An addiction panic is sweeping the NHL. Gambling? Drugs? Nope, it’s the popular video game Fortnite. There’s an urban legend that a prominent NHL draft pick will never have a career due to his “addiction” to the game. Draft prospects have been advised to delete references to the game from their social media. So what terrifies NHL executives (though not on the business side, as the Vancouver Canucks recently bought an Overwatch team) about the game?
Partially, they are jumping on board the rising moral panic about the game, just another in a long cycle of video game moral panics. The Fortnite panic differs in that it is less about violence (which clearly would not concern the NHL) and more about compulsion. If you are like me and not one of the 78 million monthly Fortnite players, the game is a Hunger Games-style combat between 100 players in a contained area, who battle each other until one remains. Players can play individually or in teams. The violence is cartoonish and victorious characters perform wild celebrations (which alone may the reason old-school NHL types hate it, as Fortnite celebrations are popular in other sports). A match takes about 20 minutes, quite the opposite from a prior addiction moral panic over the endless gameplay of World of Warcraft. Rather, the game structure is not different from poker, a game played in short rounds that can be played forever. However, because poker predates the NHL, there was never any concern it would turn players into compulsive gamblers during the late-00s poker craze. In fact, NHL players appeared in ads for gambling websites.
Gaming highlights a tension in the NHL – players have a lot of down time, but are expected to be dedicated team employees at all times. Former NHL defenceman Andrew Ference discussed that players are discouraged from having hobbies because coaches and management will blame poor performance on these interests. Gaming is, according to Trevor Timmins, Montreal’s director of player personnel, “a red flag” interest to NHL teams. Timmins frames it in terms of keeping players up at night, rather than in terms of just killing time.
It is possible gaming could be indicative of a problem. This summer, the World Health Organization dubiously listed “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition, given gaming obsession is not a chemical addiction but rather the symptoms of an underlying mental illness like anxiety or depression. Much of over-gaming is as an escape from the alienating and boring experience of school and work. Pro hockey’s combination of the pressure of always having to be dedicated to your job with young men moving away from home is a recipe for loneliness and isolation. In the past, this has often led players to alcoholism and drug use. However, no video game itself will trigger such behaviours. Video games can be a coping mechanism and to treat the game as the problem itself suggests the NHL needs to listen more than talk during their mental health awareness programs to actually grasp the issues.
However, none of the players and executives panicking about the game mention it as a warning sign, but as the problem itself. In response to this panic, New Jersey Devils goalie Eddie Lack tweeted a more realistic image of NHL gaming:
People are overreacting so much. From my own experiences we play together a bunch of guys on all the different teams I’ve been on the last year. Isn’t that more team building than watching Netflix by yourself in your room that is realistically the only other option guys are doing
— Eddie Lack🇸🇪 (@eddielack) September 18, 2018
I get GM/coaches get upset with guys gaming all night but that’s not the case (from my own experiences). Everyone that’s here wants to make NHL more than anything… (Even more than playing fortnite)
— Eddie Lack🇸🇪 (@eddielack) September 18, 2018
Yet this seems to still be a “problem” to the NHL largely, because is is not tradition. An anonymous NHL GM said “it’s an issue. before, the athletes were going to bars. Now, they’re staying in hotel rooms or at home and playing video games for hours”. You would think this would be seen as a positive. But no, bars are tradition and Vancouver Canucks defenceman Michael Del Zotto says the team has discussed banning the game on the road in the name of strengthening team bonds. NHL teams like rules because the league is increasingly concerned with finding a specific kind of “character”. While analytics that search for talent are scoffed at, the Montreal Canadiens are among the teams who have developed a personality behavioural assessment tool, turning to advanced measures to find personality-less hockey players. Fortnite’s popularity on social media means that some NHLers are threatening to display individuality, and perhaps even form connections with fans, such as Minnesota Wild forward J.T. Brown who is a popular Twitch streamer.
Fortnite represents a myriad of cultural faultlines – the time demands of hockey as a job, personality, and tradition – reduced to pathologizing not even an individual, but a technology that inherently forms players who do not fit the rigid “character” ideal of the NHL.