With content consumption patterns changing, the NHL continues to embrace eSports with Player Gaming Challenge

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      It’s not lost on the National Hockey League brain trust that the world we once knew has changed in dramatic ways. And we’re not just talking about what will be remembered as one of the most culture-shifting periods in the history of humankind.

      One of the major things marking the 21st century is a radical shift in the way people consume their entertainment. Music is all about streaming, after decades of vinyl, CDs, cassettes, and 8-tracks. There’s no need to head to the video store or multiplex when you’ve got Apple TV, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. And why spring for Nancy Silverton’s Breads From the La Brea Bakery when YouTube will walk you through every step of making sourdough?

      Sports are no different, with eSports video streaming being the main way NASCAR, NBA, and NHL fans have been getting their fixes this spring.

      Like other major organizations, the NHL has taken our lockdown times and found a positive among the uncertainty.

      Last week, the league gave traditional-hockey-starved fans something to get excited about by announcing the Player Gaming Challenge, a four-week charity tournament featuring players from every NHL team—including the Seattle Kraken! (And no, we don’t care if the NHL expansion franchise ends up being named the Seattle Grunge, Seattle Pioneer Squares, or Seattle Microsofties—there’s only one name that counts, and that’s the Kraken!)

      But the league’s recognition of the booming world of eSports began long before the Player Gaming Challenge, starting with streamed NHL 20 video versions of cancelled COVID-19 games in mid-March.

      When he’s reached by the Straight at his Connecticut home, NHL mobile marketing strategist Chris Golier is excited about how the league has successfully pivoted to eSports.

      In some ways the shift isn’t new. Golier notes the ongoing success of the NHL Gaming World Championship, the 2020 version of which got under way on March 11. That’s where hockey-obsessed gamers from around the globe compete in online matches for this year’s pool of $200,000 in prize money.

      “The objective, right from the beginning, has been ‘Let’s use this gaming platform as a way to reach the younger fans,’ ” Golier says of the eSports tournament, which is now in its third year. “It’s a touchstone for fandom—some people start to learn the game based on playing the game, and in some cases that’s because of the video game.”

      With folks turning to eSports in record numbers to pass the time—think everything from eNASCAR races to NBA2K20 to NHL 20—the challenge became capitalizing on that. Giving hockey fans something to get excited about a time when the Stanley Cup Playoffs would normally be in full swing added an extra incentive.

      It was out of this that the Player Gaming Challenge was born. Step one was reaching out to teams, and the response to the tournament was enthusiastic across the board. Fifty players from the 31 existing NHL franchises signed on, with Thatcher Demko and Adam Gaudette eager to represent the Vancouver Canucks.

      The Player Gaming Challenge will see players from each team competing head-to-head from their homes, in games viewable on platforms ranging from Twitch, Facebook, and YouTube to television broadcasts on Sportsnet ONE and NBCSN.

      Working with its teams as well as the NHL Players’ Association, the NHL had a good idea which players were already active on streaming platforms and social media. A short list of participants includes Ryan Reaves (Vegas Golden Knights), Filip Forsberg (Nashville Predators), Evgeny Kuznetsov (Washington Capitals), and Zach Hyman (Toronto Maple Leafs).

      A big goal of the tournament is to engage fans through in-game banter—and if you’ve ever heard players miked up during an on-ice NHL game, you know that what gets said behind the play and between the whistles is fascinating. Considering that participants include the famously colourful likes of the Calgary Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk and his brother Brady from the Ottawa Senators, the NHL 20 gameplay in some ways seems like bonus content.

      “The Tkachuk brothers were actually taped over the weekend, and you can imagine there was some good chirping going on,” Golier says with a laugh. “We tried to align the matchups in that way—either there was a common bond where they’d played together in the pros or juniors, or came from the same area and came up together in a province. In some cases we had college teammates. We tried to group them together in that way, so the actual matches themselves would be a whole lot of fun.”

      Some games have already been taped for the tournament, which officially starts April 30, and Golier says there’s a major payoff for those who love hockey.

      “It gives fans another point of reference for the players,” he suggests. “The players are human—they have families, and they’re in this quarantine together. They’re working out the best they can, much like we’re all trying to get a run in. To see that side of the players they normally don’t see—gaming is the conduit here. It’s the conversation starter, and it also allows the players to get their juices flowing again. They don’t want to lose, even though all this is for fun and for charity.”

      And yes, hockey fans aren’t the only big winners of the Honda-sponsored Player Gaming Challenge. NHL 20 game publisher Electronic Arts donated $70,000 to COVID-19 relief as part of the initiative, an amount matched by the NHL.

      The important message in a time of crisis is an oft-repeated one: we’re all in this together.

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