The European Championship League is currently running its 9th iteration of competition. In order to get a snapshot of the perspective of the person behind it all, Slapshot Magazine reached out to Kenneth @Kenu Lehtinen, founder of NHLGamer.com. Interview by Yann @Virtual_Saku Maillet, Nov. 30th 2019. Here is the English internet version of the interview:
Kenneth, can you introduce the origin of the NHLGamer project to our readers?
NHLGamer.com originally saw the light of day over a decade ago, somewhere around 2004. What started as a website platform for friends to arrange NHL leagues together has since grown exponentially into what is today the largest community for NHL gamers in Europe.
In late 2015, NHLGamer launched a new platform for a larger audience. Ever since we started, we've been providing a community experience and competitive action for gamers who enjoy the EA Sports NHL series. We've grown exponentially into one of the biggest communities worldwide and in launching the European Championship League (ECL) in 2015 was a groundbreaking step in our history. The ECL is a league where all the best European teams compete in a 6vs6 setting for titles in various divisions based on skill level. We also launched the North American counterpart in early 2019. On top of this, we host national leagues for Sweden, Finland, Russia and Germany.
At its core, NHLGamer is a community of passionate gamers who strive to push our beloved sport onward. We've come a long way but are still just getting started. While we're proud of our achievements, we're continuously striving to find new ways to grow our community, host bigger tournaments with bigger prize pools and find new partners at the very cutting edge of gaming and esports.
How many tournaments are you running today and how are you organizing for the whole thing to work?
The main ecosystem of NHLGamer consists of two main leagues, accompanied by the national leagues for four countries. The main leagues are the European ECL and the North American NACL, while the national leagues consist of the FCL (Finland), GCL (Germany), RCL (Russia) and SCL (Sweden). We also do some other leagues and tournaments that are less about the competitiveness and more about the community aspect. In addition to our own products, we’ve co-operated with organizations like Ilta-Sanomat to create their IS Cup tournaments and a handful of other projects.
How do we do it? Hard work. NHLGamer is fortunate to have not only the most passionate and devoted gamers, but also staff members possessing these same qualities. I have been doing this full-time since 2017.
What is your economic model?
Currently, our economy is driven by our staff (myself included) working pro-bono and all of the proceeds from the projects being reinvested into our expenses and prize pools. We are consistently growing and constantly talking to new potential partners and sponsors and that is a key step in the right direction of longevity and scalability.
« Parallels between traditional sports and esports »
What answer do you give to those who believe that esports isn't comparable to traditional sports?
Does it really matter? Do we really care if someone thinks it is or isn’t a sport? That’s all about labels and beyond the point of what esports is about. Playing video games competitively at the top level requires several important skills. Some of these skills required of top players can be reflexes, strategy, teamwork and being able to perform under pressure. Being in good physical condition can definitely help with some of these things, such as reflexes, keeping your pulse steady under longer periods of stressful playing, staying concentrated and so on. From that perspective, you can draw many parallels between sports and esports. Many of our most successful players are active and successful in traditional sports and I definitely see it as a benefit in esports.
Traditional sports teams such as Düsseldorf, Växjö and more recently Zurich, Luleå and Färjerstad have launched their official esports teams, is this a turning point? Do you know what motivates these clubs to take on the challenge?
It’s no secret that esports is taking the world by storm and more and more companies are getting involved. It can be kind of hard and expensive to get involved with some of the more established games in esports at this point, whereas for NHL esports, this is the perfect time to come in as it is at the stage of maturing and growing season after season. There is starting to be an overall demand for businesses and especially sports organizations to get involved in esports, but not everyone feels like these massively famous games that revolve around violence and shooting are something that they want their brand to represent. For hockey organizations, getting involved in video game hockey seems like the most natural step. Having been introduced to what we do, combined with the passion, talent and devotion of the players in our community and an affordable entry-level cost - the interest towards our leagues has been big and you can expect a lot more organizations getting on board in the near future.
The Washington Capitals have just done the same, should we expect an eNHL soon?
It was only a matter of time before the first NHL organization got involved and we’re excited to welcome the Capitals into the scene. The NHL itself has, of course, produced their own NHL GWC for two years now in the 1v1 format and I’m surprised if they don’t join in on the 6v6 action within 2020-2021.
Did you have any discussions with the IIHF about an official competition?
I have not, but I am happy to talk to them and anyone else who is interested in entering this market.
« Esports is the future of entertainment »
Do you think that the general public will find this product appealing?
Absolutely. The benefit of this game and sports titles, in general, is that if you’re at least remotely familiar with the sport, you can easily start watching our broadcasts and understand what’s happening on the screen. Something that gets me excited is how the general public engages with us during our live events; Seeing passer-by’s take out their phones to take photos, groups of people discussing what they’re seeing and people from all kinds of backgrounds finding their way to fill the seats in the audience.
At the end of the day, it's really up to us as an organizer, EA SPORTS as the game developer and our community to create immersive leagues and tournaments with high production value in order to make it fun and enjoyable to watch for both the hardcore fans and the more casual crowd.
How do you see the future of esports in general? There have been some talks about virtual Olympics, do you believe in it?
Esports is the future of entertainment. I do believe the bubble will eventually burst with some of the most astronomical prize pools we see for some games. However, I don’t see that happening for a while or overall harming the great thing that esports already is today. Regarding the Olympics - there’s a common question I hear from time to time: Does esports need the Olympics, or is it the Olympics that need esports? Whatever the opinion, I do believe that it is the direction we are heading in - just last week the Finnish Esports Federation was approved as a member of the Finnish Olympic Committee.
There are numerous bugs on NHL 20 and several glitches are still possible, are they a challenge to the development of your business and eHockey?
I wouldn’t say that bugs and glitches are a big problem for the development of our business and the virtual hockey. I am a member of the EA SPORTS GameChanger program and actively provide them with information about any bugs that either I or the community stumble upon and I believe that it is a valuable line of communication to have in order for EA to keep improving their product for competitive play. The bigger concern that I have voiced to the producers and developers is that from our perspective there is a large demand for better broadcasting options, such as a spectator mode where the broadcaster would have control of the camera angles.
Many people are indignant at the disparities of connection across the continent. For this reason, do you think that one day a multi-day LAN competition could bring the community together in a central place or country?
Absolutely. That is definitely one of our goals and it is just a matter of time and cooperating with the right partners.
Which team, and player, do you enjoy watching most?
Our community is filled with a huge amount of talented and passionate players and teams. Some players shine with their incredible puck-handling skills and fancy goals, while others blow you away with ice-in-their-veins kind of calm and collected plays under the pressure in a game 7. Every season we get treated with both great defensive battles and offensive shootouts and while I do enjoy watching the best of the best - watching two even teams play in the lower divisions can be very entertaining as well.
This article was published in Slaphot Magazine #99 – December 2019. It is released on NHLGamer.com with the kind authorization of Asphalt Rink Editions. Any copy of this text is strictly forbidden.