Later this year the NHL expects to hold its fifth annual World Gaming Championship, which brings together the world’s best EA Sports NHL players to compete for a six-figure prize pool. Although there are no plans in place for the NHL to develop a stand-alone esports league along the lines of the NBA’s 2K League, that hasn’t prevented individual NHL teams from entering the esports and gaming space in recent years.
In November 2019, Monumental Sports & Entertainment, parent organization for the Washington Capitals, signed the NHL’s first pro esports player, John “JohnWayne” Casagranda. The San Jose Sharks saw immediate success with a tournament they launched last year. And earlier this month, the New York Islanders became the league’s first franchise to sign six pro gamers to the newly launched Isles Gaming Team.
“This is a great way to reach a younger demographic and tap into this new audience, especially coinciding with the opening of UBS Arena,” said Jeff Fischer, the vice president of partnership sales for the Islanders and UBS Arena and one of two executives who spearheads the franchise’s gaming efforts.
NHL team executives estimate that around one-third of the league’s 32 clubs have a dedicated competitive esports or gaming vertical. Among the reasons teams are devoting resources to the still nascent space: exposing a club’s brand to new fans and audiences; increased engagement with the local community; and the ability to use gaming and esports as a marketing platform. Unlocking new revenue with current and prospective sponsors is also part of the rationale, though there is less of an emphasis on that at the moment.
“It’s collaborative with our partnership development and new business partnerships team on seeking out opportunities where we can diversify what our brand means,” said Patrick Hooper, San Jose Sharks director of integrated marketing, who oversees the team’s gaming efforts.
In early 2021, the Sharks’ esports efforts included hosting a 6-vs.-6-style esports tournament dubbed the Sharks Pacific Cup, featuring Western Digital as a presenting sponsor, 110 registered teams and a $25,000 prize pool. There were 2,400 unique viewers per broadcast on Twitch, the club said. For the second iteration of the Pacific Cup, which begins in February and culminates in April, the team upped the cash prizes awarded to $30,000, the largest prize pool to date for this style of competition.
The Islanders, who are expected to enter the Sharks’ competition with their six players, are led by newly hired Jordan Zelniker, esports strategy lead who formerly worked at MSE. He said that the signings “put a face to our brand … and gave our fans people to root for.”
Like the Sharks, the Islanders are focused on first building their community of fans and a sizable audience, with an eye on becoming revenue positive in 2022 and announcing sponsors in the coming months. The Islanders saw immediate success with the launch of registrations for their first livestreamed esports tournament, the IGT Circuit, which begins Jan. 31 and ends March 9. Roughly 600 players registered on Jan. 7, the first day available, filling out all of the allotted slots. According to Zelniker, the club originally planned for a three-week registration.
As the Islanders make their first foray into esports, team executives said they’ll evaluate how they may integrate the teams’ signed players into the concourse fan experience at UBS Arena, potentially as early as the 2022-23 season. The Anaheim Ducks are considering a similar on-site initiative at Honda Center as part of the Ducks Gaming vertical, though the organization doesn’t have a signed pro gamer yet.
“As a hockey culture, we hear a lot about esports, and hockey fans hear a bit about esports, but how many people have had the experience of actually seeing it happening live?” said Merit Tully, Anaheim’s vice president of marketing. “That’s the part of being authentic to building fans both with the Ducks and Ducks Gaming.”
Tully said the team is exploring a recurring initiative with Ducks forward Max Jones called “Mondays with Max,” which would see Jones, a passionate gamer, livestream from the team’s Twitch channel and engage with the community.
The Ducks and Florida Panthers are also in the early stages of weighing other genres of games beyond EA Sports NHL that it could dive into from a content and programming standpoint. Sam Doerr, the Panthers’ chief strategy officer, specifically mentioned the likes of Counter-Strike, Rocket League and Call of Duty and the opportunity for the franchise to “expand our reach” outside of traditional NHL and hockey fans, a remark echoed by the Ducks’ Tully.
According to Doerr, the Panthers are having internal talks about hosting a Madden tournament on Super Bowl Sunday next month with University of Miami (Fla.) quarterback D’Eriq King, who signed an NIL deal with the Panthers last August. As part of Season 1 of FLA Panthers Gaming, which officially launched in 2020, the Panthers are hosting 1-vs.-1 EA Sports NHL ’22 virtual tournaments throughout the next few months before determining what the next quarter will look like from a content standpoint.
“It’s not like we’re making a ton of money off of this right now, but we do want to have a healthy starting point, and we think we’re there,” said Doerr. “Hopefully, it can lead to us having in-person tournaments, whether it’s around the league or with other gaming titles. We think there’s some natural overlap with influencers and NIL athletes, but for now, we’re just trying to build that organic ecosystem.”