Matt Gutkoski circled his defenseman behind the net, passed it back to his winger, and dusted off a one-timer slapshot to capture a 4-3 victory, $50,000 and a world title.
Playing under the gamertag “Top-Shelf-Cookie,” Gutkoski, a fourth-year in marketing, won the 2019 NHL Gaming World Championship on June 18 in Las Vegas. He defeated Alaska native and fellow United States regional competitor John Casagranda, “JohnWaynee90.”
It was a culmination of everything Gutkoski said he enjoys about the relationships within the esports community — because this wasn’t the first time that Top-Shelf-Cookie and JohnWaynee90 faced off in a virtual hockey contest.
“It was funny, because we were looking on stage and I was like, ‘Dude, you believe we’re about to play one game for 50 grand,” Casagranda said. “We’ve played hundreds of games against each other all year.”
Unlike many other sports, competitive NHL video gamers often face each other dozens of times outside tournament play, or at smaller tournaments hosted by individual NHL teams such as the Columbus Blue Jackets or Detroit Red Wings.
It helps create bonds like the one Gutkoski and Casagranda have, but comes with the risk of opponents knowing each other’s tactics when they meet on the biggest stages.
“If I were to somehow see the future to know I was gonna play him [in the U.S. final and world final], then I wouldn’t have played him as much as I did,” Gutkoski said, laughing. “It’s tough because I see him as one of my best friends, even though he lives in Alaska.”
Even after beating Casagranda in the U.S. final and knowing they would be two of six competitors in the world final, Gutkoski scrimmaged Casagranda constantly in the weeks between the two tournaments. They hoped to create an all-American final — and succeeded.
When Gutkoski buried the game-winning overtime goal in the third game of the best-of-three championship match, the first thing he did was embrace Casagranda.
“The friendship has become a lifelong bond between the both of us. I feel like he’ll be a friend forever,” Casagranda said. “We’re gonna go meet in Seattle here at the end of the month.”
Gutkoski took up the EA Sports NHL video game series soon after strapping on his first pair of skates when he himself played.
“I started [playing hockey] I want to say, first or second grade,” Gutkoski said. “If I wasn’t actually playing on the ice, it was a way to stay connected to the game.”
Gutkoski credits his success in the video game to his time participating in youth hockey. That knowledge stands out as his primary strength, Casagranda said.
“He’ll see stuff before it develops,” Casagranda said. “Very high IQ at the game.”
Eventually Gutkoski came to the realization that he could hang with the world’s top players.
“There were some players that I had played all year that were relatively considered the best,” Gutkoski said.
He said he knew it was time to become competitive once he started winning a match or two against those players.
Like any athlete, it takes experience before video gamers can win at the highest level. Gutkoski forayed into the same world championship tournament he won this past June for the first time in 2018 and failed to escape his own region.
Now with a knowledge of the competition level, Gutkoski spent the next year scrimmaging as many top players as he could. The tight-knit community, where he said he’s met some of his best friends, facilitates these high-end games through a channel for the world’s best on the group communication app Discord, which Gutkoski utilized to filter out players of lower skill level.
“I tried this year to play against a bunch of the better players,” Gutkoski said. “Playing online, you’re still gonna come across playing those same people, but it’s not every game.”
One might think that winning a world title in one’s selected sport would make it a feasible full-time job. To Gutkoski, that isn’t the case.
“To make that living, you have to win a lot of tournaments,” Gutkoski said. “I need to look out and say, ‘If I don’t win tournaments, I’m literally not gonna have any money.”
After graduation, Gutkoski hopes to remain around the NHL gaming community through his marketing degree.
“I would still play the game and everything, but I wouldn’t be competing,” Gutkoski said. “I would be on the other side of that, and help promote it and grow it from the business side.”
In the short-term, however, he will stay competitive while working the marketing angle.
“The plan is for both playing and working on events,” Gutkoski said. “I don’t think I would be able to help out in every tournament, so for those I’m not involved in, I plan on playing in.”
Ideas about how to expand the game to larger audiences bang around like slapshots in his head. First, Gutkoski said, is eliminating the stigma that esports is not a sport.
“It’s a skill to be very good at a video game,” Gutkoski said. “People think, ‘Ah, you’re just pushing buttons on a controller.’ No, it’s a lot more than that. You’ve gotta be coordinated. You’ve gotta be mentally aware. You’ve gotta be thinking ahead.”
He drew a comparison between the mental skills he used to play hockey and the mental skills he uses when playing esports, noting that only the physical aspect was lacking.
The second way Gutkoski sees esports growing is through promotion and media exposure, adding that ESPN has already bought the television rights to some esports such as Overwatch and League of Legends. However, many top esports tournaments are still primarily hosted by Twitch, an online streaming service.
“I think for it to really, really take off and grow, it needs to be televised, where I can go sit on the couch and turn on the TV and there, it’s there,” Gutkoski said.
Gutkoski’s run at a second straight world crown will begin with open online play in March 2020, which should lead to the U.S. regional in May.