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Volume 21 No. 30
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NHL pleased with ‘test and learn’ esports foray

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman presents winner Erik Tammenpaa with the championship trophy.
Photo: Getty Images

After a long, grueling schedule of games in Las Vegas, the NHL’s latest champion went over to accept the trophy from Commissioner Gary Bettman, who was hearing boos from the crowd, and said that he was exhausted.

 

But while the scene was somewhat similar to the presentation of the Stanley Cup to Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin at T-Mobile Arena earlier this month, it actually took place about a mile away from T-Mobile Arena, home of the Vegas Golden Knights, at the Esports Arena Las Vegas at the Luxor.

 

It was the culmination of the NHL’s first foray into esports, the NHL Gaming World Championship, where Finnish 18-year-old Erik “Eki” Tammenpaa took home the title, the trophy and $50,000 for his undefeated efforts playing EA Sports’ “NHL 18.” The in-person crowd of up to a few hundred was seemingly split between inquisitive NHL executives and family and friends of the players, while tens of thousands followed along on Twitch.

 

“It was fun to see; we look at it as a way to bring more connectivity to our game on the ice, particularly with young people,” said Bettman, who attended the event with one of his grandsons. “We won’t be starting a free-standing league and do what some others are doing; we’re not interested in that and we’re not looking to compete at that. What we want to do is use esports to get more people involved in our game and better connected to the teams that they’re fans of.”

 

While NHL Chief Revenue Officer Keith Wachtel said the league primarily looked at its first esports efforts as an opportunity to “test and learn,” it also came away from the roughly three-month-long tournament with an overwhelmingly positive reaction.

 

The initial qualifiers drew more than 15,000 players, which compared favorably to what other “League of Legends” or “DOTA 2” tournaments have drawn on FACEIT, the event’s organizer. The three regional championships, held in Europe, Canada and the U.S. during May, saw increasing views across Twitch, culminating in the U.S. regional peaking at more than 22,000 viewers, even though it aired on a Wednesday afternoon.

 

For the finals, the NHL event saw a peak of 28,124 max concurrent viewers on Twitch, with a total viewer count of 382,516. The average viewer also stayed with the broadcast for more than 13 minutes, compared to 4.7 minutes for the U.S. regional.

 

“It’s been a great success from the standpoint of testing and learning, but we also know that we have something special and exciting here that people are really interested in,” said Wachtel, who noted that 65 percent of the players in the qualifiers were under the age of 30, with an average age of roughly 19.

 

Chris Golier, the NHL’s vice president of business development, said it was extremely helpful to get feedback from the close-knit NHL esports community, including the desire to change from one player controlling an entire team to six players each in charge of a single skater.

 

Both Wachtel and Golier noted that while the call to move the format to six-on-six has been heard, the league feels there is still some work to get to that point, both in terms of development and testing, as well as growing the sheer popularity of the game. It also remains to be seen how EA will respond to those demands.

 

“A key to the success of this property over time is going to be EA and their willingness to embrace this to do what is necessary to grow it,” said Rob Simmelkjaer, NBC Sports Ventures senior vice president. “It’s their game, and that’s what’s funny about esports; you’re ultimately playing an intellectual property that is created by a publisher.”

 

NBC Sports was a partner on the esports efforts, hosted the U.S. regional event and helped in the broadcast production carried on Twitch.

 

The most immediate change will likely be to further localize the events. Wachtel said there is some thought to have each of the NHL’s 31 teams hold their own tournament to select their best local gamer, which could be shown on their RSN and activated against by corporate partners, funneling all of those players to a tournament that could take place in Las Vegas next summer. It could also allow for players on those teams to help boost the social reach of the tournament, as well as potentially play with the gamers.

 

Golier said additional content around the players and the tournament will also be available, as will opportunities for the league, the teams and network partners to dive deeper into the players and what makes them unique. “Content really matters, and I’m not sure anyone in the esports world has really nailed it yet — and we didn’t either — but it’s a combination of gameplay and lifestyle,” Golier said.

 

Other sponsorship opportunities may emerge as well, Wachtel said. Existing NHL sponsors that supported this year’s event included Bridgestone, Dunkin’ Donuts, Honda and Geico, as well as broadcast partners NBC Sports, Sportsnet and Viasat.

 

Wachtel noted that this esports effort was “not going to be a significant money maker for us in the short term,” but that the initiative had the full support of the league’s executive team and its owners. The NHL has engaged The Gamer Agency, acquired last year by Engine Shop, to help its efforts in understanding and strategizing within the esports space.

For more coverage of the business of esports, visit our partners, esportsobserver.com.