For a goalie who had just faced 102 shots on goal, Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils was looking curiously rested in his postgame interview. In fact, he hadn’t even broken a sweat during the game.
“There are games where you just have to give a lot of credit to your teammates. Tonight probably wasn’t one of them,” he said. “It’s good, though. It helps the numbers, pads the stats. It’s a goalie’s dream.”
The Devils are among over a dozen NHL teams that have used EA Sports’ NHL 20 to continue bringing game action to hockey-starved fans during the league’s COVID-19 shutdown. The game has been used to play out the season and playoffs, to keep players connected to fans, as a source for original content and, in many cases, as a means to raise money for those in need.
“In a way, it’s been a lifeline for fans and for players,” Devils team president Jake Reynolds told ESPN. “One of the most satisfying things has been getting a note from parents saying that these simulated games are the first sense of normalcy that their kids have had. To hear that is pretty powerful and pretty incredible.”
The NHL and its teams have dabbled in the EA Sports series for years, including the league’s Gaming World Championship tournament that’s now in its third year. But they’ve never used the game in the way it’s been used since the real games were paused on March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s been incredible, to be honest,” said Sean Ramjagsingh, the producer for EA Sports’ NHL series. “To see fans, players, celebrities using NHL 20 to fill the void of the hockey season. We’re seeing players that have been away for a few years coming back to play. It’s been really cool to see all the NHL players reaching out to fans, starting streams.”
The Devils were one of the first teams to fully embrace simulated games as a way to generate content for fans. “There were three pillars we discussed: entertainment, inspiring hope and helping people heal,” Reynolds said. “From that entertainment perspective, our marketing department got together to figure out how to continue to engage with fans at a high level, knowing that they’re going to miss Devils hockey.”
In picking up where the season left off, the Devils wanted to treat these games like they would regular-season contests, complete with: pregame matchup coverage on their social channels; having organ music and the national anthem performed remotely before the games; drafting play-by-play man Matt Loughlin to do commentary; writing game stories about the results; and, most famously, holding postgame interviews with actual Devils players such as Schneider and Kyle Palmieri about the performances of their digital avatars.
While the Devils had the settings on the game adjusted to “as close to real as our game allows,” according to EA Sports marketing director Evan Dexter, that “career-high” 98-save performance from Schneider showed the gap between the virtual product and the actual one.
“The virtual experience is going to be different,” Dexter said. “But the great thing about it was the way they leaned into it like they would have in the real world.”
Other teams have blurred the lines between real and virtual sports. The Los Angeles Kings had announcers Alex Faust and Jim Fox giving scouting reports around streamed games that featured Kings mascot Bailey — aka Tim Smith, senior manager of game presentation and events — controlling L.A. against simulated opponents. The Washington Capitals have also built broadcasts around NHL 20 games, becoming the first NHL team to air simulated games on their regional sports network, NBC Sports Washington.
“They’re a small consolation to the real games, but we all thought we should create programming to keep people happy,” said Zach Leonsis, senior vice president of strategic initiatives for Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns multiple teams including the Capitals, Wizards and Mystics.
The games were popular. But the Capitals’ biggest NHL 20 moment was when Alex Ovechkin went one-on-one with The Great One.
“Yeah, that might be the list,” Ramjagsingh said with a laugh.
The Showcase featured Gretzky taking on Ovechkin in a friendly NHL 20 showdown on Xbox that was livestreamed on the Capitals’ Twitch channel. Over a million fans have viewed content surrounding the event, which pitted the NHL’s all-time goal-scoring leader against the player quickly encroaching on that record.
“Both legends are such great ambassadors for the game. It’s so perfect that they were the ones that suggested the idea, and once something is player-driven, it’s easy to organize and accomplish,” Leonsis said.
Monumental Sports entered the esports space four years ago when Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and a group of investors purchased aXiomatic, which had obtained a controlling interest in esports franchise Team Liquid. The Capitals have their own esports sub-brand called Capitals Gaming, complete with its own logo. They were the first team to officially “sign” an NHL esports streamer in John “JohnWayne” Casagranda — a Capitals fan who lives in Alaska and is considered to be one of the top five NHL esports players, according to Leonsis.
