Can the NHL avoid disaster in new esports initiative?

Crowds pack arenas worldwide to take in the biggest esports events, and the NHL is hoping for a piece of that action. Linus Escandor II for ESPN

On some nights, J.T. Brown is a right wing with the Anaheim Ducks. On other nights, Brown is a pink, anthropomorphic bear, climbing atop suburban houses to take out opponents with an array of high-tech weapons.

Brown, 27, is one of the National Hockey League's most prominent gamers, with his own Twitch channel where fans can watch him play games like "Fortnite." He's part of a competitive gaming boom that saw esports earn over $1.5 billion in revenue last year, with hundreds of millions of users. "League of Legends" alone claims 84 million active players.

It's an industry that has seen investment from numerous sports leagues and individuals, like Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who is the co-owner of the juggernaut Team Liquid. "Esports is a transcendent, fast-growing sport. It's no longer underground. The numbers are astounding," he told YES Network. "My prediction is that esports will be as big as the NHL in five years."

After the NBA, NFL and FIFA all jumped into the competitive gaming pool, it was inevitable that the NHL would as well. Brown just hopes that, as his two passions collide, the NHL does it carefully.

"The biggest thing is getting it right the first time, and making sure that the format is set up correctly," he told ESPN. "All the rules need to be set. They have to make sure it goes fluid the first time, so they can have a second time."

To get it right, the NHL has decided to keep it simple.

On Friday, the league announced its first major investment in the esports arena with the 2018 NHL Gaming World Championship, a multiweek EA Sports "NHL 18" tournament featuring one-on-one games between players from the U.S., Canada and Europe. Six gamers will advance to a round-robin finale at esports Arena Las Vegas at Luxor Hotel and Casino in June. The champion will receive in the neighborhood of $50,000 and will appear on the NHL Awards broadcast with a tournament trophy.

It's not the massive 6-on-6 tournament many EA Sports Hockey League players were hoping for, nor is it a 31-team league that would mimic the NHL.

But it's a first step to what the NHL hopes will be a thriving esports league.

"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. It's a very complicated ecosystem."

That it is. To that end, maneuvering through the esports space is a lot like a video game itself: They could end up collecting countless coins and raising the victory flag, or they could fall off a cliff and it's game over, man.

The 2018 NHL Gaming World Championship is a joint venture between the league and three of its global broadcast partners: NBC Sports, Sportsnet in Canada and Viasat in Europe. They'll provide coverage of the tournament in its various stages, with regional finals held in their studios. (Players will travel on the NHL's dime.)

All games will be played in standard competitive "Online Versus 1-vs-1 Mode" within "NHL 18" on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, until the regional rounds when it'll be PlayStation 4 exclusive. Over four consecutive weekends starting March 24, players who register via FaceIt will participate in a massive single-elimination online tournament. Eventually, eight players from each region will travel to a regional final, comprised of a double-elimination, in-person tournament.

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 in Las Vegas 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.

Why make this a one-on-one tournament, when one of the appeals of esports is team play?

Chris Golier, the NHL's vice president of business development, said the league "wanted to have everybody play and be eligible. Finding 3-on-3 and 6-on-6 teams was too cumbersome."

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

This isn't, however, what most gamers told us they wanted from an NHL esports league. ESPN conducted over 40 interviews with active online hockey gamers before the NHL's announcement, and found the majority of them preferred 6-on-6 or 3-on-3 games.

"I think if the NHL wants to have a thriving league, they need to make the league focused around 6-on-6 EASHL, which is by far the most competitive mode in the game due to the lack of computer players. This means that the game is 100 percent relied on the individual players and the team's overall skill," said Lucas Kalish, who plays EA Sports Hockey League online.

"I think the 6-on-6 mode also allows NHL teams themselves to market individual players that would grow the esport, similar to what teams like OpTic Gaming and Cloud9 have done in 'Call of Duty,' 'Counter Strike' and more."

This is an essential part of the esports success story: the personalities of the gamers coming through and being the reason fans stay engaged. It's not just simply watching someone roll through "Fortnite." It's listening to them talk on Twitch or reading their tweets or watching their videos. The gamers themselves become as much an attraction as the game.

Wachtel said the NHL is going to attempt to spotlight the personalities in its tournament. As it reaches regionals, the league's television partners are going to do features on the remaining players.

"This is going to be a player-driven opportunity for us. We have to make sure they're getting the ecosystem of hockey excited about this," he said.

If there's any sport that could use an infusion of personality, it's the NHL.

"What I hope is that the NHL decides to not be incrementally creative, but to be massively disruptive," said Ari Segal, president and chief operating officer of the global esports organization Immortals. "Make it a gamer-first enterprise that's not about creating an avatar of Anze Kopitar and making him great, but making it about the gamers and their personalities."

Before joining Immortals, Segal was the COO of the Arizona Coyotes, which presented its unique challenges -- both the market, and trying to be a creative force within the NHL. He struggled to push marketing initiatives through the league's stodgy filters and grew frustrated when out-of-the-box ideas were spiked because of conservative norms.

When asked about the NHL's future in esports, Segal was torn. He was enthusiastic, but concerned about what audience the NHL is trying to reach.

