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The NHL wants to be part of the esports boom, but what will that look like?

How will hockey and esports work together?

2017 NHL Awards And Expansion Draft Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

One of the more interesting tidbits from Elliotte Friedman’s most recent 31 Thoughts column is that the NHL is looking into getting involved in the booming esports industry. The league apparently discussed it at the Board of Governors meeting in Dec. 2016, and continues to plan for a future where this is big business.

“Ignore this at your peril, and the NHL isn’t. No one from the league will comment at this time, but it looks like the plan is to start small — then morph into something much bigger,” Friedman wrote of the league’s plans for esports.

However, one of the key aspects of hockey’s future in esports that hasn’t really been discussed is the games themselves. Right now, the most popular esports are online battle arena games like Dota 2 and League of Legends, and first-person shooters like Halo 5: Guardians, Overwatch, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

Esports based on real sports aren’t as popular, so leagues are trying to find ways to get more involved in an industry that’s already generating billions in revenue. The NFL and Electronic Arts teamed up for the first full 32-team esports football league based on the Madden NFL franchise. The NBA has started its own esports league for NBA 2K that will begin play next year.

NHL teams are also starting to dip their toes in the water. The Philadelphia Flyers’ ownership owns an Overwatch esports team called the Philadelphia Fusion. Kroenke Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Colorado Avalanche, has a stake in an Overwatch team, too.

But what does all of this mean for esports and hockey? There’s only one officially licensed NHL game on the market: EA Sports’ NHL 18. And while it’s a fun game that’s already got a heavy focus on competitive online multiplayer, there are a lot of questions about how an NHL esports league would operate.

It’s also fair to wonder whether fans will want such a thing.

Games like League of Legends and Halo 5: Guardians provide unique entertainment experiences you can’t find anywhere else. It’ll be a different challenge for companies like the NHL to sell audiences on watching a video game version of hockey instead of just watching Connor McDavid do his thing in real life.

The implementation of 6-on-6 play in online modes shows where this could be heading, though, with full competitive games in a league of 31 six-player teams. Commissioner Gary Bettman hinted at this idea when discussing esports in March.

“Going back at least a year ago, we’ve been talking to EA about having a game that can replicate hockey in terms of having six players that are playing together against other teams, doing this more in terms of building a community…” Bettman said. “And if EA can continue to get some traction in developing a game that would work like that, we’ll be in that business.”

But turning EA Sports’ franchise from a mid-tier sports game played primarily by casual players into a hardcore competitive esports franchise will come with some major hurdles. The future may involve esports, but it’s hard to know what that will look like yet.