. In one early match-up, Brady Tkachuk of the Ottawa Senators will take on his brother Matthew, who plays for the Calgary Flames.

Games will take place on Thursdays and Sundays over a four-week period. Matchups will be unveiled at the beginning of each week.

The games will be broadcast on official NHL Twitch, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook platforms, as well as the official league website. They will also be available on the NHL Network or NHL Network Twitch channel.

In addition, select games will be broadcast by NBCSN in the United States and Sportsnet One in Canada, while all games will appear on the networks’ respective digital platforms. The league has also been in discussions with its European broadcast partners.

Honda, the NHL’s official automotive partner, is the title sponsor of the tournament. Honda has supported the NHL Gaming World Championship esports property since 2018.

There is a charity element, too. The NHL Foundation and NHL 20 publisher Electronic Arts will donate a combined $100,000 in support of the CDC Foundation’s Covid-19 relief efforts.

The esports event is the NHL’s latest, and biggest, fan-engagement initiative created to help fill the sports competition void caused by the coronavirus crisis. This includes the “Greatest Moment of the 2019-20 NHL Season…So Far” fan vote initiative and “Live NHL Player Q&As”, which have offered NHL fans daily interactive experiences via the league’s official Twitter and Instagram channels.

There has also been a trivia-based digital game show, hosted by New Jersey Devils defenceman PK Subban, which features fans, celebrities and NHL players. In addition, the league has set up a series of video conference calls between players/executives and journalists to help provide content for media companies.

NHL teams have already turned to esports in different ways during the indefinite hiatus. Last week, NHL greats Wayne Gretzky and Alex Ovechkin faced each other in a best-of-three Xbox NHL 20 showdown, in which they raised $41,000 for Covid-19 relief efforts. Around 286,000 fans tuned into the livestream on the Washington Capitals’ Twitch channel.

Meanwhile, the Columbus Blue Jackets recently introduced CBJ Gaming, a new initiative which will engage fans through esports livestreams, tournaments and more. Elsewhere, regional sports networks NBC Sports Washington and NBC Sports Philadelphia have been respectively simulating Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers games that were meant to be played in the remainder of the 2019-20 regular season through NHL 20.

The NHL follows a litany of other sports properties which have also created esports events, involving athletes from their respective sports, professional gamers, or celebrities, to help fill the competition void. Among them are Nascar, Major League SoccerMajor League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, LaLiga, Formula 1IndyCarMajor League Rugbythe English Premier League, the United Soccer League, Liga MX and Relevent Sports Group.

SportBusiness spoke to Chris Golier, NHL’s vice-president of business development and innovation, about how the “NHL Player Gaming Challenge” was put together and what it is looking to achieve.

What exactly was the process of putting this esports competition together? 

We have a long-standing strategy for gaming in general, we’re in the midst of our third season of our Gaming World Championship. That’s taken up quite a bit of our time in the past couple of years, setting that strategy in place. We’ve done quite a bit also once the pause hit, between us and our clubs and our players…everybody has been active [in the gaming space].

Obviously the social distancing has increased the amount of gaming that’s been happening. Clubs have launched their own tournaments during the pause, those are ways to engage their local community and local gamers. This is partly due to the pause, but they have that philosophy to want to reach out, branch out, and to create more of a touchpoint with the fan, especially the millennial. We’ve seen number of players running their own streams, on their own channels, or on other channels they’ve been invited on.

From a league perspective, we wanted to take this opportunity with the NHL Player Gaming Challenge to do just that, to engage with the fans and the players, knowing the players have more time on their hands than they typically do. A lot of them are gaming and we also reached out to the clubs and the Players Association to try to create a full league initiative. We could have done the route of having a 16-player tournament but we felt like now was the time to show that our league will come together for something like this.

To start this off, it was a lot of folks coming together: the Players Association, the NHL, our clubs, agents were reached out to as well to align here, EA Sports as the game publisher, and ESL who is our partner here from a production standpoint. So they [ESL] are the ones who are orchestrating everything, making sure all the players have all the proper equipment, which is no small feat considering a lot of the guys in different households and places that they don’t have set up with the right equipment. Remote production, as we’re finding out, is extremely difficult but it’s doable. But with all those entities, we’re able to create this Player Gaming Challenge.

This is a series of games, rather than a tournament with a champion, why did you decide to adopt this format?

As a full league initiative, we felt it was important that all clubs were represented. We felt like having individual streams and highlighting the players and their personalities versus a tournament that created a champion was more important to us. These streams are meant to be casual, lean-back experiences where the players are chatting, they’re talking about hockey and their lives off the ice, dealing with their kids and homeschooling in some cases, how they are working out…

We wanted to make it competitive as we know there is a competitive spirit between the players and we’ve seen that in some of the tapings thus far. But we also wanted to make it casual so they could have some fun, answer some questions, have some chit-chat and let fans know that they are thinking of them and can’t wait to come back on the ice.

The unknown of if and when we’re able to start the remainder of our season plays a part too [in not staging a tournament], the fact that the players could be called at any time.

Why is it important that the Seattle expansion team is involved?

They have certainly been active for when they become an official franchise. We did reach out to them and ask if they wanted to take part knowing that to date they don’t have a logo or a team name that they’ve announced yet and they said, ‘yes, it would be a lot of fun.’ It’s a great way for them to get involved.

How come Honda is involved as title sponsor, rather than another NHL commercial partner?

With our NHL Gaming World Championship, Honda has been there from the beginning. They have a big interest in esports and gaming in general, it seems to fit the demographic from what they are trying to do from a marketing and promotional standpoint. When we announced what we were doing, we had a few select partners and Honda raised their hand right away, it was of interest to them, they like what we’re doing, the charitable component, so we were thrilled to have them. It’s also important for us to have the show of sponsor support during the quarantine period here.

How heartened have you been by other sports organizations’ recent efforts into competitive esports during the shutdown?

Anything that expands gaming in general is a good thing. If you’ve been watching NBA 2K, [NFL] Madden tournaments, eMLS, everyone has a different twist to what they are doing. We are the only ones with a series of streams rather than a tournament for reasons I’ve explained. It’s great to see linear support for all of this. The other leagues have done a really nice job thus far and I’m hopeful that we can bring it up a notch, too.

Do you think a fringe benefit could be increased or new interest in the NHL’s esports efforts?

Absolutely. The more people get exposed to it and understand that those who are playing – the kids getting involved in our tournaments – are really good at this, and the ones who win are really spectacular. For us, getting our players involved is important as we see gaming as an important touchpoint for fans. It’s our outlet to millennials, it’s one of our strategies to talk to that younger fan and for the players building their personal brands, it’s a great way to do it. A lot of our players are passionate about gaming and it comes through on the screen.

To see our players with their helmets off, competing against each other and having a good time, storytelling…these are elements that fans don’t typically see. They see the interviews post-game and some hockey clichés. I think you get a little more with this environment. We’re really happy to get this off the ground, we think that this will help spur growth in esports in general but also with our players getting more comfortable reaching out to fans in different environments.

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