Why the NHL are right in their approach to esports

As you may have read in this morning’s Daily Digital Digest, the NHL is getting involved in esports.

This is ice hockey’s first foray into organised esports in the sort of way that we’re seeing other sports go – teaming up with game titles, publishers, teams and players to create a league. But instead of having teams participate by nominating a player each to represent them, the league is setting up a round robin tournament for registered players in three regions – the US, Canada and Europe – with regional finals and then a global final held in Las Vegas.

“What we wanted to do, and this is a little bit different than everyone else, is to be as inclusive as possible. This is a participatory vehicle for us,” Keith Wachtel, the NHL’s chief revenue officer and executive vice president of global partnerships, told ESPN.

Rather than set up an esports league to basically mirror the existing NHL structure, this seems aimed more at creating something new, based more on fans’ interest in playing EA Sports’ NHL 18 online against other players rather than trying to get teams involved too heavily.

Indeed, the NHL is partnering more robustly with its broadcast partners for this venture. In each of the three regions, the specific broadcaster for the region will show the esports events and cover each of the regional finals and global final on their channels. Instead of relying on the interest generated by fans of each team, this relies more on the ability of large broadcasters to make the event a success. It’s a different approach, but it might well turn out to be a better one.

Sometimes trying to mirror the already-popular sport can leave the esport series looking like a pale imitation rather than a different competition altogether. And after all, that’s what it is: it’s a different competition with different personalities who have different skill sets.

Interestingly, though, the NHL see this as about participation rather than anything else. That could be the right approach for big sports leagues who are looking to get involved. Formula 1’s esports world championship attracted nearly 64,000 virtual drivers who participated in the tournament which had its grand final in Abu Dhabi alongside the grand prix last year. Indeed, some sports have been able to recruit new professional athletes or drivers from their esports divisions. More importantly, for sports who are looking to increase their fanbase in new parts of the world – like the NFL or NBA in the UK – can introduce an entirely new audience to the sport by exposing them to the game: one of the problems for sports looking to break into a new territory is not knowing the rules, but simulation games help with that problem enormously.

Perhaps, then, rather than seeing esports as another area into which we can translate our existing world, we should be thinking about how it’s a participation tool, especially when we’re talking about those sports with real world equivalents.

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Chris McMullan
Chris McMullan 772 posts

Chris is a sports journalist and editor of Digital Sport - follow him on Twitter @CJMcMullan_

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