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NHL Teams Are Utilizing Esports To Keep Fans Engaged During Coronavirus Pandemic

5/14/2020 11:35:00 PM

NHL teams like the New Jersey Devils are using esports like NHL 20 to engage and interact with their fans while the coronavirus pandemic has the league on pause.

New Jersey got Matt Loughlin, its radio announcer, to do the play-by-play for the games. The team integrated actual game day sponsors like M&Ms for its moment of the game, PSE&G for its power plays, Investors Bank for a team roll call and RWJBarnabas Health for the starting goalie matchup. After goalie Cory Schneider recorded 98 saves on 102 shots in a simulated game against the Calgary Flames on March 19, Loughlin interviewed him from his couch, with his excited kids climbing all over him.

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“It brought a sense of realism to it,” Reynolds said. “And that was one of the things we heard from so many of our fans. That this was the first sense of normalcy that their children had had during the quarantine period through the first couple of weeks.”

According to team figures, a simulated NHL 20 game between the Devils and Philadelphia Flyers drew over 60,000 live viewers across its platforms and more than 30,000 in games against Calgary, the New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes. Other teams that joined in and hosted NHL 20 games included Montreal, Winnipeg, Nashville, Edmonton, Washington, Colorado and Dallas.

“When more teams cooperate,” Devils senior vice president of marketing Jillian Frechette said, “it benefits both teams. The engagement on social platforms is much stronger.”That’s what the Minnesota Wild did when they simulcasted a simulated game against the Devils and decided to stream the rest of their regular season schedule

on their Twitch channel. But instead of letting the CPUs do the work, Minnesota enlisted local professional gamers to play the roles of the Wild and its opponents on the scheduled game nights. Though the Wild only got several hundred viewers on its still-growing Twitch, the team was encouraged by the results.

“The market for this is relatively small, but it’s growing,” said Jim Vanek, Minnesota’s senior manager of events and brand activation. “But the people who are interested branch out and consume anything and everything available. So they’re not sticking to just one particular team or market.”

Minnesota’s also gotten a lot of interest from some of its own players to represent the team in NHL 20 matchups, including forwards Jordan Greenway and Ryan Hartman and goalie Devan Dubnyk.“Some of these younger players that come into the league grew up as gamers,” Vanek said, “and for these guys coming up now and having an affinity for this, it’s been really great for us.”

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Greenway and Hartman have played the Nashville Predators duo of Nick Bonino and Roman Josi to a series of two-on-two games, something Nashville has done with some other teams.“It brings another dynamic when you can have these players on headsets commentating on what’s happening,” Vanek said. “You hear the banter back and forth. It just adds a whole other layer to the viewing experience.”

A look at the Wild's two-on-two gaming series against Nashville. Twitch screengrab.Twitcha virtual 5K runthat attracted nearly 500 runners in 26 states and two Canadian provinces, but they wanted to try their hand at esports as well after seeing other NHL teams’ success.

So they posted to Twitch for the first time on May 5, with TV analyst Randy Moller playing FloridaPanthers.com reporter Jameson Olive in a game of current Panthers against team alumni called by radio play-by-play announcer Doug Plagens. Olive has even gone on to play some fans in NHL 20 himself over the last week. Eventually, the Panthers are going to bring interested players like forwards Jonathan Huberdeau, Frank Vatrano and Mike Hoffman on board to do live Twitch streams as well.

“When I saw a couple of other teams going with simulations, I liked it, but we thought that we should do something a little different,” said Panthers vice president Shawn Thornton, who won a pair of Stanley Cup titles over his 14-year playing career. “We felt like we wanted to be a little more interactive with our fanbase.”

While Minecraft isn’t the typical esport you’d think of, teams like Minnesota, Anaheim and Las Vegas are using it to reach its youngest fans. They partnered with the North American Scholastic Esports Federation for a contest where teams of four kids between grades 3 and 12 can design team jerseys, logos or physical arenas. The contest

runs through May 29, and all entries that design Wild elements will be sent to the team, Vanek said. A winner will be picked in each category and be given a prize pack, and a grand champion will get a player signed Minnesota jersey for the teams of up to four kids.

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“We’re really excited to see what kind of creativity comes out of this and to be able to share those submissions with our audience,” Vanek said.While the Devils were more experienced in producing esports events that can attract big audiences— with weekly Saturday night streams continuing with this weekend’s battle against the archrival New York Rangers— the Wild and Panthers have been encouraged by their initial forays into Twitch.

Minnesota plans on promoting matches more heavily on social media, creating its own gaming specific social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using the Wild Gaming handle. Vanek mentioned the Washington Capitals as a team it’s using as an example for gaming specific channels.

Florida plans on reaching the 500 minutes per months streaming threshold on Twitch to become aTwitch Affiliate, which enables streamers to monetize their content. The pause in play, Thornton said, allowed the Panthers to take a longer approach for their esports strategy even when things return to normal and NHL teams can go back to having fans in the seats. But as the league remains suspended, it’s still about keeping those fans engaged with their teams and brands.

“We have to stay relevant,” Thornton said. “So we’re constantly coming up with different ideas to try and keep the content flowing.” Read more: Forbes »

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