Imagine 2019 Gary Bettman hopping in a time machine and materializing in 2009 Gary Bettman’s office.
“Past Gary, you better sit down,” Future Gary says. “This is going to sound weird.”
“I’m the commissioner of the NHL,” Past Gary says. “I can handle anything. Out with it.”
Past Gary takes a sip of coffee.
“In 10 years,” Future Gary says, “you will stand on a stage in Las Vegas and hand a giant $50,000 novelty cheque to a 21-year-old college student named ‘Top-Shelf-Cookie.’ ”
Past Gary spits out his coffee. “What? Why?!”
“The kid earned the money,” Future Gary says. “He’s the world champion.”
Future Gary isn’t lying. It happened on June 18, 2019, in a scene so surreal that few would’ve believed it a decade ago. A young man named Matt Gutkoski, who goes by the online moniker Top-Shelf-Cookie, won the second annual NHL Gaming World Championship playing EA Sports’ NHL 19. A year prior, he was goofing around on his Xbox with his buddies at Ohio State University’s Fisher College between classes as he worked toward a marketing degree. Now Gutkoski, who goes by ‘Cookie,’ is the best hockey video gamer on the planet, honored with the big cheque from Bettman.
The path to becoming
No. 1, at least in Gutkoski’s case, wasn’t long. Things change quickly in the gaming universe. He didn’t even understand how good he was until he was 20, playing NHL 18 with friends. He regularly dominated them, but he wasn’t winning 50-0. It was more like 5-1 or 6-1. Still, when he played online, he noticed he was climbing the leaderboards aggressively. His friends encouraged him to play in something competitive. He had no idea how he’d fare under pressure but
decided to try it. “It honestly just comes within yourself to just say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna give it a shot,’ ” he said. “Worst case, I lose, and I’m not going backwards. My life’s not going to be worse.”
Cookie qualified for the 2018 U.S. regional tournament in Connecticut, where he finished third, one spot below the cut to earn a trip to the world semifinal in Vegas. A year later, he won a local NHL 19 tourney out of Columbus and then took the U.S. regional bracket, punching his ticket to Vegas.
Gutkoski’s rise up the ranks, which took just two years, is proof of how accessible success is in gaming. If you have a copy of the NHL game, you’re in the hunt. If you think you’re good, you dive into competitive games to find out if you actually are good, and sometimes it turns out to be true. Gutkoski is $50,000 richer. Not that he’s some pure talent who can win the game blindfolded. Becoming a great
Esports athlete requires multiple versions of discipline. Real-life hockey knowledge, for instance, isn’t mandatory but forms a great base. Gutkoski played the game his whole life and got as high as AA as a center. The experience gave him practical on-ice vision that translates to the video game. “Breaking out of your own zone and going through the neutral zone and the offensive zone, cycling it, that’s all very real hockey,” he said. “I use a lot of stuff like that. When I played (in real life), I’d do the same thing. If I came up along the half boards and there was nothing up high, I’m just going to spin and shoot it down low and cycle back. And that’s a play style you’ll see a lot with (gamers) nowadays.”
The gamer’s body doesn’t have to be a temple on the level of Jonathan Toews, but it does help to be healthy. A study in 2016 by professor Ingo Frobose at the German Sports University Cologne revealed Esports athletes, during competition, reach the pulse rates of long-distance runners and perform four times the keyboard and mouse movements of an average person per minute.
Related articles also suggest video-game reflexes tend to peak by about 25, meaning the top gamers have short careers.
It honestly just comes within yourself to just say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna give it a shot’
– Matt Gutkoski
Gutkoski thus pays attention to his body when preparing to compete. Hand temperature is crucial. Cold hands can’t twitch as quickly, which matters a lot for deking. If Gutkoski’s hands are cold when he picks up a controller, he can’t stand it.
He also likes to be fed but not full. You don’t want to feel hungry or bloated, he
explains, as either can make your mind wander, and any detail that affects a player’s focus – like the growl of a stomach – can be the difference between a win and a loss.
In the more developed world of Esports including hyper-popular games such as League of Legends and Counter-Strike, performance-enhancing drug use is rampant. Players pop pills used for ADHD, such as Adderall, to achieve extended periods of extreme focus. No scandal like that has permeated hockey gaming, which remains in its Esports infancy. Gutkoski doesn’t touch drugs but finds other ways to maintain his focus. He tries to sleep as much as possible before tournaments.
