Why the NHL’s acceptance of player gaming is a small step that makes real progress

Annotation 2020-05-02 221011
Photo courtesy of NHL/YouTube

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been spending a lot of your time lately in front of a TV or computer screen. When it comes to everyday life in the middle of a pandemic, digital media offers some of the easiest ways you can try to escape for a few hours, be it watching a movie, binging a TV series or playing video games.

With the NHL closing in on two months since the 2019-20 season went on pause, it forced the league to find some new ways to entertain the quarantined masses. And this week, they went in a surprising new direction; one that involves the faces of the sport playing hockey in a new medium.

Thursday marked the launch of the NHL’s new Player Gaming Challenge, a streaming series born out of the coronavirus pandemic that pits players from all 31 teams (and one NFL player representing the upcoming 32nd team in Seattle) against each other in three game sets of NHL 20. The games will not only be broadcast across the usual video game streaming services like Twitch and YouTube, but select matchups will also find their way onto Sportsnet in Canada and NBCSN in the US.

This marks the first time that the league has made a serious effort to showcase their athletes on the digital stage. Numerous Twitch streaming channels for NHL players and teams have seemed to spring up overnight, with many using the platform to help raise money for COVID-19 care.

The decision to broadcast NHL players playing a hockey video game might seem like an insignificant one, but when it comes to the sport’s culture this move is a serious breath of fresh air.

If one’s been around hockey for even a short period of time, they’d know it’s a culture that doesn’t accept change well. As technology and social norms have continuously evolved over the course of history, hockey has always seemed to be a step or two behind the rest of society.

There’s no better example of that than the NHL’s stance on video games. While games have become an extremely popular form of art and entertainment, the league’s stance on it when it comes to their own players has always been a contentious one.


Game Time?

In years past, video games have been derided by some higher ups in the sport as a distraction or an addiction and have even been used as a reason for a team or player’s performance on the ice. Players who felt bringing the consoles on team road trips were an exercise in team bonding have sometimes been told otherwise. And in the case of more introverted players, some get chastised by management and other players for wanting to stay in the hotel room with their PlayStation 4, instead of going out with their more rowdy teammates.

So even though the world’s transition to quarantine life definitely has something to do with the NHL’s sudden interest in broadcasting their athletes picking up a controller, it’s still an important step forward for a league that’s had a checkered past of not only embracing gaming, but promoting their players in interesting ways away from the rink.

Thanks to this new generation of hockey players who’ve grown up in the social media age, NHLers are becoming more open to showing their personality off the ice. Players have started appearing in more ad campaigns, fashion magazines and even league-created content like a series of magic trick videos in the world’s most unfurnished high rise apartment. Baby steps.

Having a friendly gaming competition between players is a great start, but now they need to stick the landing and find a reason to bring this back on a regular basis. And it doesn’t have to stop at hockey games, either.

There’s a massive library of game titles on various consoles that the league could have their stars take a run at. I’d pay good money to watch Bo Horvat, Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle broadcast their in-flight MarioKart tournaments during the season, and I doubt I’m alone on that.

The Bigger Picture

NHLers aside, the league has always seemed to trail behind other sports leagues in getting more involved with the gaming medium. Both the NBA and MLS have fully embraced eSports by setting up full NBA2k and FIFA leagues, where gamers are drafted to represent their respective franchises in online basketball and soccer matches.

The NHL took a small step forward in that direction by introducing the annual NHL Gaming World Championship back in 2018, and individual teams like the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens have started their own official eSports brands. Here in Vancouver, Canucks Sports and Entertainment has yet to create a hockey-based gaming team, but they do own a pair of eSports teams in the Vancouver Titans of the Overwatch League and the Seattle Surge of the Call of Duty League.

There seems to be a plan within the league of building towards a potential NHL eSports league, but so far that concept has yet to gain any real traction since the GWC’s launch. But considering the financial hit from COVID-19 the league could potentially take in regards to the on-ice product, now is as good a time as any to more seriously explore the idea further as an added revenue stream for the league and its players. Especially one that doesn’t require in-person attendance.

The NHL still has a long way to go when it comes to showcasing their players and fully embracing the eSports market. But if they can make this Player Gaming Challenge an annual occurrence, they can easily knock out two enemies with one button combo.

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