NHL teams increasingly leaning into esports to attract younger fans

Ever since esports was thrust into the spotlight in the early stages of the pandemic as traditional sports went on hiatus, sports clubs have increasingly realized the value that competitive gaming brings to the table. Not only are more and more of today’s celebrity athletes playing video games and livestreaming themselves, but we’ve seen  the esports-sports relationships deepening across both industries. Traditional sports clubs are seeking younger fans, and esports viewers are already more engaged with traditional sports than the general population, Interpret data shows.

Soccer teams across the globe have taken the lead on esports initiatives, while in the US, Esports Entertainment Group (EEG) has partnered with numerous NFL teams to help them integrate esports into their business. Meanwhile, the NBA has been operating its own standalone league, the NBA 2K League, for several years, and it’s helped the NBA expand its profile in international markets.

As for hockey, the sport has flown a bit under the radar in the esports world, but the NHL is about to hold its fifth annual World Gaming Championship later this year. NHL team executives estimate that around one-third of the league’s 32 clubs have a dedicated competitive esports or gaming vertical. In fact, just last month, the New York Islanders became the NHL’s first club to sign six pro gamers for its brand-new Isles Gaming Team, following in the footsteps of the Washington Capitals who signed the NHL’s first pro esports player, John “JohnWayne” Casagranda back in 2019.

Esports has multiple purposes for traditional sports clubs. While there’s the obvious benefit of bringing younger fans into the sport, which can have a direct impact on sponsorship deals, for many marketing executives, one of the key reasons to jump into esports is the chance to broaden the brand itself. “It’s collaborative with our partnership development and new business partnerships team on seeking out opportunities where we can diversify what our brand means,” explained Patrick Hooper, San Jose Sharks’ director of integrated marketing.

For the NHL, the time is right to up its esports game. According to Interpret’s New Media Measure®, NHL fans are slightly ahead of NBA fans and several percentage points ahead of both MLB and NFL fans when it comes to watching esports. All four sports, however, have some work to do to catch up to the soccer leagues where US esports viewership is around 50% higher.