Engaging fans during a pandemic: How the San Jose Sharks simulate hockey games

Sports has suffered during the pandemic, with shortened seasons, no fans in seats, reduced revenues. The San Jose Sharks lead the way in showing teams in whatever sport how to innovate in times of crisis and keep fans engaged. This is so cool - and so valuable.

I met Jonathan Becher when he was Chief Marketing Officer at SAP more than a decade ago.  In that role, and as the Chief Digital Officer at SAP, he was one of the most innovative, thoughtful and provocative people in the entire technology industry. He is a truly gifted thinker, writer and a thoughtful, good person. Oh, and also, he has a great ironic sense of humor.  He is a seriously cool guy to know - and I'm glad that I do.

Now, he's president of the San Jose Sharks and also president of Sharks Sports & Entertainment - and with all that he is as a person and the expanded view of professional sports that goes with his titles, he is able to see not only the game itself, but that engagement, especially during the pandemic crisis, needs an entirely new outlook and approach.  Trust me, not only did he imagine and then plan on how to engage fans a.k.a. customers in crisis but he then went and did it.

To get a flavor of the man, here's a brief clip of Jonathan a few weeks ago on a CRM Playaz episode.

I'll close this with an anecdote. A few weeks ago, because of my relationship to the world of sports via my executive board position at SEAT (look at the link, it's too complicated to explain), I was talking to a sports-focused technology vendor about fan engagement and innovation during the pandemic.  We got to the National Hockey League (NHL) and without prompting, the guy said, "Oh, in the NHL, everyone looks to the San Jose Sharks for the way they engage the fans now."  No prompting. None. 

I rest my case.

In this post, Jonathan is going to tell you all about what the Sharks have done to engage those fans in the midst of this crisis. You will love it.

So, welcome Jonathan and take it away!

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Source: San Jose Sharks

If you're in the business of live sports and entertainment, how do you entertain and engage fans when you can't put on any events? Like so many other businesses shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, sports teams had no playbook for how to operate during these unprecedented times. The last time that none of the four major U.S. sports leagues played in the month of April was way back in 1883. Heck, basketball wasn't even invented until 1891.

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Due to health concerns, the 2019-20 NHL regular season was paused on March 12, 2020 with 189 games remaining in the season's final few weeks. More than four months later, on August 1, the NHL returned to action with an expanded 24-team Stanley Cup playoff format played without a live audience in two Canadian hub cities. To minimize potential health issues, each hub is a self-contained bubble with a defined maximum number of personnel (including players, coaches, and staff) and a comprehensive system of testing.

While early NHL playoff TV ratings have been very strong, the pandemic left 18+ weeks with no live sports and little new content with which to engage fans. For the first few weeks, the NHL and teams resorted to tried-and-true fan engagement techniques: airing classic games, releasing never-seen-before content, and producing video interviews of players stuck in quarantine. We quickly learned nearly everyone binge-watched Tiger King and had creative ways for staying in shape.

It worked – for a while.

Starved for something more engaging, some teams starting streaming simulated games using NHL 20 from Electronic Arts (EA). The idea was to "complete" the regular season by simulating the remaining match-ups on the nights the games would have been played and "broadcasting" the results on social media (primarily Twitch). It was fun and surprisingly realistic.

From a San Jose Sharks point of view, we hadn't previously simulated hockey games and didn't have a Twitch account before the season was paused. In experimenting with simulated games, we soon realized the natural limitation of two computers pitted against each other. It lacked the spontaneity of human involvement; the compelling part of live sports.

As such, we decided to allow a handful of fans to play on the simulated Sharks, modifying their simulated player to more closely match them in real-life: jersey name & number, height, right/left-handed shot, etc. We weren't quite sure what would happen and, true to many experiments, we ended up with an unexpected result. One fan was injured (digitally) early on in a game.

As you can see in his Instagram feed, the fan's initial reaction was severe disappointment – screaming 'unfair' multiple times and even demanding his money back. (Some things don't change between live events and simulated ones!) But, after being carried into the virtual locker by the simulated players, disappointment turned into an unforgettable experience. He later wrote "Definitely a highlight of 2020 and a moment I won't soon forget."

The experience was made even more special when Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson placed a real-world phone call to him after the game to deliver a "get well" message. (One note: We've since turned off the simulation setting which allows injuries. No reason to tempt fate again.)

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Fans simulated as players for the Sharks in EA Sports NHL 2020

Source: San Jose Sharks

A more traditional but also unexpected result happened when a different fan scored the game-winning goal during overtime. After a simulated on-ice celebration with his teammates, this fan also received a congratulatory phone call from the GM. Sadly, the fan isn't draft eligible.

As time went on, we have found many more ways to increase interest in these simulated games. Rather than limiting ourselves to our current active roster, we included popular alumni players like Owen Nolan, Mike Ricci and Douglas Murray playing on the same team with current ones. We can simulate fans' life-long debates on best-ever line combinations and theoretical match ups.

We even tried including the same player (Owen Nolan) from two different times in his career. The older Owen scored on the younger one! It was fun but ultimately a bit confusing.

To improve the realism, our regular radio play-by-play announcer, Dan Rusanowsky, began calling the games live. Yes, you read that right. The audio for the simulated game was generated live by a professional play-by-play announcer with all of his trademark energy in tense situations, sophisticated analysis of broken plays, and celebrations after a goal was scored. Sound cool? I found it compelling.

We also got our corporate partners into the act, extending their sponsorship agreements into the simulated world. Rather than just changing the simulated dashers, we found creative ways to tie sponsors to the game. For example, Western Digital awarded free 2TB external hard drives to select participants which they could use for their video gaming needs. Not just a logo add-on but an authentic tie to the digital environment.

After only a few games, fans seem engaged. We topped 6M impressions and 400K video views. Our Twitch follower count is still low (~1100) but, like all digital communities, it takes a while to build.

The future possibilities seem endless. I wonder about simulating games the day after a live one but using a player who wasn't in the lineup on the previous night. Or perhaps the simulation sticks relatively closely to what happened in the game but we alter a few key sequences to see how that might have impacted the outcome. To stir a bit of controversy, maybe we even allow fans to replace one of the professionals who they feel didn't play their best and compare how the fan performed in that situation. I'm certain that would create engagement.

A crisis forces every organization to think differently and experiment with new ideas. In the Sharks case, we needed new ways to engage our fans which were consistent with our overall business strategy. While I don't think simulated games will take the place of live sports when fans are allowed back, simulated games are here to stay – no matter what the future brings.

The games might be simulated but the fan engagement is real.


Thank you, Jonathan. That kicked...that was great! This crisis calls for innovative ways  to retain customers and the Sharks delivered in a big way. 

That's it for this week.  In further sports fan engagement news, CRM Playaz Excuse the Intrusion (our sports show) this Friday (August 28) at 3pm ET will feature Steve Reese, CIO of the Phoenix Suns.  Look for us on LinkedIn, Facebook Live, Periscope/Twitter and YouTube.