They grow up so fast.
On Tuesday, the NHL announced a new name and an expanded programming schedule for its sixth season of esports programming around EA Sports' NHL game.
The flagship tournament, previously known as the NHL Gaming World Championship, sees a name change to the EA Sports NHL 23 World Championship. And the tournament's finale will be returning to its in-person roots, with the global champion set to be crowned at a live event in Nashville next June as part of the party that runs around the NHL Awards and the 2023 NHL draft.
"We know that the gaming community loves to meet up in person, cheer on the competitors and obviously compete if you're one of the last few left standing," said Chris Golier, the NHL's vice president of business development and technology partnerships.
After running the first two global championship tournaments in a high-visibility setting in conjunction with the NHL Awards in Vegas in 2018 and 2019, pandemic restrictions scuttled similar events in the three subsequent seasons.
"Last year, we did have our European Championship out in Maastricht, the Netherlands," Golier said. "Then, in Montreal at the draft, we did our North American Championship. This year, we're going to expand that a bit more. We will have the European track and North American track, but this will culminate with a global championship."
In another new wrinkle, all 32 NHL teams will host their own tournaments this season for the first time, each crowning a Club Champion who will represent their franchise at the North American tournament.
Each team will determine the format of its tournament, and some franchises will go bigger than others. The Washington Capitals and New York Islanders are seen as leaders in this space.
"The club will have their own prize pool," said Golier. "They'll have their weekend of activity and then they'll have a champion — someone they can promote that can wear the sweater with pride. We've seen our players have that affinity for their favorite team. It's nice when they can represent on a big platform. And when you're in your late teens and the club recognizes you on social media, it's the greatest thing in the world."
Those young fans are at at the heart of the league's esports initiatives.
"We're looking to get younger, and we know that this is a great youth touchpoint for the league," Golier said. "The average age that we've seen from some of our registration data has been in the high teens to low 20s for a tournament. It's a young fan who's in touch with the NHL, watches games and has a favorite team but, most importantly, likes the community of other gamers."
Some ways that sense of community and connection plays out are through game streams on Twitch, conversations on Twitter and in-person interaction at live events.
Online, the highest-profile gamers are stars in their own right and influencers in their communities.
While young men still make up the majority of the esports community, the league is striving to make that universe more inclusive. This year, both Trevor Zegras of the Anaheim Ducks and Sarah Nurse from the Canadian women's national team graced the NHL 23 cover, and plans are in the works for a stand-alone women's tournament during All-Star Weekend.
"We've done a lot, especially as it relates to talent and influencers who are women and people of color, making sure that this is an inviting place to be and that everybody can pick up a controller and have some fun and join the join the community," Golier said. "We had (Team Canada Olympic gold medallist) Emily Clark last year, who was involved with what we did at our North American final in Montreal at the draft. She was great, so we're hoping to replicate that and do some more there as well."
To get a sense of how much bigger the NHL's esports programming will be this year, Just take a look at the calendar. Last season, registration for the Gaming World Championship opened on March 1, and the North American and European champions were crowned in early June.
This year, registration for the EA Sports NHL 23 World Championship and other related events is set to open on Dec. 8 at www.nhl.com/NHL23. Finalists from this year's new slate of early-season online tournaments in both North America and Europe will have a chance to attend in-person finals at two of the league's winter tentpole events — All-Star Weekend in Florida in January and the 2023 Stadium Series in Raleigh, N.C. in February.