NHL enters esports market with international tournament

After months of speculation, the National Hockey League finally revealed its first venture into esports on Friday: the 2018 NHL Gaming World Championship, a global EA Sports "NHL 18" tournament that will culminate in a championship round held in Las Vegas in June.

"This is our first foray into what we're calling competitive gaming. We're extremely excited about it, and we've been very careful about launching it the right way," said Keith Wachtel, the NHL's chief revenue officer and executive vice president of global partnerships. "But it's very much an embryonic, Phase One for us."

The tournament is a joint venture between the league and three of its global broadcast partners: NBC Sports, Sportsnet in Canada and Viasat in Sweden, who will each host a regional final and will produce content about the championship during its various stages.

Over four consecutive weekends starting March 24, registered players will play one-on-one games in the single-elimination online qualifier tournaments. The qualifiers will be open to players residing in Canada, the European Union and the United States. The tournament will include qualifier tournaments for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles, before the PS4 becomes the exclusive console for the regional final and championship round.

The European finalists will compete at Viasat studios in Stockholm on Sunday, May 6. Canadian regional finalists will compete in Toronto on Friday, May 11. U.S. regional finalists will compete at NBC Studios in Stamford, Connecticut, on Sunday, May 20. All three regionals will be covered by the networks.

The winner and runner-up from each regional final will then advance to Las Vegas for the 2018 NHL Gaming Final -- a round-robin-style tournament -- hosted at the new Esports Arena Las Vegas at Luxor Hotel and Casino on Tuesday, June 19. The top two gamers will emerge from the round robin to face off in a best-of-three final round to determine the 2018 NHL Gaming world champion, who could receive upward of $50,000, a championship trophy and would appear during the NHL Awards in Vegas.

Rather than having a massive 31-team league or involving multiplayer teams, the NHL opted for a more limited approach in holding this tournament.

"What we wanted to do, and this is a little bit different than everyone else, is to be as inclusive as possible," Wachtel said. "This is a participatory vehicle for us. We're making it extremely simple. It's a test-and-learn phase for us."

Fans have played in the EA Sports Hockey League online for several seasons, but this is the first official move into esports by the NHL. Many people within the league have invested in esports previously, including Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, Los Angeles Kings owner AEG and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.

Ari Segal, a former COO with the Arizona Coyotes who is now the COO of the Esports Immortals team, is optimistic that the NHL can succeed in the space.

"I'm excited that they're trying out-of-the-box methods to reach a young audience that might not otherwise be familiar with or enthusiastic about NHL content," he told ESPN. "On the other hand, in order to succeed in this market, you have to be really, really precise about who your target is."