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How the NHL Gaming World Championship has grown by leaps and bounds in Year Two

After a strong first year, the NHL put its focus on content creation and engagement. The result? A significant rise in registration, qualifying contests and a larger field for the World Championship tournament, which is set for Las Vegas in mid-June.

In 2018, the NHL opened its doors to the world of gaming and esports by launching the inaugural NHL Gaming World Championship. The tournament featured thousands of online registrants from Europe, Canada, and the United States, gamers who later competed in hundreds of qualifying games and battled for a spot in the final eight within their region and a trip to the Regional Championships. From those who qualified for regionals, two players from each of Europe, Canada and the U.S. advanced to a showdown in Las Vegas, where the world’s top-six players went toe-to-toe at the HyperX Esports Arena last June with a $50,000 grand prize and $100,000 in total prize money on the line.

When the dust settled, Finland’s Erik ‘Eki’ Tammenpaa was crowned the inaugural champion, and the NHL promised that a bigger and better esports plan was on the way.

The league learned a lot from its first venture into the gaming world and looked to up the ante in Year Two, beginning with an increase in available content, said Chris Golier, the NHL’s Vice President of Business Development and Global Partnerships. “It’s always about engagement,” he said. “Last year we really primarily focused on getting these [regionals and finals] events right.”

In February, during the NHL’s all-star week, the league rented a house from San Jose Sharks board member and Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy and transformed the place into the ‘House of Chel’. “We got five gamers and three talents and they lived in the house for three days (with a) full-on production crew and we got just chunks of content,” Golier said. “The challenge is lifestyle type content stuff that you see on YouTube that kids would like to watch. It ties in gaming, it ties in hockey, but it’s not just streaming. So we wanted to have a little bit of a diversion from guys just in picture-in-picture watching them stream. That’s an important part. I think it all comes up as part of a wave of stuff to say, ‘Hey, the NHL is getting there, look at all this cool content.’ ”

With more eyeballs on the product came an increase in action. A record 55,000 games have been played throughout the qualifying rounds, a whopping 812 percent increase, and the larger field comes with a more involved championship tournament. This year’s winner will be determined by a bracket-style tournament that features three participants from each region – the two finalists and a third competitor determined by a play-in round-robin between the runner-ups from each region. The semifinal main bracket is best-of-three, with the winners advancing to the final, where another $50,000 grand prize, the Championship Trophy and the opportunity to appear in the televised broadcast of the 2019 NHL Awards will be on the line.

According to an ESPN report, last year’s NHL tournaments had viewership numbers on Twitch, the world’s leading streaming platform for gamers, that matched and at certain points surpassed those of the NBA and NFL. The NBA 2K League has been successful for the NBA brand, and the NHL’s hope is that the continuation of the NHL GWC will do the same by generating more interest and connectivity to the sport through the video game.

The NHL is also getting their sponsors heavily involved this year. At the Canadian Regional Final, held this past weekend in Toronto, Scotiabank ran a fan-vote in the live stream’s chat and those who logged a certain number of viewing hours were eligible to win a signed NHL All-Star jersey and a gaming pack.

Last week, defending champion Tammenpaa and Hannes ‘Hansulinho’ Kettunen advanced to the final from the European Regional Championships, which ‘Eki’ won to earn $5,000 and the top seed as he heads back to the championship tournament. Joining him in Las Vegas will be Quebec's Matthew Grenier, who is a return finalist after finishing second in the Canadian Regional Championship, while tournament first-timer Karl Caslib, who plays under the gamertag ‘Mg X Nuclear’, heads to Sin City as the top seed from Canada after defeating Grenier in the regional final.

For his first time competing in a live tournament, a trip to Las Vegas is the cherry on top. “Pretty much as great as it can be,” Caslib said. “Just a wonderful feeling.”

The remaining NHL GWC contests will be broadcast on Twitch. The final takes place on June 18 in Las Vegas.

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