The NHL's future in esports

Erik Tammenpaa, aka EKI, was the winner of the inaugural NHL Gaming World Championship held June 19 in Las Vegas. Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

LAS VEGAS -- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was standing in the back of the recently opened Esports Arena inside of the Luxor Hotel & Casino with his 11-year-old grandson, Matthew, watching the first NHL Gaming World Championship.

It was perhaps the first time in his tenure as commissioner that Bettman might have been inclined to lean on the advice of his grandson.

"A lot of kids my age are really into esports," Matthew said. "They're playing the games, watching it on Twitch, and they're getting engaged. I think it's only going to get bigger and bigger."

Bettman has been the NHL's commissioner for 25 years and has been in professional sports for nearly 40 years. But when it comes to the league's first foray into the billion-dollar world of esports, the thoughts of an 11-year-old -- who plays Fortnite and watches Ninja on Twitch -- can be just as valuable as Bettman's four decades of experience.

"We wanted this to be another touch point and another connection to our real game," Bettman said. "We weren't looking to start something different. We weren't looking to start a different league. We wanted to have our fans, who were into esports, to have a way to play our game and connect to our game."

Bettman watched the NBA start the NBA 2K League, and all 32 NFL teams are involved in the Madden NFL Club Championship, but he wasn't looking to start a new league. He simply wanted to test the waters this year with the NHL Gaming World Championship, which attracted about 15,500 fans from around the world who play EA Sports' NHL 18, with two-thirds of them between the ages of 20 and 30.

The winner and runner-up from the U.S., Canada and Europe flew to Las Vegas for a round-robin style tournament between the six regional finalists, with the top two players squaring off in a best-of-three final to determine the first NHL Gaming World Champion. Erik "Eki" Tammenpaa, an 18-year-old native of Espoo, Finland, won the $50,000 grand prize out of a total of purse of $100,000 awarded to the finalists.

The streaming numbers, attendance and popularity of traditional sports games might never reach that of popular esports games such as League of Legends, Dota and Overwatch. The NHL, however, was happy that its streaming numbers on Twitch were on par with and at times exceeded those of the NBA and NFL, which is a rarity in almost every other popularity metric.

Although the NHL has no plans to start something like the NBA 2K League, it does have plans to get every team involved next year. At some point in the near future, there are plans to move toward a six-versus-six game rather than one-versus-one.

"In year one, we wanted to be prudent and approach this cautiously. We needed to test and learn, and we did that in a number of different scenarios from the content and promotion," said Chris Golier, NHL vice president of business development. "In year two, we're going to invite our clubs in. It's not going to be a full-blown league, but we're going to have teams participate in some way, shape or form. We're going to have locally activated tournaments that will be part of the overall construct of the league. The clubs are excited."

The goal of the NHL's involvement in esports is to get a younger demographic playing the video game and, in the process, get them to become fans of the actual NHL and the teams and players they connect with through the game.

"We want to use esports to build more interest and a greater connectivity to our game through the hockey video game," Bettman said. "It's complementary."

One of the highlights for some of the players who advanced to the NHL Gaming World Championship was hearing from their favorite NHL players. John Wayne Casagranda, the winner of the U.S. regional, got a call from Shane Doan, the former captain of the Arizona Coyotes, his favorite team. Casagranda, who finished third and won $10,000 in the tournament, lives in Anchorage, Alaska, but said he travels to a couple of Coyotes games every season, and he was invited to attend a game next season as a guest of the team.

"It's surreal," he said. "I never thought all of this would come from playing the game. It's incredible."

The goal is for that connection between the players of the game and NHL players and teams to continue to grow next year and in the coming years, as the league moves toward each team having its own esports team comprised of six players.

"We want to build on the momentum we created during this first year," said Keith Wachtel, NHL executive vice president and chief revenue officer. "We want to get more players involved. We want to make this more about the clubs and teams and have players involved where players and teams are getting on social media and saying, for example, 'Root for Player X, who's representing the Philadelphia Flyers at the NHL World Gaming Championships.' I think more people will get involved and engaged when that starts happening."

After the first NHL World Gaming Championship, Bettman reiterated the importance of esports the following day at the league's board of governors meeting in Las Vegas. As pleased as he was with the league's entry into the space, teams and players will have to get more involved to increase the popularity of the video game and tournament -- and, by extension, the popularity of the NHL with a young, highly engaged demographic.

"This was an incredible rollout," Bettman said. "But this is just the beginning of us doing bigger and grander things with esports."