"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 said.

"On the other hand, in order to succeed in this market, you have to be really, really precise about who your target is. Is it an opportunity for the NHL to double down with their existing market, but lower the barriers of entry to make it more accessible to people they're already reaching in some way? Or is it instead intended to be a market expander? If it's the latter, it has almost no chance to succeed. It falls apart on the basic premise, which is non-hockey fans finding their way to hockey because there's an esport connected to NHL 18."

Wachtel said the primary audience is the young fan who likes hockey but doesn't consume it regularly on television or at the arena. But he believes that non-hockey fans will be drawn into the tournament, too, because who doesn't like a trip to Vegas and some prize money, right?

"These guys, in their own right, are competitive athletes. They're going to be looking to compete in any competitive tournament," he said. "Am I saying that every gamer playing 'DOTA' or 'League Of Legends' is going to play in this tournament? Maybe, maybe not."

Connecting with a younger demographic isn't easy, but the NHL does have one advantage in its first foray into esports -- a lot of hockey fans who are gamers and have been waiting for something like this.

"I will 100 percent watch esports for NHL," said Kevin Levasseur, who plays EASHL on Xbox One. "I have been playing this game competitively for so long, wishing something like this would eventually happen. I just see a big window for them and hopefully when they watch their first four-OT playoff game they will realize how intense this can be."

While there have been EASHL leagues in existence for several years -- many with robust numbers -- having the NHL actually backing this tournament is key.

"The biggest asset this e-league would have is the backing of the NHL itself. In the current game, the biggest challenge is the incentive to play -- and having a platform as big as the league itself will be more than enough of a draw to bring in the top talent in the game," said Michael Lenz, 27, who has played NHL since 2009 and started broadcasting on Twitch in 2015.

"For the league to work, it needs to have the look and feel of being part of the actual NHL. Now of course, I don't mean we all would need seats to every Ranger game in the Garden, but just sticking to a schedule, having a working community hub would be key. Players will always be competitive, but having the validation of any kind of community is what truly drives them."

As the NHL admits, this is the embryonic phase of its esports adventure. But even at this stage, there are some of essential concerns for the gaming community.

"One major thing that makes me pessimistic about a possible esports league coming to the NHL franchise is that this year's game [NHL 18] has arguably been the most flawed version of the game released to date," said Trevor Katz, who plays on Xbox One in the League Gaming Hockey League. "The AI is overpowered in every way, and people exploit that to the fullest extent. This is why a 6-on-6 league would be the only way for NHL esports to be possible."

There were gamers who discussed connectivity issues and lag time in games, and the NHL is prepared for there to be some disruptions during the tournament.

"The scenario isn't perfect for everybody. We understand that. We're going to make it as fun and engaging as we can," Golier said.

Said Wachtel: "If the issue is lag because we have too many people playing, I'll take that every day of the week."

Then there's the numbers issue. The competitive leagues and tournaments built around "Madden," FIFA and NBA games are drawing from fan bases that eclipse those of the NHL.

"I think one of the biggest challenges this league could face will be a lack of interest and popularity. The NHL community is very small in comparison to other sports games, which is why many people are skeptical that this league will ever happen or will ever succeed. The success of any esport depends on the viewership and interest it produces, and unfortunately NHL viewership on Twitch is incredibly low, with the top streamers getting around 150 viewers on good days. That number drops significantly if the streamers were playing EASHL 6-on-6 instead of HUT [their usual game mode] as well," said a gamer who goes by Leafy.

Leafy opted not to share her name with us because she has dealt with "negative encounters due to being the only female in this community." This is, unfortunately, another aspect of esports -- the toxic side. The misogyny that leaves many women on the sideline of competitive gaming, even as their usage numbers rate about 50 percent of all gamers. Racial and homophobic slurs exist everywhere from random gamers to pros in the Overwatch League.

"We're going to police as best we can. This isn't a foolproof situation by any means. We're trying to address these head-on and have the tournament run smoothly as best we can. Face It is our partner on the community side. Between them, us and hopefully some community evangelists, we can police it," Golier said.

Policing the e-tournament is something that gave many of the gamers pause: Where does it stop? Will it seek to police the hateful language, or will it infringe on the personalities of the players?

"The NHL's reluctance to do anything fun or cool makes me pessimistic," said Michael Loza, who plays EASHL, sharing what was a common sentiment in our interviews.

Segal believes that the NHL shouldn't put a muzzle on its gamers.

"If you can use this to create personalities, use off-color language, put themselves before the team, talk about things other than getting pucks deep ... now you're creating content that's compelling to a different audience," he said. "Could you imagine the Ducks or Penguins if Ryan Getzlaf was tweeting at Sidney Crosby after a huge loss and said 'great game'? Well, that authenticity is what connects with this demographic."

Many of these concerns regard what's to come, rather than what the NHL has now. But they're concerns to be considered, because the growth of esports would indicate that this is a toe in the pool for the NHL before a dive into the deep end.

"This is not a fad. What we're seeing is the birth of a new sport," Leonsis said.

Additional reporting by Emily Kaplan of ESPN.