NHL teams pushing into esports space

By Mark J. Burns
The second iteration of the San Jose Sharks’ Pacific Cup starts next month. san jose sharks

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.”

SBJ Morning Buzzcast: July 7, 2022

Talking points from Sun Valley; Pac-12 retains Sports Media Advisors; Oak View Group to sell Top Golf national sponsorships and Rapino remains influential with new deal at Live Nation

SBJ Unpacks: LIV Golf tees off in Portland

Ahead of the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic in Illinois and LIV Golf Invitational Portland, SBJ’s Josh Carpenter, and David Rumsey spoke with Sports Illustrated's Bob Harig and Brendan Porath of The Fried Egg to discuss the current state of golf.

SBJ Spotlight: TikTok’s threat to traditional sports media

While tech companies are consumed with finding ways to compete with TikTok, almost no one in conventional media “spends any time talking about it,” said Recode senior correspondent Peter Kafka in an Spotlight interview with SBJ’s John Ourand. “To me, that’s just an obvious disconnect.” Kafka authored a recent column headlined, “It’s TikTok’s world. Can TV live in it?” He said the main response to TikTok’s growth from traditional media execs has been to “punt and hope it’s someone else’s problem a quarter from now or two years from now.” But Kafka said that ignores the trend of conventional broadcast audiences growing older while a billion younger consumers spend most of their media time watching short video after short video. “If you’re in the business of getting anyone under the age of 30 to look at what you’re putting on a screen, you have to think about the fact that you’re probably asking them to put down TikTok and watch your thing instead,” said Kafka. “That’s a very difficult ask. … [TikTok] is insanely addictive.”

Shareable URL copied to clipboard!

Sorry, something went wrong with the copy but here is the link for you.