The NHL Gaming Player Challenge Is Coming
With things continuing to be in a holding pattern in the world of professional sports, we’ve seen a massive increase in interest in alternative ways to see our favorite athletes and teams in action. The NBA 2K Players Tournament took place earlier this month while the Madden NFL 20 Celebrity Tournament and the MLB The Show Players League are underway right now. Following in the footsteps of the other three major pro sports leagues in the United States, the NHL, while a bit behind the curve, looks like they’ll be taking the next step into being involved in the Esports phenomenon.
On Thursday, the league announced that the first-ever NHL Player Gaming Challenge, presented by Honda, would take place in coordination with ESL Gaming. There will be at least one, and in several cases, two players representing each of the NHL’s 31 current franchises. In addition, Luke Willson, a tight end for the Seattle Seahawks, will represent the Seattle franchise, which to this point is unnamed and slated to take the ice for the first time in the 2021-22 season. The National Hockey League Foundation, along with EA, will donate a combined $100,000 to the CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 relief efforts.
Each week, the matchups will be revealed and the games will be televised on a variety of different platforms. NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) will televise the first contests, which take place April 30, beginning at 5 pm ET. Calgary squares off with Ottawa in a battle of the Tkachuk brothers (Matthew for Calgary, Brady for Ottawa), along with Columbus and Winnipeg, to highlight the first night’s action. Contests will take place on Thursdays and Sundays for the next four weeks beginning April 30. All games will be streamed on the NHL’s Twitch channel while YouTube, Twitter, Facebook also will have games. Footage will also appear during the NHL Network’s normal programming, which will be a boost for the network, which has had little to show since the league went into pause mode in mid-March. In Canada, games are going to be televised on SportsNet One. In addition, NHL.com will have games to view.
LA Kings announcer Alex Faust will host the weekly matchups, something that NHL VP of Business Operations and Innovation Chris Golier says isn’t necessarily focused on competition as the primary directive.
“We’re seeing a lot of our players out there actively streaming. Some are doing it with a charitable component, some are doing it because they just love gaming and they’re just getting out there and talking to fans. So we don’t see this as being much different than that – it’s a nice loose, laid back format that helps to create and continue the conversation. We think that it’s a good format for engagement.”
Faust said that it won’t only be about the game itself either, saying that he wants to engage the competitors in talking about the sport in general. “We want to talk hockey. We want to get hockey in front of the fans, having conversations, and we think this kind of format where our teams are featured is a good way to do that.”
There is no shortage of star talent in the tournament for the league to point to. In addition to the Tkachuk brothers, Jonathan Huberdeau, Chris Kreider, James van Riemsdyk, Evander Kane, Zach Hyman, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Kyle Connor are among the bigger names in the mix. Young guns Alex DeBrincat, Mackenzie Blackwood, Filip Forsberg and Elvis Merzlikins are involved as well. Several of the players are big gamers and could be considered the early favorites, though lines have not been released as of yet.
It’s a smart move by the NHL to cash in on the growing Esports trend. Earlier this week, the matchup between Wayne Gretzky and Alex Ovechkin raised more than $40,000 for charity and drew solid viewing numbers with more than 300,000 viewers via the Capitals Twitch channel. While the NHL, as usual, is behind the curve, one has to applaud their efforts to draw interest from the fans in this quiet time for sports.