This time last month, the Finnish Hockey League (Liiga) became the world’s first major sports organization to announce it would unofficially settle its championship through esports. After canvassing the opinion of thousands of hockey fans after the season was cut short by COVID-19, the Liiga decided to replicate its playoffs using EA’s NHL 20. Finally, the season has been settled.
After attracting 160,000 viewers across Finland’s streaming sites and national TV–a sizeable crowd, considering the country boasts a population of just 5.5 million–the playoffs were decided in a battle between two of the nation’s most promising gamers. In the end, regular-season winners Oulun Kärpät went on to take home virtual playoff gold, courtesy of local fan Miikka Kolehmainen.
Kärpät AKA the “Ermines”, are one of the most successful Finnish ice hockey teams of the 2010s, taking home half of the last six championships (2014, 2015 and 2018). However, Kolehmainen made them more bulletproof than ever: the 19-year-old gamer and avid supporter of Kärpät lost just one playoff game on his way to the final, before sweeping fellow finalists HIFK in a first-to-two series.
HIFK–the delightfully named “Helsinki Sporting Society Fellows”–were represented by Tuukka Ritokoski, who went one better than Kolehmainen by making his way to the championship game without losing a tie. However, Ritokoski’s form finally hit the skids when Kolehmainen’s Ermines triumphed 4-1 and 7-3 in back-to-back victories to take the title.
While esports stars dominated the line-up of delegates, the playoffs weren’t without the Liiga’s real-life ice hockey stars. The bronze match was won by Joni Tuulola, representing the HPK team that nurtured him before he began plying his trade in the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs. His team beat fellow semi-finalists KooKoo, represented by Finnish baseball star Sasu Toika of the Kouvola Batsmen, 4-2.
While everyone around the world lives in hope that sports will resume their traditional format in the coming months, this experiment by Telia Esports has highlighted how successful the esports platform could be, especially with younger generations. Aija Saha, the marketing manager of the Liiga, explained: “We were surprised with the positive feedback and how many tuned in for the games! This is something that could be re-created in other countries and sports leagues as well.”
Kati Savolainen, the marketing and communications manager for HPK, agreed. “The ePlayoffs were fun and entertaining. Especially for the younger crowd, this must have been a fun way to take part in something that they find important.”
Already, there’s talk that Finnish spectators could challenge professional players in NHL in an official capacity in the future. Given everything we’ve been through–and will continue to face in the future–there might not be a nicer idea for all sports leagues to follow. As I’ve said before, Finland is the world’s happiest country; it might be time to start paying attention to its ideas a little bit more.