TMR Q&A: Zach Leonsis on NHL gaming during Sports Hiatus

Gaming in Hockey: A Hot Play On (Virtual) ice

We don’t know how long or how far the engagement in sports gaming will continue at the level that it is at now, but it seems like the interest both by leagues and properties, and frankly by athletes and brands, has been accelerated to the point where what was once looked at as a fringe or an add-on to grasp an outer ring of casual fans will now be steadily in the mix when teams start returning to the field or the ice or the court.

Case in point is the NHL, which is moving along with potential plans for a restart while becoming the latest league to go deeper into the gaming environment, launching the five week long NHL Player Gaming Challenge this past weekend. They join the deep dive the NBA has taken with NBA2K (well before the shutdown occurred), the success NASCAR, IndyCar and F1 have seen with iRacing, and even the fun and engagement MLB has seen with MLB The Show to get players on the sidelines connecting with each other fans, and in some cases the professional gamers themselves, in an environment that is remote but is also good content for fans and media companies.

Click here to read our related story, “More Than Fun and Games: Sports Industry Learning From Simulations and Disruption”

The inaugural NHL Player Gaming Challenge has one or two players per team competing for the title, with each team–plus the NHL’s soon-to-be team in Seattle–will play a one-time match-up against another club in a best-of-three NHL 20 series as all matches will be played on PlayStation 4.

Electronic Arts (EA) and the NHL Foundation are donating a combined $100,000 in support of the CDC Foundation‘s COVID-19 relief efforts. The event is a part of the NHL’s #HockeyAtHome initiative designed to remind fans to stay safe, stay home and play together. NBC Sports Network and Sportsnet One are airing select matches throughout the tournament and games will be streamed on the NHL’s Twitch, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook accounts as well as on NHL.com.

“We know from our NHL Gaming World Championship that we try to highlight these gamers and show a different side of them and their personalities and their backgrounds because people are curious, and they’re interested in that kind of thing. It’s the same thing with our players taking part in this,” NHL VP Chris Golier told NHL.com. “They’re the kings. They’re the show. The game play itself is somewhat secondary. It keeps your eyes going. There’s some dynamic stuff happening on the screen, but it’s the storytelling that’s going to win out in all of this.”

What’s even better for fans of ‘CHEL, as NHL Gaming is called, is that there was both a first mover and a proof of concept that makes the league-wide initiative even more of a safer transition. That has been done by Monumental Sports & Entertainment, owners of the Washington Capitals which created and launched Caps Gaming as a first mover, and then took the interactive concept one step further two weeks ago when they had Alexander “Ovi” Ovechkin face off in an event against fellow NHL legend Wayne Gretzky in an event that not only exceeded viewing expectations, but also cause marketing, raising a solid amount for charity.

For a deeper dive on that first step–and a broader look at gaming engagement as well–we checked back in with Zach Leonsis, SVP, Strategic Initiatives for Monumental Sports & Entertainment & GM of Monumental Sports Network, to talk hockey gaming and beyond.

Click here to read Zach’s TMR POV “Winning with a Great Crossover: How Esports and Gaming Tie Directly To Fan Affinity”

Team Marketing Report: How hard was it to pull together all the pieces for Greztky vs. Ovi? How did it all come together?

LeonsisMonumental S&E

Zach Leonsis: Because of the deep friendship between Gretzky and Ovi, it wasn’t difficult at all! The idea for the charity-driven event was led by Wayne and Alex’s shared desire to give back to their communities during a time of real need. One evening this past March, Tristan Gretzky shared an Instagram video with his father that Ovi had posted featuring him playing NHL20 with his year-old son, Sergei. This post sparked Wayne’s interest, which prompted him to reach out to Alex to see if the two could leverage their collective followings to stream a game of NHL20 for charity.

Alex quickly agreed and our team here at Monumental and the Capitals quickly sprang into action. In close coordination with both players’ agents, we quickly identified two fantastic programs to support in both Washington, D.C., and Edmonton, Alberta. We then identified the key pieces of hardware that each player would need for the event and made sure to complete a proper training, and even a dress rehearsal, in advance of their streaming debut.

One critical component to the execution of the event came down to our previous experiences with our NHL esports streamer, John Wayne. With how big of a following Wayne and Alex both have, we knew that we would need to make their stream as foolproof–and as reliable–as possible. Not only does John Wayne bring an incredible amount of gaming experience to the table, he also brings streaming experience which we could leverage to take that burden off of the two players. With someone on board who could easily stream the match between these two great icons, we quickly assembled our two teams: Alex Ovechkin and John Wayne representing the Capitals vs. Wayne and Tristan Gretzky representing the Oilers.

TMR: Realizing this is unchartered waters…or ice as it may be…did the final results match or exceed expectations and why?

ZL: The match-up streamed live on Twitch was one to remember. Over the course of the near hour and forty-five-minute stream, it enjoyed nearly 300,000 total viewers with peak concurrent viewership maxing out at over 26,000 fans – bigger than a max capacity crowd at a major league arena! Those fans cared too! We are thrilled that the stream blew through its originally stated $10K goal and ultimately raised well over $41K for charity, with Wayne and Alex themselves each volunteering to donate $8K each. The stream was subsequently edited down into an hour-long television length program, featuring additional commentary from both players that aired on NBC Sports Network, the NHL Network and SN1 in Canada.

TMR: We have now seen what Caps Gaming started become an impetus for the NHL to join other leagues in exploring and pushing gaming as an agenda. As a first mover what do you see as the potential for hockey in gaming vs say what the NBA and iRacing have done?

ZL: The beauty of the gaming community is that it is genuinely organic. Esports can also be a great equalizer in terms of play – no matter what your God-given talents or abilities may be, in gaming everyone is equal and you are measured only by your score. The NHL is taking the right trajectory in harnessing best practices from other competitive esports communities and evaluating their own entrance into the marketplace. They understand that this platform is an amazing way to reach and grow younger audiences and they realize young hockey fans can be cultivated through this platform.

The beauty of the gaming community is that it is genuinely organic.

We believe Caps Gaming is not only a terrific marketing opportunity, but has tremendous asset value potential as a separate franchise itself. As we begin the third season of the NBA 2K League this week, we’ve seen great year-over-year growth that bodes well for other sports-related video games.

TMR: When the dust settles and we return to games as we know it, what lessons have you learned thus far for the gaming space that you think will become standard for traditional sports, at least around Caps, Wizards, Mystics, etc.?

ZL: Competition, whether in-real-life or virtual, lends itself to sports betting. When live sports were suspended, esports streamers were still gaming and you saw betting lines developed almost immediately. Even our video simulations games–where we had the game’s artificial intelligence program run the action for all the players–prompted calls within hours of the game announcements from betting providers. We viewed the simulation games as an opportunity to provide fans with some fun and engaging programming for their favorite teams while on hiatus, but we may consider continuing to run simulations even after live games return.

Competition, whether in-real-life or virtual, lends itself to sports betting.

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