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Gaming events to put spotlight on esports, Blue Jackets

Some of the best in the world to show their skills on the virtual ice

by Jef Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Matt Gutkoski wishes there were still real, live NHL hockey to watch. 

Unfortunately, that's not going to happen for a while as the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have left the Blue Jackets as well as the other 30 NHL teams on pause. 

But the former high school hockey player and Blue Jackets fan does have a bit of a silver lining to his cloud. 

The Ohio State student who plays under the gamer tag "Top Shelf Cookie" won the NHL's World Gaming Championship a year ago, making him the best hockey gamer on the planet a year ago.  

And with the sports world on hold, the esports world has a chance to come to the fore. That will happen twice in the next two days when it comes to gamers with Blue Jackets ties, as Gutkoski will take on his WGC finals opponent and noted Capitals fan John "JohnWaynee90" Casagranda tonight in a virtual matchup that will happen at the same time as the on-ice Columbus vs. Washington matchup that was scheduled to happen at Nationwide Arena.  

Friday evening, the finals of the Blue Jackets' annual NHL 20 gaming tournament will take place, with a pair of Canadian gamers battling for the $5,000 top prize in a matchup that will feature commentary from CBJ fan and popular gamer Andrew "Nasher" Telfer.  

And with the on-ice, on-field and on-court activities of the sports world paused for a bit, this is a unique time for esports to shine as both matchups can be found on the popular live video site Twitch.  

"It kind of puts a spotlight on esports," said Gutkoski, who will also represent the Blue Jackets in the upcoming NHL 20 Cup, which will match players and teams across the league. "It's like the ideal environment -- there are no other sports on, there's only so many things you can watch on ESPN right now.

"It gives an opportunity for the esports players to step up and provide that content to give people something to watch, and for people who are still on the border of, 'What even is this? Is this cool?' or whatever it is, it gives them an opportunity to check it out and go from there." 

The esports world, of which NHL -- or "Chel" -- gaming is a part, has grown quite a bit in the past few years in all aspects, with money and interest climbing. This year's upcoming World Gaming Championships, which kicked off opening round play this past Wednesday, will feature a battle for a record of $150,000 in prize money with a $60,000 top prize. 

The two events featuring the Blue Jackets over the next few days will include four of the best players in the world. Last year, Gutkoski rode the wave of winning the inaugural CBJ gaming tournament to defeat fellow American entrant Casagranda in the final of the World Gaming Championship, so tonight's matchup is a meeting of the two best players in the world from a year ago. 

"John and I obviously have become very good friends over the past few years," Gutkoski said. "We're good friends, but when we play, no one wants to lose. We'll have some good games. It'll be a good time." 

Meanwhile, the final of the CBJ NHL 20 tournament Friday at 6 p.m. will feature last year's World Gaming Championship third-place finisher in Vancouver native Karl "Mg x Nuclear" Caslib, who won the PS4 bracket to qualify over fellow 2019 WGC finalist Matthew "YungGren" Grenier.  

On the Xbox side, Justin "Ez-Regs" Reguly is a fellow Canadian standout player who was ranked No. 1 in his home country at one point a year ago and is a four-time champion of team tournaments over the past two seasons. To win the Xbox bracket and reach the CBJ final, Reguly beat both Grenier as well as one of last year's CBJ tournament finalists, Josh "HK_OFs" Fuss.

The Blue Jackets' tournament is one of many across the league, which allows these top-level gamers to earn cash prizes throughout the year and also compete against up-and-coming gamers who could soon be players on the international scene. 

"It's awesome that actual NHL teams are coming in and hosting their own tournaments," Caslib said. "I love playing for money and this gives me a chance to do so. Most of them have been local tournaments that I could not compete in, but still great for the game to grow." 

And grow it has over the past few years. While NHL gaming is still behind some of its counterparts like FIFA soccer when it comes to exposure, players from across the league are known to pick up the sticks, as Seth Jones was one of the pros who took part in the All-Star Chel Gaming Challenge at this year's all-star game. Casagranda, meanwhile, has signed a deal with the Capitals to become the first pro gamer inked by an NHL team, and in January streamed games with Washington star Evgeny Kuznetsov.  

While players have started to dabble in public gaming events, the community of high-level NHL players has grown since the establishment of the NHL World Gaming Championship in 2018.  

"I've gotten to meet a lot of people and make some new friends," said Gutkoski, who suffered losses to Grenier in both the double-elimination PS4 and Xbox CBJ tournaments this past weekend. "When you're playing against guys that are really playing well, somebody has to lose obviously. Gren is one of the best players if not the best player right now, so I called him after our game and we were talking about the game and little things like, 'Hey, that was a really good play, I've never seen that before. I'll put that in my pocket of tricks for next time we play.' We kind of laugh about it, then we talked for like 45 more minutes about random stuff.  

"I think as the community has grown, the players all have a lot of respect for each other." 

Hockey itself is on pause, but the chance to watch some of the best in the world show their stuff on the digital ice will be showcased over the next two days. It will be perhaps a bigger stage than usual, but the players are excited to step into the void and see what happens.  

"I see a huge opportunity for esports to grow, especially those of sports titles such as FIFA, Madden, and NHL," Reguly said. "Obviously we would love for sports to come back but I see Friday has a great opportunity to give some form of competitive hockey entertainment where more eyes will be on the event.

"I have the upmost confident that myself, Nuke and the production team will make a great event."

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