Finland wins IIHF Esports title
by Lucas Aykroyd
In the hotly anticipated all-Nordic Grand Final, Finland defeated Sweden 24-8 on aggregate on Saturday to win the 2020 IIHF Esports Fan Championship.
Erik 'Tilantekija' Tammenpaa and Joel 'Rottadee' Myllymaki proved unstoppable, winning all four NHL 20 games (EA Sports) against their Nordic foes. 'Rottadee', shining on PlayStation 4, left his better-known compatriot with a huge 15-goal cushion heading into the concluding Xbox One game.
"I don't know what happened, but I'm creating a 'Rottadee' fan club after this!" said Tammenpaa. "I was dancing all over the place when he was scoring goals. He put me in such an easy situation."
The result ended a strong run for Sweden's Sebastian 'SebbeLarsen86' Larsen (PlayStation 4) and Henrik 'eken45jr' Eklund (Xbox), but sent a powerful message about Finnish hockey gaming excellence. Tammenpaa admitted he was surprised that the Canadian duo of Joshua 'Joshfearless13' D'Eri (PS4) and Karl 'hswertha23' Caslib didn't make the finals. Sweden upset Canada 17-16 in the semi-finals.
Featuring some of the world's top gamers, this inaugural IIHF Esports Fan Championship included participants from the same 16 countries that would have played in the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Zurich and Lausanne.
More than 3,000 people registered to participate in the national qualifiers, which were supported by the IIHF's member national associations from the 16 countries. Each country hosted two tournaments played in brackets (one for PlayStation 4 and one for Xbox One), with two players on each platform advancing to represent their country. The round of 16 knockout playoffs kicked off on 29 May.
Nicknamed 'Eki', Tammenpaa, now 21, made history in 2018 when he went unbeaten – a feat he repeated in this IIHF competition – to win the first NHL Gaming World Championship (GWC) in Las Vegas and took home a $50,000 prize.
Interestingly, the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship was decided by a best-of-two gold-medal format in 1998 (Sweden beat Finland) and 1999 (the Czechs beat Finland). Format-wise, that was the closest on-ice echo to what we witnessed here, although certainly an esports competition is much more high-scoring than late-90s international hockey was. Finland hammered Russia 33-7 in these semi-finals.
Heading into the Grand Final, the two Finnish gamers had only allowed 21 goals on aggregate, so the fact that Sweden totalled eight goals in the Grand Final is a creditable feat.
In the opening PS4 period, 'Rottadee' – an Oulu native who idolizes Sebastian Aho – jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead. But 'SebbeLarsen86' cut the deficit to 2-1, converting a nice cross-crease pass on the rush. Still, Finland pulled away in the second and third periods, capitalizing on Sweden's breakdowns in a 7-2 blowout.
The Xbox opener was a tight-checking 3-2 Finnish victory. Tammenpaa banged in a rebound from a point shot for an early Finnish lead. Eklund (known as 'Eken') struck back with an early second-period goal to restore Swedish hopes. Tammenpaa carried the play, but late in the middle frame, his bad giveaway enabled 'Eken' to waltz down the middle and score a nice one-handed, Peter Forsberg-style goal.
That momentum shift was short-lived. Early in the third, Tammenpaa got a absolute highlight-reel goal, undressing a Swedish defender before cashing in from a sweet cross-crease pass in tight. He broke Swedish hearts with the last-minute winner.
Taking his game to the next level on PS4, 'Rottadee' grabbed a quick 4-0 lead with spectacular playmaking on the rush. 'SebbeLarsen86' spoiled the Finnish shutout before the period ended, but it was too late for a comeback. It turned into a 12-3 annihilation, as 'Rottadee' seemingly exploited every Swedish error to give Finland a whopping 22-7 aggregate lead.
In the fourth and final Xbox game, 'Eken' simply couldn't mount a comeback against Tammenpaa. With neither player giving an inch, it turned into a hard-fought 2-1 overtime win for 'Eki', capping off Finland's run to the crown.
"It feels so good," said Tammenpaa, beaming against a backdrop of NHL jerseys with the names of Aho, Nicklas Backstrom, Patrice Bergeron, John Tavares, and Yevgeni Malkin. "The last year, I've always been close but not getting the results I wanted. This feels unreal."
If you cheer for Finland, it's been a good run lately, on or off the ice. In addition to this IIHF Esports Fan Championship, Finland won both the 2019 World Juniors (Vancouver and Victoria) and 2019 World Championship (Bratislava and Kosice). The Finns also claimed an historic silver medal at the 2019 Women's Worlds (Espoo).
Commemorative pucks and IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship tickets will be awarded to the 32 tournament participants. Diversity in gaming is a work in progress, so it was refreshing to see the strong performance by Sandra 'Lady Brunette' Demitrova, who helped Slovakia make the quarter-finals. Undoubtedly the number of female competitors will continue to increase.
Attracting a global audience on Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube, this tournament provided a welcome diversion for hockey fans worldwide during the difficult circumstances stemming from the pandemic. Yet the bright future of esports in the hockey world is just getting started.