Maple Leafs’ Hyman taking best shot as esports franchise owner

The NHL pause has afforded Zach Hyman plenty of time to concentrate on two of his interests outside of hockey. 

For one, the Maple Leafs forward is hoping to write his fourth children’s book, following up Hockey Hero, The Bambino and Me, and The Magician’s Secret. He’s also been able to dedicate more time to something that doesn’t get as much attention when he’s busy with hockey.

Hyman founded Eleven Gaming, a professional esports organization, in October 2018. He originally was seeking to invest in that world, but ultimately decided to form his own franchise.

“I thought it was a good opportunity to get in before there was this huge wave surrounding it,” Hyman recently told NBC Sports.

In-season, it’s Chief Operation Officer Oliver Silverstein, who has experience in the esports world, running the day-to-day of E11 Gaming. Even as he’s preoccupied with his hockey career, Hyman does keep tabs on the business.

“The operation wouldn’t function without [Silverstein],” Hyman said. “I’m in contact with him daily going over what we’ve got to do. I’m more of the big picture [person]. I like to navigate as to where we need to go and he executes the day-to-day grind to get us to that end goal.”

E11’s roster currently features eight pros from five different countries. In its first year of existence, the franchise earned over $1.5 million USD in competitive Fortnite events.

The vast differences in how generations consume media now played a part in getting Hyman involved.

“When I looked at the space a couple of years ago I saw a huge opportunity because I have a younger brother who’s 11 years younger than me and the way that he consumes media is a lot different than the way that I consume media,” he said. “The way that I consume media is through TV and watching TV shows and [to not] really record anything, you just kind of went and watched live on TV — whereas he’s watching stuff on YouTube and Twitch, Netflix, and he really solely consumes his media online.”

The business of esports has grown in the last several years. According to Deloitte, over $4.5 billion was invested into the esports world in 2018. North America was expected to see $300 million in esports related revenues in 2019. 

Games like Fortnite, Call of Duty, and League of Legends have become so popular that competitions are selling out major arenas and stadiums around the world. The 2019 Fortnite World Cup sold out the 23,000-plus seat Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York in July.

It was at that tournament that five E11 gamers won $580,000 in prize money in solo and duo competitions. (The grand prize solo winner took home $3 million. Tiger Woods earned a little over $2 million by winning the 2019 Masters golf tournament.)

Growing the business

Hyman expanded his portfolio in March when E11 acquired SoaR Gaming and their influencer network.

Having been involved in the esports world for a year-and-a-half, Hyman has learned that it’s an ever-changing business model.

“You’ve always got to be flexible and pivot, especially in the gaming space where things change so quickly with games and with popularity,” he said. “If you look at it today, there’s a new game called Valorant. For a long time it was Fortnite and then Call of Duty came out with Warzone, so people started watching that. Fortnite’s kind of always been around and now you have Valorant where it just kind of dropped and over a million people shifted and started watching it on Twitch and it became Twitch’s most-viewed game.”

The E11 team roster is young, with players ranging in age from 16 to early 20s. Hyman’s experience as a professional athlete comes into play when his players are about to enter a competition. He can relate to dealing with nerves and having to perform under pressure in front of a large audience.

And like hockey players, esports gamers take part in video sessions where mistakes and good decisions are pointed out to help the individual and group as a whole.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down sports, it hasn’t stopped esports. Hyman and other NHLers are regularly participating in livestreams for charity or just for fun. Playing the games has given him a view into the gamers world as the E11 roster continues preparing for future competitions. 

As for long-term planning, that remains a tough task for Hyman and Silverstein.

“This is a difficult situation for all businesses,” Hyman said. “We’re fortunate that the esports business, the gaming business is primarily online. We have players and influencers all around the country that we’ve been working with remotely since inception. We’re used to working remotely, which we’re lucky enough in that sense that our business is an online business, whereas for other businesses it’s a tough time.

“It is difficult to look into the future right now because there’s so much uncertainty. But at the same time we’re lucky in a sense with how our operations run that things haven’t changed too dramatically on our end.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Maple Leafs’ Hyman taking best shot as esports franchise owner originally appeared on NBCSports.com

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