Casagranda helped facilitate the Ovechkin vs. Gretzky showdown, streaming it to the Capitals’ Twitch channel while playing as Ovechkin’s teammate. (Gretzky would pair up with his sons Ty and Trevor.) The event raised over $41,000 for Edmonton Food Bank and MSE Foundation’s Feeding the Frontlines fund and ended in a tie, with both legends having won a game.
“We both are not very good at this game, but what a great cause, right?” Gretzky said after the event.
Wayne Gretzky and Alex Ovechkin face off in a game of NHL 20 for charity, and the back-and-forth contest comes right down to the wire.
Others have used NHL 20 streams to raise funds. The Hockey2Help event was a two-week series of game streams that raised money for Volunteers of America and Second Harvest in Canada.
“It’s a virtual streaming tournament that was brought to us, and they wanted it to benefit food banks on both sides of the border,” said George Sherman, CEO of GameStop, which helped facilitate the event. “Some of the young’uns in the league had a cool idea, and we wanted to support it. If you look at who’s playing, it’s a who’s who of the draft for the last few years.”
Among the NHL players who participated were NHL 20 cover boy Auston Matthews and Maple Leafs teammate Mitch Marner. There was a huge sibling-battle event that featured Brady Tkachuk and Matthew Tkachuk taking on Quinn Hughes and Jack Hughes.
The Hughes brothers played with NHL esports star Andrew “Nasher” Telfer, who streamed the event on his Twitch channel, where he has more than 61,000 followers. He told ESPN that personalities, like the ones on display in Hockey2Help, are the point of demarcation between competitive gaming and the simulated artificial intelligence games.
“That’s the key to growing esports in general. That’s where we need to get to. Grow the individuals first, and then I think the whole esports scene will grow after that,” said the busy pro gamer, who also participated in an NHL 20 tournament organized by the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast that featured NHL stars.
“For me, I’m not going to lie: I’ve watched maybe five minutes of those simulation games. It’s not for me. But there’s a ton of people who enjoy it.”
Among those people: sports bettors smart enough to take the “over” on betting sites that clearly didn’t understand the nuance of simulated games.
“This was easy money,” said Jonathan Monopoli, an EA Sports gamer from Toronto.
In the absence of actual games, sports wagering site Bovada started taking action on simulated games. That included NHL 20, with games airing on a livestreaming Twitch channel.
On April 2, that channel featured a simulated game between the virtual Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins. Fans could bet on it like any other game, with a puck line and a money line and goal totals.
It was that last category that caught Monopoli’s attention.
“Originally when they posted it, they were doing real-time, full 20-minute periods. Having played it for as long as I have, I know that the game isn’t meant to be played at that real-time pace. They had no idea what settings to use,” he told ESPN.
The over/under for the game was 5.5 goals. Monopoli took the over. There were also goal-total bets for the Bruins and Leafs. Monopoli took over three goals for both teams.
Each bet had a maximum payout of $120. “It was a no-brainer. I just put the max bet on each one of them,” he said.
“By the end of the first period, the score was already 6-6.”
The final score was 13-12. The simulated Bruins and Leafs combined for 195 shots on goal. Monopoli put up $480.00. He won $360.00.
“In the [Twitch] chat, there were some people who bet the under, and it was clear that they had never played the game before,” Monopoli said. “So they’re filling the chat with ‘what the hell is going on … this is brutal!’ So it was funny. Since then, they had to change their settings to make it a little more realistic.”
The fine print on Bovada’s betting odds for simulated NHL action is now 10-minute periods with “sliders adjusted for realism.”
EA Sports’ Dexter said that gambling on the game is “not something we’re encouraging, but it’s obviously something that’s happening” and that “it feels like a natural run of course” for the series.
Zach Leonsis agreed. He said for games that feature real people competing rather than A.I., there is an opportunity to attract sports wagers. “If done appropriately, esports should be a perfect fit for sports betting to really take off,” Leonsis said. “In order for sports betting to occur, you need lots of points of data. In a digital world, all of that can be tracked and turned into prop opportunities.”
But he’s not a fan of betting on simulated games. “That’s not a competition. That’s a number-generating algorithm. Like a slot machine,” he said.
