NHL Beware, eSports Are Coming

Rick Fox won three NBA Championships during in a 13-year professional career that included stops in Boston and Los Angeles.

Today Fox is the owner of the Echo Fox eSports franchise.

And he thinks eSports will catch up to the NHL within two years, presumably one day replacing it as America’s fourth biggest sport/sports league.

“It’s in that conversation now,” Fox said. “It’s just fifth right now. We’re in fifth place. It’s coming… In two years, it’ll be on par with the NHL.”

Fox, naturally, wants to add some hype to an area he has invested real money in. But it’s also an area which is growing. Rapidly.

Shaquille O’Neal and MLB star Alex Rodriguez have bought in too. Red Bull and Coca Cola are starting to invest in eSports. ESPN broadcast tournaments live.

Meanwhile the NHL has a problem with it’s handling of large chunks of its fan base, it still frowns at extrovert characters like PK Subban and botched it’s last stride in to the digital age so badly people began to actively avoid its own website.

Two years seems ridiculous. But based on the current trajectory things could shift in the future. And it won’t shift in the NHL’s favour.

Jibes that eSports are not real sports are easy to throw around, but if players are competing for cash prizes then we’re splitting hairs over a name – it’s a competitive environment that others are a) choosing to watch and b) maybe trying to get in to themselves.

Either of those scenarios mean they’re not watching or playing hockey.

This is bad from both a sponsors point of view – where investors want eye balls to see their product – and a participation point of view.

Being glib about something not being a ‘real sport’ ignores the issue, the growth and the potential competitive gaming has. Especially among younger consumers.

And that is where the danger comes from.

Claiming eSports does not threaten ‘real sports’ demographic misses the point – it’s unlikely many adults will shift from the NHL to League of Legends, but their kids will.

The next generation of sports fans will grow up eSports fans. It’s already happening in passive ways, as YouTubers such as Pew Die Pie rack up millions of followers and move toward billion of views. TV audiences for eSports continue to grow, and the way ‘the next generation’ consume content and interact is different to the way their parents did. eSports has the inside track on the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL as a result.

They’re tapping in to a tech savvy demographic in a way the NHL is failing to, while the NFL, NBA and MLB are – currently at least – big enough to fend off some of these changes.

The NHL, outside of its main markets, isn’t.

It’s expensive, it can be inaccessible to the uninitiated and it lacks star power.

Shaquille O’Neal’s name alone carries more weight globally than anyone in the NHL. Maybe anyone in hockey history outside of Wayne Gretzky. An instant recognisable name attached to a growing set up.

In some parts of the United States you’d be hard pressed to find someone who can name five NHL players in what should basically be the sports back yard – and that’s without widening the net to talk about the global market.

And the global audience really does matter. Just ask the NFL why it keeps playing games in London – it isn’t because Roger Goodell likes the local ale.

Fox’s comments maybe over the top in the present – two years growth will undoubtedly happen but the industry remains a league/industry pulling in billions.

But dismiss eSports as some silly child’s thing at your peril.

Resting on ones laurels, letting out of touch middle aged and old men tell the young people what they want won’t work. Despite his on ice skill, Sidney Crosby’s robotic interviews and carefully managed persona might make him a Nova Scotia housewives favourite, but it won’t energise any 15-year olds, the sports next generation of consumers when they turn 18 and start to wave disposable income around and want something exciting and accessible to spend it on.

Because if things carry on as they are, it won’t be hockey they’re spending it on. And if there is no next generation of hockey consumers, then things can get real ugly, real quickly.

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About Rob

Software engineer by day, Elite League Media man by night, Rob also blogs about cricket for One Stump Short, hockey for In Goal Magazine and video games for Outpost Delta as well as hosting the One Stump Short Podcast.

Posted on March 22, 2016, in Hockey, NHL and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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