The International Ice Hockey Federation has announced plans to host its first Esports Fan Championship later this month.
In partnership with the Infront agency, the body’s exclusive media and marketing agency, the IIHF has developed the competition in an effort to maintain engagement with ice hockey fans at a time when its World Championship should have been getting underway in Switzerland.
This year’s IIHF World Championship was cancelled in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and was due to run between May 8 and 24.
Infront and the IIHF have appointed Germany-based gaming event organiser eSport Studio to oversee the running of the competition, which will launch on May 15. Fans within each of the 16 nations who had qualified for the World Championships will compete against each other on EA’s NHL 20 video game to decide a national champion on both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles.
The national champions will then go on to a finals stage which will be broadcast live and in full on the IIHF’s Twitch channel. The IIHF is inviting players involved in earlier rounds, which will not be live streamed, to submit their own highlights to be shared on the federation’s social media accounts.
Speaking exclusively to SportBusiness, Horst Lichtner, general secretary of the IIHF, said that the competition will be entirely funded by the federation with no contributions from the member national associations, and is being run purely for fan engagement purposes, “with no commercial return, no sponsors, nothing.”
He went on: “We are not doing this to generate money. To the contrary, this will cost us a six-digit figure to put on. There is no sponsorship, we are not doing it as a marketing tool. We want something so that the fans have something to engage with us.
“It’s really an activation with the fans because of the pandemic situation. People are at home, and we want them to be engaged with us. This is our only and main objective for this first edition. I would be very happy if our member national associations get feedback from their fans that they say, ‘thank you for hosting this.’ I’m not looking for quantitative figures, I’m not measuring success by that.”
André Fläckel, head of esports and gaming at Infront, added that younger fans, particularly those who follow the NHL, were a priority for the competition. The Esports Fan Championship will be hosted on a new IIHF esports online platform.
Fläckel told SportBusiness: “Within the esports landscape, there are still a lot of white spots, untouched areas, room for growth. We thought there was a gap we can fill that fits both to the needs of the IHF but also to the needs of the esports fans. With younger fans who may play the game but not usually show an interest in the World Championships, this is a way to build new marketing channels, to strengthen the brand awareness of the IIHF.
“It’s about making esports accessible for everyone, so that people see an opportunity and rather than a threat, and this is a process. I want to I want to have esports helping the traditional sports, to help build something for the future.”
On the decision to stream exclusively on Twitch rather than try to sell the media rights, as other rights-holders have done with some success for their own esports competitions during the lockdown, Fläckel said: “We have talked this through with broadcasters who could have had an interest. But because it is not 100-per-cent clean – the virtual environments will be NHL stadiums, we don’t have sponsors – we took the decision to do this as a fan championship, non-profile, only for the fans.”
In September, Infront announced a 10-year extension to its media and sponsorship rights sales agreement with the IIHF. The new deal runs from 2024 to 2033 and is worth guaranteed payments and the provision of comprehensive media, marketing and digital services of more than CHF500m (€475m/$512m).