Almost as soon as the sporting came to swift and sudden halt as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, displaced sports fans began their search for an alternative. For some, it meant additional time to spend with family. For others, there was the newfound opportunity to catch up on that show they had missed, binge that must-watch series everyone is talking about or, for the less digitally inclined, plow through that stack of books that has been taunting them.
But there are others still, who despite attempts to convince themselves otherwise, have been left with an unscratchable sports itch. Such is the case when one of their favorite pastimes was ripped out of their hands with no concrete timeline for return. And for NHL fans in particular, there loomed the potential for them to relive the horror of the lost 2004-05 campaign and see the season come and go without a Stanley Cup champion crowned. And for those, what is the next-best option? Sports of the virtual reality: esports.
"I have definitely noticed a spike in views. Even more so, I have noticed a spike in interactions on Twitter and my YouTube comment section," said content creator Brent Page, who goes by xTech Hockey. "People are starving for some sort of hockey content. Every day I wake up with messages, Tweets and Snapchats of people just at home with nothing to do, asking when the next video is coming out or a video idea."
Laughable as it may sound, esports is a rapidly growing industry. More than 60 million people watched the League of Legends mid-season invitational online in 2018, with competitors battling for more than $1 million in prize money. EsportsEarnings.com lists the International 2019 DOTA tournament as having the biggest prize pool in gaming history. Advertisers and other big-money stakeholders have taken notice as esports continues to rise in global popularity.
As such, major sports leagues have begun dipping their toes into the virtual landscape, and that includes during this self-quarantining and social-distancing period many find themselves in presently. For instance, a number of NBA teams have streamed virtual versions of the games they would have been playing each night had the season not been suspended. A few AHL teams have followed suit. In addition, a handful of NASCAR drivers and crew members took part in one of the most-watched online races in simulation history over the weekend, and there are plans for more special events expected in the coming weeks.
Compared to other sports, however, hockey hasn’t exploded in gaming popularity. Perhaps that isn't surprising given the NHL hasn’t come close to matching the popularity of the NFL, NBA, MLB or soccer. And while hockey's standing in the esports landscape isn't going to change overnight, the gap could be narrowing as some teams take steps to grow esports programs.
John Casagranda, known online as Johnwayne, became the first professional gamer signed by an NHL team earlier this year when the Washington Capitals inked him to a deal and later streamed a game that pitted Casagranda against Capitals star Evgeny Kuznetsov in January. It's all part of the Capitals' plan to continue developing a bigger esports network built around an online gaming base created by Monumental Sports & Entertainment, who already manage the NBA 2K League's Wizards District Gaming. Jordan Zelniker, the manager of esports business operations for Monumental Sports & Entertainment, said the Capitals have helped run social media coverage for the team's esports events and run them as if it was a real-life NHL game.
But promoting a virtual version of the sport is challenging. Most fans prefer the real thing, especially the older demographic. But there's more to esports than what happens on the online ice. “Why would anyone want to watch video games?" said NHL Gaming World Champion Matt Gutkoski, known online as Top Shelf Cookie. "It kind of gives the NHL community a chance to showcase their personalities. A lot of the esports stuff is about gaming, but it’s also about building a relationship with viewers and giving people another aspect of what entertainment really is.”
What viewers need to understand, too, is that these are more than teenagers and young adults messing around in their spare time. Like professional athletes, the world's top players are training for a significant part of the day and most are in fantastic physical shape to help rely on reflexes and mental stability.
“When you’re watching Top Shelf Cookie or Johnwayne, you want to see the high level of competition that you, sitting in your basement, can’t pull off," Zelniker said. "I think people don’t really understand the size of the skill gap between the top players and casual players.”
Even with that in mind, how can those in the esports space get more eyes on the digital stick-and-puck product? Cameron Halbert, who broadcasts under the gamertag SleevelessGaming, said there's a lot that teams can do themselves to help boost the status of the NHL gaming landscape. "The team-based events are very important to the growth of NHL esports and a structure from the NHL itself will allow them to separate their events over the course of a season," Halbert said. "Something along the lines of a team having one player being represented via a tournament."
That was a sentiment echoed by other content creators, including streamer Michael Nugent, known online as NugeTV, who said the best way to reach those looking to fill the fill the hockey-shaped void in their lives is through pairing up with big-league clubs. "In order for people from outside the Twitch and gaming world to see content on the platform, you'd need to see special events run by NHL teams, as well as content creators making unique content that might drive non-endemic viewers to be interested in the platform," Nugent said.
However, team promotion isn't necessarily where it should end. Lucas Kalish, a longtime content creator known as DontBeSaad20, expanded on that by including players in the conversation. "If you're not already a fan of competitive gaming, you're probably not going to watch a (Chicago) Blackhawks esports tournament, even if you're a Blackhawks fan," Kalish said. "I think it more comes down to integrating the players. I've been seeing all these NBA, soccer players stream on Twitch. It would be like the Columbus Blue Jackets saying, 'We're going to have Elvis Merzlikins stream on Twitch with Nasher.' That would bring in more exposure than a team holding an esports event." (Andrew Telfer, the first hockey esports personality signed to a major hockey apparel deal, goes by Nasher.)
Of course, all of this comes at a time when there is uncertainty about when play will resume in the NHL, AHL or other leagues throughout North America. And while that could trickle down to major gaming events – the NHL hasn't commented on the status of the Gaming World Championship in Vegas later this season – there is still plenty of momentum that can be gained from the qualifying tournaments and online streams. Despite recommendations against mass gatherings and public events, esport competitions can survive in the digital space and remain active. And besides, how else are people going to pass the time?
Kenneth Lehtinen, one of the founders of NHLGamer, a league- and tournament-hosting platform that's been around since 2004, knows that the opportunity is there. "Virtual hockey is still somewhat of a niche,” he said. “And we need to continue working our (butts) off to reach the general public and those people idling to find their desired new pastime."
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