Another clean way to stay sharp: just as many NHLers preach the importance of playing multiple sports, the same concept works for gamers. “I can play three or four hours of solid NHL, and then after that is when it starts to get a little messy,” he said.
“That’s when I start to make mistakes that I wouldn’t normally make, and that’s when my mind feels a little cluttered. So usually after a couple hours, I’ll stop playing NHL altogether and just hop on Call of Duty or Fortnite or play something with some buddies online. That way, I’m still playing Xbox and still getting the reaction time and the motions, the twitch movements of your hands, just getting those repetitions.”
Just as a Sidney Crosby stays on the ice after practice working on faceoffs, a gamer has to play, and play, and play some more. Sometimes, Gutkoski says, it helps to face a weak opponent, as it gives you the time and space to try out some more exotic moves that may work against a tougher foe later.
On the other hand, iron sharpens iron. The players who meet at the Gaming World Championship aren’t necessarily strangers. Gutkoski’s opponent in the 2019 final was John Wayne Casagranda, and Gutkoski estimates they had already played each other 40 times throughout the year, including the U.S. regional final.
They were friendly and familiar by the time they clashed in the world final. They’d scouted each other in advance. Some players will take it a step further and watch their opponents’ “game film,” a.k.a. their streams on platforms such as Twitch. Gutkoski doesn’t go that far, but he pays attention when he plays someone. “I just want to see their tendencies, like, where are they successful?” he said. “If they’re successful from behind my net, then I’m going to take that away. If I lose the game from them scoring all the way from the point, all six goals they score, I can live with that. I can take away much of what they want to do.”
You must adapt to survive, too, even if that means playing dirty. Ever play an NHL game online and lose to someone pumping in a bunch of “glitch” goals? That’s when a veteran player learns a trick, a programming flaw, a spot from which characters can score at will. It takes away the hockey simulation element when someone scores goals that wouldn’t happen in real life. But Gutkoski explains that it’s sometimes a necessary evil in competitive hockey gaming. It can keep an opponent honest.
For example, a legal but obnoxious way to defend in NHL is to just control a defenseman and park in the slot, blocking the ever-important one-timer and the shooting lanes simultaneously. Finding a cheap little move that can score every time will force that opponent to get moving and actually play the game, Gutkoski says.
And so, armed with all his knowledge and discipline, ‘Cookie’ Gutkoski went to the 2019 worlds. Players competed in a “Hockey Ultimate Team” format, in which they built their rosters fantasy-draft style. The semifinal featured the winners of three different geographical regions: Canada, the U.S. and Europe, with a fourth team emerging from a round-robin of runners-up from each region.
Gutkoski’s victory in the final over Casagranda streamed on the NHL’s Twitch channel to 632,097 total unique viewers, up 290 percent from 218,038 viewers in Year 1 of the tournament. The stream got almost 1.4 million views in total, with a proper broadcast team providing the play-by-play. It was a smashing success year over year for the NHL.
The tournament had eight sponsors, five of which were returnees: Adidas, Honda, MGM, Scotiabank, Dunkin’, Brisk, Great Clips and Astro Gaming.
The NHL even launched a live-stream show last season called House of CHEL, in which Minnesota Wild right winger J.T. Brown lived in a luxurious home with gamers for a few days, played NHL 19 and horsed around. “We want to get younger as a league,” said Chris Golier, the NHL’s vice-president of business development. “We know that our sweet spot is in the teens-to-20-somethings tier. That’s what we’re seeing as a target audience now after two seasons of data. We’re broadening the base. Esports is inherently global, so we’re able to go out on a global platform with Esport competitions.”
So the Gaming World Championship is established now as a staple for the NHL. But it doesn’t yet resemble what we see in the peak world of Esports – stadiums of 40,000 people watching the League of Legends world championship in South Korea, with online viewership upwards of 100 million people, trumping Super Bowl viewership. It’s possible we never see hockey gaming or any real-sports gaming reach that level of popularity, because people can’t go watch actual wizards and knights fight each other on flying dragons, but they can go watch a hockey game.
Still, as the NHL tournament’s Twitch audience numbers suggest, there’s a path to an immense number of eyeballs – and business opportunities – in Esports hockey. “I look at it less from, ‘When are we going to start filling arenas and get 20,000
people to watch people play competitive hockey?’ and more so around viewership,” said Sean Ramjagsingh, producer of EA Sports’ NHL series. “In the world that we’re living in right now in the digital age, there’s just so many different ways to consume that content.”
