Why NHL Esports is at a Crossroads

NHL-20-GWC

We reported last month that the NHL Gaming World Championships would be returning in 2020. And for the second consecutive year, Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) will be at the center of the tournament. But, is this the right move? SGO takes a look at the future of NHL esports.

NHL GWC and HUT

Just like in the 2019 NHL Gaming World Championship, gamers who compete in next year’s tournament will use their Hockey Ultimate Team to compete. For those unfamiliar with HUT, Hockey Ultimate Team is a Collectible Card Game (CCG) where gamers can collect virtual cards of NHL players, as well as cards of minor league and junior players.

Even though this is the second year the tournament has a HUT-based format, it doesn’t mean that the 2019 World Championship was a smashing success. As we documented earlier this year, there were several controversies that surrounded the NHL GWC, such as “gentlemen’s agreements” between top players, server issues, and EA GameChangers being able to use cards that they received directly from the game developer during the tournament.

Still, EA has decided to move forward with this format in 2020. But what are the pluses and minuses that come along with this format? Let’s take a look.

Pluses

One plus for this format is that HUT is one of the most-played game modes in NHL 20. As of December 26, over 195,000 gamers currently have HUT teams in NHL 20. If that number shows anything, it’s that most NHL 20 players are familiar with HUT, which may make it easier to market the tournament to current gamers. And a HUT-bases GWC creates a big advantage for those who already have teams, and those have constructed strong teams for the tournament. But for those who don’t have a strong team, you can certainly improve it, but it may come at a cost. And this creates the second advantage of having a HUT-based tournament, and EA is the beneficiary.

In Hockey Ultimate Team, gamers can purchase points with money, and those points can then be used to buy HUT packs, which contain items such as contracts, jerseys, and players. Having a HUT-based tournament is a huge advantage for EA, since it may force gamers who don’t have good teams to buy packs with money. HUT, along with the other Ultimate Team modes across EA sports games, are extremely profitable, and having a HUT-based GWC can only increase their profit margins. But, while this can improve their financials in the short-term, is this the right move in the long-term?

Minuses

There’s a good chance that this move may backfire in the long-term. New gamers may feel enticed at first to buy NHL 20 to play in the GWC, or existing gamers may be willing to try HUT to participate in the tournament. However, having a HUT-based tournament may do more harm than good, as gamers may feel that they are forced to buy HUT packs to actually be competitive. If gamers feel that they’re backed into a corner to spend more money, it could go two ways: they either spend it, or they decide not to and tune out HUT, and possibly the NHL franchise altogether.

Another issue with having a HUT-based Gaming World Championship is that it’s a 1-v-1 tournament. While this may not seem like an issue at first, consider this: HUT is just like a traditional hockey game, where each team has five players and one goalie on each side. Since each game is 1-on-1, this means that four players (plus one goalie) are controlled by the AI, which could lead to some pretty messy results. The AI in NHL 20 could be quite fickle at times, and at times it could mask the deficiencies of a gamer, or it could be a weak link for your game. And if you don’t believe me, check this out:

Considering that I’ve played HUT this year, I know the feeling of being frustrated with the AI. And because the AI can be rather unpredictable, it forces gamers at times (or most of the time, really) to try for “cheese” goals that can be set up with relative ease. If you’ve played Hockey Ultimate Team, you know what I’m referencing. Whether it’s the cross-crease one timer off the rush, or the short side snipe, scoring in NHL 20 can be boring, repetitive and at times frustrating.

What I Would Have Liked to See

Ideally, I would have liked to see an Gaming World Championship that utilized EASHL. To me, this would have made the most sense for a couple of reasons. One, it would have made it somewhat of a level playing field. Gamers would not have the advantage of having their weaknesses masked by an inconsistent AI or a stacked HUT team. Instead, they would have to rely on their hockey knowledge, awareness and overall skill in order to best opposing teams.

However, if this were to be done, I would set the format to be similar to the NBA 2K League qualifiers, where players have to play 100 or more games and have a 50% or better winning percentage to move on from the opening round. This would balance out games where top players get losses because they were paired with poor teammates that dragged down the team.

Second, an EASHL tournament will encourage more players to get involved in the long-term. If EA wants to truly foster a strong esports community, it needs to start with getting the player base involved. And the only way this can be done is by making the player base feel like they can be competitive. A HUT tournament will most likely not accomplish this, but an EASHL tournament with low barriers of entry could be what EA need to get the player base excited about esports. If gamers feel like they need to spend money in order to participate in HUT, or feel like this tournament is only a money grab, most gamers won’t care about future NHL esports events.

Concluding Thoughts

To me, the future of NHL esports is at a major crossroads. If EA is concerned with maximizing profits in the short-term, then it makes sense to have a HUT-based tournament. But doing this can hurt the long-term potential of NHL esports. Or, EA could do something which can energize a player base, as well as set the infrastructure for a potential NHL esports league. If I were think long-term, I would choose the latter.

What do you think about the NHL Gaming World Championships? Let us know on our social media channels, and be sure to keep checking out the SGO site for more NHL 20 news and opinions.


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