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NHL to debut ‘NHL 18’ esports league by the end of the regular season

EA Sports and the NHL are jumping into the esports business.

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

The NHL plans to be the next professional sports league to launch its own esports equivalent. Commissioner Gary Bettman spoke to the media on Saturday evening before the start of the 2018 NHL All-Star weekend and confirmed what we had heard rumblings of for a few months now — that the league will unveil an esports league.

According to Greg Wyshynski of ESPN, the NHL will take the plunge before the end of the regular season when it unveils its esports league centered around its EA Sports game.

Earlier this week, ESPN and Disney joined forces to announce they’ll be broadcast the Madden Ultimate League for the NFL. The NBA also has plans for an esports league, as 17 teams recently put out their logos for the NBA 2K league set to arrive in May.

The NHL’s foray into esports has been on the radar for awhile now. Back in November, Elliotte Friedman hinted at the prospect in one of his 31 Thoughts columns, saying that the league’s plan is to “start small” with the new venture then build into something sustainable. The NHL has been discussing esports as a potential place to branch out as far back as Dec. 2016 during its annual Board of Governors meetings.

Now seems to be one of the best times to get into the esports boom. Popular esports games like League of Legends, Dota 2, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive have been mainstays in the industry. Recently, popular first-person hero shooter Overwatch has made headlines as being one of the first esports to create its own league that functions very much like a professional sports league does. The league is already doing well among esports fans and the general populace alike, as the league’s first week had higher ratings than Thursday Night Football’s streaming services.

Hockey already has a bit of an idea of how an esports league works, as Comcast Spectacor — which owns the Philadelphia Flyers — is the backer of the Philadelphia Fusion Overwatch League team. The Fusion share the same colors as the Flyers, and the Overwatch League team has been promoted during home games and on the sideboards in the arena.

NHL 18 does have quite the online presence, as the game’s 6-on-6 team modes are incredibly popular among hockey fans. For some, the biggest draw to NHL 18 is the ability to play online with friends or against random competitors.

How the NHL decides to build an esports league around the game, whether having 31 teams right off the bat or settle for a smaller number around 10 or so, remains to be seen. In any case, the NHL will not be far behind the NFL and NBA in the esports boom.