The dream would be to get people consuming the content year-round. The way to get there: an organized, NHL-sanctioned league with a proper season. The NBA has already achieved it in conjunction with the immensely popular NBA 2K game. The NBA 2K League has 23 official teams, 22 of which fall under the branding umbrellas of their real-life NBA counterparts. The reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, for instance, have a video-game squad called Raptors Uprising GC. The 23rd team, Gen.G, bought into the league for $25 million as the only team without an NBA parent. Gen.G is a major player in the high-stakes Esports world, valued by Forbes at roughly $110 million, so its entry legitimizes the 2K League in the eyes of worldwide Esports fans.
Gamers compete to qualify for spots on the 2K teams. Last season, 72,000 players were cut down to the world’s best 102. A first-round pick in the NBA 2K League earns $35,000, the same base salary as a player in the NBA G League, the real-life NBA minor league. The gamers are asked to stay in good shape. Teams have personal trainers. It’s hardcore.
The NHL is nowhere near that juncture, but it does have 22 of 31 teams participating in Esports through local “activations,” which are team-run competitions. That said, the Washington Capitals broke a barrier this season by launching Caps Gaming. They’re the first NHL team to create an Esports league.
They’ll commence with a 32-team tournament including an eight-game regular-season schedule in early December, with the top 16 making the playoffs for a shot at the $15,000 prize pool. The games will stream on Twitch, called by a broadcast team.
In terms of growth and plans, we’re encouraging NHL clubs to test and learn
– Chris Golier, NHL vice-president of business development
The current EA tournaments involve solo players controlling entire teams on the ice, but Caps Gaming will feature humans controlling all 10 skaters and both goalies, which mirrors the NBA 2K League format. “In ‘Hockey Ultimate Team’ mode, where it’s sort of one player controlling every player on the ice, that relies a whole lot on artificial intelligence from the game,” said Andrew McNeill, director of Esports at Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which is Capitals owner Ted Leonsis’ company. “And I think that works in some ways, but we just really like the experience of knowing every single player on the ice is being controlled by a human.”
So will the NHL follow suit and start building a full Esports league? It’s too early, Golier said, but he and the league are extremely excited about Leonsis’ progressive foray into NHL Esports. The NHL will monitor the Capitals’ experiment closely and certainly wants it to succeed. “In terms of our growth and plans with the clubs, this upcoming season, we’re still encouraging the clubs to test and learn,” Golier said. “I can’t stress enough we’re in the beginning stages of Esports in general with the NHL. But we hope to grow from 22. We’d like to get all 31 teams represented and for Seattle in a couple years to be a part of that, too. The likely path is not a league, at least not in the next year or two. But I can foresee an integration of the club tournaments with the league to the Gaming World Championship. That could happen as soon as next season.”
Trying out a league isn’t the only forward-thinking step Caps Gaming has taken. The NBA 2K League has actual star players, and the Capitals are the first to sign a “pro,” athlete-style. They inked the gamer who finished third at the 2018 worlds and second at the 2019 words – Casagranda – as the first team-affiliated Esports athlete in NHL history.
Signing him meant doing diligence the same way a team would for a real-life athlete, McNeill explains, which included an extensive background check to ensure Casagranda was the right face for the brand. “Not only is he representing the Capitals in these different tournaments that will be coming up here in the next few months, but he’s also streaming and providing entertainment representing the Capitals,” Gutkoski said. “So if there are Capitals fans that are into gaming, and they want to check it out and just see what it’s about, I think John Wayne’s the perfect guy for that. He’s a funny dude, he’s very likable, very personable, very friendly.”
Casagranda marks a major step toward hockey gamers becoming stars, and Bauer has actually signed a gamer, Andrew ‘Nasher’ Telfer, who competes in the NHL series but also makes viral videos. He released one in November in which he twirled a waffle lacrosse-style with his hockey stick and bounced it off a cupboard into his toaster.
Rapper Snoop Dogg shared it on his Instagram account. Nasher is a tremendous success story for personal-brand building in the hockey-gamer business, but, as Gutkoski explains, it’s not quite feasible yet for most players to make hockey gaming their full-time careers, as doing so primarily means chasing prize money in tournaments. He won the equivalent of a year’s salary in 2019 but can’t win the World Championship every year.
Until Esports reaches the official-league status of the NBA, we won’t see hockey gamers becoming icons just yet. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t coming. The NHL’s journey into Esports is flourishing, and it’s just two years old. Bring on the 2020 worlds. Cookie versus John Wayne rematch, anyone?