The NHL has unveiled its first foray into eSports – the 2018 NHL Gaming World Championship.
The US$100,000 tournament will feature separate online qualifying events in Canada, the U.S. and Europe with each region sending two finalists to the 2018 NHL Gaming Final set for June 19 in Las Vegas.
The winner will claim the championship trophy, collect a cash prize of $50,000 and take part in the 2018 NHL Awards show.
The NHL sees the virtual hockey tournament as just its opening eSports salvo, with member teams likely to develop their own eSports opportunities down the line. But in organizing the inaugural world championship, the aim is to allow as many people to get involved as possible.
"The more people that participate, the more we can understand what the structure and strategy should be for us moving forward," Keith Wachtel, the NHL's executive vice-president and chief revenue officer, said in an interview.
"So we truly don't know what this will look like in a few years."
The NHL has partnered with EA Sports, which develops its hit NHL video game franchise in suburban Vancouver.
"They know this space better than anyone," said Wachtel.
Sponsors have already got on board. Global partners for the gaming championship include Bridgestone and Honda. Dunkin' Donuts and GEICO are involved in the U.S., with PepsiCo Beverages Canada and Scotiabank in Canada.
The NHL is using its star power to promote the tournament with players like Brad Marchand, Tyler Seguin, Connor Hellebuyck, Victor Hedman and Nathan MacKinnon.
The tournament slogan is: "You think you're good at 'EA Sports NHL 18'? Prove it."
Gamers just need to register and then showcase their skills in single-elimination online qualifier tournaments over four consecutive weekends starting March 24. The qualifiers are open to players residing in Canada, the U.S. and European Union.
The qualifiers will send eight players to each of the regional finals: May 6 in Stockholm, May 11 in Toronto and May 20 in Stamford, Conn. The regional finals, which will be in the form of a double-elimination, in-person tournament, will be hosted by the league's TV partners in those areas.
The winners and runners-up from the three regional finals advance to the Las Vegas finals.
Regional qualifying will feature Xbox One and PlayStation 4 play, with the PS4 as console for the regional and world finals.
The NHL, which joins the NBA and MLS in developing an eSports vehicle, is waiting with interest to see how many people sign up for the tournament.
The NBA is set to tip off its inaugural NBA 2K League season in May with gamers representing 17 NBA franchises including the Toronto Raptors. The Montreal Impact, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps are among 19 MLS teams set to send gamers to the inaugural eMLS Cup in April, with the winner looking to make it to the FIFA eWorld Cup 18 in August.
NFL teams partnered with Electronic Arts on the Madden 18 NFL Club Championship.
Several NHL owners have already invested in esports.
Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (Colorado Avalanche), Anschutz Entertainment Group (Los Angeles Kings) and Comcast Spectacor (Philadelphia Flyers) have bought into teams – the Los Angeles Gladiators, Los Angeles Valiant and Philadelphia Fusion, respectively – in the Overwatch League.
Washington Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis partially owns team Liquid, a successful eSports outfit.
Wachtel says the league tapped into that expertise, as well as that of its sponsors and broadcasters.
"It also starts from the commissioner," he said, referencing Gary Bettman. "This is something that he wanted and ultimately he knows how important this is and here we are. So we're excited about it and we think this is certainly the beginning of what will be a long-term strategy in this area."
The Flyers have already entered the esports field, partnering with WorldGaming on the Snider Hockey Cup which wraps up March 22.
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, part of the NBA 2K League, has already hired pro gamer Philip Balke to carry Toronto FC's flag in the eMLS Cup. MLSE also has hired Shane Talbot as its eSports manager.