- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2020

ARLINGTON — After practice Wednesday, Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov got to unwind the way many 20-somethings choose to relax: by playing some video games. But this was no casual task. Kuznetsov took on one of the top “NHL 20” players in the world.

John Casagranda, known by his gamertag “JohnWayne,” joined him online and played from his home in Anchorage, Alaska. First, both played as the Capitals; Kuznetsov scored twice in the first period, but went on to lose, 6-2. Then they tried a matchup of the U.S. national team against Russia, and Johnny Gaudreau picked up a hat trick as JohnWayne drubbed Kuznetsov’s Russians, 8-3.

Kuznetsov was complimentary of his new friend and said JohnWayne had gone easy on him. “I think if he tried, he can beat me so bad,” Kuznetsov said.

The Capitals launched their “Caps Gaming” brand in November and signed JohnWayne as an ambassador, making him the first professional gamer signed by an NHL team. A few months into the endeavor, Caps Gaming arranged the one-on-one match and livestreamed it on the video platform Twitch.

Monumental Sports and Entertainment founder and CEO Ted Leonsis is a longtime believer in esports who invested in the esports organization Team Liquid and some video game developers. His son Zach Leonsis, Monumental’s senior vice president of strategic initiatives, called gaming a “great equalizer” and way to connect with people from anywhere.

“We’ve really fallen in love with esports because it gives us an opportunity to reach an entirely different fan base, and it’s primarily a fan base that’s younger,” Zach Leonsis said. “It’s Gen Z and millennial-oriented.

Caps Gaming has a longer way to go than its Monumental counterpart, Wizards District Gaming. The gaming community for the “NHL” series (often referred to as “Chel” by gamers) is not yet as widespread as for other sports titles like “NBA 2K” and “FIFA.”

Unlike the NBA 2K League, founded and co-owned by the NBA, there is not yet a “Chel” league, so individuals instead play in tournaments like the NHL Gaming World Championship, where JohnWayne was the runner-up last year.

“The NHL is exploring esports as a category now, and they’re having active conversations with EA Sports to figure out if something could potentially fit on the NHL side too,” Zach Leonsis said.

But there are opportunities to tie in Caps Gaming with the players, many of whom are casual gamers themselves. When the Capitals made their run to the Stanley Cup in 2018, it became a tradition to bring an aging Nintendo 64 console and “Mario Kart 64” for hotel downtime on the road. They play the latest generation, too. As the lone rookie on the team, one of goaltender Ilya Samsonov’s responsibilities is to pack the PlayStation 4 on the Capitals’ longer road trips, Kuznetsov said.

Kuznetsov, 27, only started gaming as a young player in the KHL in Russia. He was excited to be asked to livestream with JohnWayne.

“You know, it’s special. He can be in Alaska and I can be here, we can play,” Kuznetsov said. “He represent our team, right? I think he should get more involved and be more with the guys because we’re all part of the family here. We should get more together.”

Kuznetsov got some revenge by beating JohnWayne in “FIFA 20,” a title the gamer doesn’t usually play — and probably the only time D.C. United will defeat FC Barcelona.

It remains to be seen where Caps Gaming goes from here. Despite a growing number of Generation Z teenagers and millennials that enjoy watching others stream games on Twitch, the NHL might not invest more resources into esports, and rather leave it up to individual teams as it currently does.

Whether Caps Gaming makes the jump from sub-brand to official team or not, it’s right in the Leonsises’ wheelhouse.

“At the end of the day this is about having fun,” Zach Leonsis said. “We’re in the business of happiness and this is a great tool and a great marketing platform for us to experiment with.”

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