Based on his enriching experience, Monopoli believes a simulated game can be fun to wager on. But he said that it’s not exactly ideal as a replacement for the real thing.
“To sit there and watch it … at some point, it just becomes stale. It’s not like you’re going to have the A.I. Sidney Crosby doing anything different than what an A.I. third-liner is going to do,” he said. “I don’t know what the end goal is for some of these teams. Is it a short-term thing just to get through the pandemic, or go in for the esports initiative with a long-term goal in mind?”
NHL teams are wondering the same thing.
When NHL teams started to promote simulated games on their official feeds, Nasher could sense a backlash.
“You did see some of the outrage on Twitter from older folks, who are like, ‘This is a video game. Post real hockey stuff!'” he recalled.
But as time went on, and he watched other sports fans react to sims in their respective sports, Nasher became a bit more optimistic about their prospects. “You know, I thought NASCAR fans would be against virtual races. But seeing them rally behind them, with millions of viewers on at once watching virtual cars go around a track, it seems to me this is an actual NASCAR race going on,” he said.
As the NHL’s season pause rolls through its third month, at least 14 NHL teams have engaged with their fans through NHL 20, from playing out the season to special events. Among the highlights:
— CBJ Gaming (@CBJgaming) May 19, 2020
Teams have lived and learned though these NHL 20 experiments. The Sharks, for example, quickly adjusted their settings when injuries became an issue for fans who won “golden tickets” to have customized players competing in their simulated games alongside digital Sharks like Tomas Hertl and Joe Thornton.
“One of the fans who had won the lottery got injured in the first period, and initially he was pissed. But it turns out that one of his favorite players, Evander Kane, escorted him to the locker room,” Sharks president Jonathan Becher said.
Where things got surreal was after the game, when Sharks GM Doug Wilson actually called a fan whose avatar was “injured” during the game. “[Wilson] asked if he needed to negotiate an injured reserve contract. It was just a fun moment,” Becher said.
Like other NHL teams, the Sharks aren’t sure what the future holds for the 2020-21 season in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything is on the table as far as opening new revenue streams and creating further access points for fans to the product. Using EA Sports’ NHL series for both purposes is under consideration.
“What if we had to cap the attendance [in the arena] at 8,000, and then the next day you auction off a chance to replay that game to fans, with them as the players?” Becher pondered. “Maybe even to see if they could win the games that we lost.”
The Devils have used these months to better understand how fans watch streamed hockey video games. “We’ve learned a lot about our fans’ viewer habits,” Reynolds said. “We’re finding that people are treating this like a podcast. You have people watching live, but we’re finding a very similar number of people watching it 24 hours later, and even 48 hours later the numbers are consistent. It’s been remarkable to see how fans are watching this at their own leisure.”
Anthony Vassiliou, a “game changer” focus-group member for EA Sports, believes that a continued push for NHL 20 could help expand the league’s fan base with some vital demographics. “I think it can definitely grow the game,” he said. “I’ve played a bunch. I’ve talked to people who play the game that don’t normally watch hockey. They just like the game. So I think teams partnering up with some of the top players, teams running tournaments, I think that’s great for the game, and great for the growth of the community as well.”
But as teams wonder about the future for the NHL, the creative forces behind EA Sports’ NHL series are doing the same. The question is one of realism vs. escapism. Actual games could look radically different when the players return to the ice, from social distancing on the bench to changes to game play and equipment in reaction to COVID-19. Could these changes affect what happens in, say, NHL 21?
“I’ll be interested to see what measures hockey takes to get back on the ice,” said Ramjagsingh of EA Sports. “Authenticity is the foundation. If we see some rules change going forward, I can guarantee that we have people on our team right now thinking about how to accommodate the ideas that are being tossed around.”
So if players are wearing, say, full face shields in real life, they might do the same in virtual hockey?
“They’re going for the most realistic game possible. If they go into next season wearing the full shields, they should put it in the game, in my opinion,” Nasher said. “If they’re trying to make it a realistic simulation, they should make it as real as possible.”
In other words: If it’s in the game, it’s in the game, no matter what the game looks like after a global pandemic.