Will NHL Follow Other Sports in Having an Esports Tournament

Esports Tournament

Over the last few years, eSports has taken off like no one could have ever imagined. Though previously seen as not much more than a hobby or sideshow at best, its popularity has soared.

Events frequently sell tens of thousands of tickets in big stadiums as well as attracting millions of viewers online and on TV. If you need any indication as to just how big eSports has become, you only need to look at the eyewatering prize money at stake in some of the biggest events.

The Fortnite World Cup in 2019 had a prize pool of $30 million, as well as being hosted at the famous Arthur Ashe Stadium with an attendance of over 23,000. With sports betting now legalized in more than half of the 52 states, you can now even wager on eSports as you would typical sports.

Stanley Cup odds currently have the Carolina Hurricanes as favorites to lift the trophy and with the most exciting period on the NHL calendar approaching we are likely to see renewed interest in the NHL video game.

Some of the biggest eSports tournaments are contested via sports-simulators. EA Sports FC (FKA FIFA), Madden NFL and even Formula One all have major tournaments with big prizes available.

They are frequently among the most attended events in the industry and many professional sports teams now have their own eSports affiliates. Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain are two juggernauts of European soccer and have now got their foot in the eSports door.

However, one sports simulator video game that has yet to see the same competitive exposure that its compatriots has is EA Sports’ NHL. This is even more surprising when you consider the history of the sport and video games, specifically their partnership with EA.

NHL Hockey is one of the longest running series’ of video games released by Electronic Arts. Now one of the biggest names in the gaming industry, EA have consistently found success with sports simulator games, dating back to 1988 with John Madden Football.

PGA Tour Golf followed in 1990 and then came NHL Hockey in 1991, meaning this relationship dates back over 30 years. 

First released on the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, then L.A Kings goaltender Glenn Healy was the cover star and has since been recognized as one of the best Mega Drive video games of all time. 

They have released at least one NHL title every year since without fail across multiple platforms. They have all but monopolized ice hockey simulator games despite competition from 2K, who also release the premier, yearly NBA video game. So why are we yet to see it make as big a splash in the eSports scene?

One of the most obvious reasons is reach. In Canada, NHL is consistently one of if not the, best selling video game. Sales in the US are strong, though NFL and NBA simulators outsell them considerably which is to be expected. 

When it comes to Europe however, the reach drops off dramatically. Ice hockey is only unofficially recognized as the national sport of one other nation, Latvia.

This can go some way in explaining why we are yet to see a major NHL eSports tournament as the demand is significantly lower in the major markets when compared to other sports video games.

 That is not to say there has been no success, however. There is an EA Sports NHL World Championship competition presented by EA Sports. This year’s final was hosted in New York and won by Ethan ‘Polgz’ Kerr-Polgar, who represented the Toronto Maple Leafs. He earned his first EA SPORTS NHL 24 title, the $30,000 USD grand prize and a custom hockey stick trophy.

Though the grand prize is handsome in a vacuum, it pales in comparison to competitions of the like. For example, EA announced the FC Pro League for their EASFC title in February which features a US$1.3 million prize pool.

The announcement came on the heels of Paulo “PHzin” Henrique’s victory at the FC Pro Open, which EA Sports said was watched by nearly 320,000 fans. The viewership for the NHL World Championships was also significantly lower with the 2023 tournament peaking at around 3,860 viewers.

Going forward, the biggest challenge to a breakout moment could be the skill gap. Although NHL Hockey is one of the longest running EA titles on the market, it has never cracked the European market quite like the NBA and the NFL has.

This, paired with the fact that EASFC has a virtual stranglehold on Europe, means that even the most avid gamers are likely to struggle when picking the game up for the first time. 

The sport of ice hockey is growing however, which has come alongside the advent of live streaming. It is now easier to watch than ever making it easier to get more eyes on the sport.

EA have made strides to improve gameplay, graphics and immersion with every release and partnered with more eyes on the sport itself, this could mean we will be seeing more tournaments and more players in the not too distant future.

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