A lot of people have wondered out loud how comic book heroes relate to hockey. The obvious rationale is provided by the NHL:
“With an initial plan to reach an all-family audience and narrower target demo of tween boys, GME hopes to bring a new audience to the NHL, while engaging the existing, established hockey fan base through a compelling tale of good vs. evil.” Source: NHL.com
But how do superheroes bring in new fans?
It does tap into the market of comic book fans who are familiar with Stan Lee’s previous work. Being exposed to NHL logos and learning about the teams they represent is a good way to get fans into the game. But it’s the narratives and storytelling that will bring in fans.
Narratives play an important role in communication between people. It’s a way to teach, a way to entertain and a way to engage readers. By having characters, a plot, conflict and an ending, stories manage to stick with us longer and have a greater impact that simply reading lessons or information. An example would be the lessons a child learns when reading a story.
Stan Lee and crew attempt to summarize an entire NHL team and its city into one single character. Here’s an exerpt from The Oiler’s background:
He’s gritty and tough like the roughneck oilrig workers he mostly associates with. He spends a majority of his time roaming the Northwest Territories. He’s most happy when he’s exploring the vast northern wilderness. Whether it’s blasting bad guys with torrents of energized oil, engulfing them in a horrendous blizzard or crushing through concrete walls, the Oiler is one devastating Guardian. Source: nhl.com
A person can get more out of their engagement with a narrative and following a character, rather than just consume information about a topic. The Guardian project ties the information about Edmonton and what an Oiler is into animation and a storyline instead of just presenting facts to consume.
The NHL’s foray into comics also works as an example of transmedia storytelling. Henry Jenkins (2007) defines transmedia storytelling as:
a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. (Source: Confessions of an Aca/Fan)
The NHL has used television, radio, web, social media and gaming to reach its audience. By using comics, the NHL can continue its storytelling and capturing a wider audience and maintain costs.
According to Jenkins,
comics have emerged as a key vehicle for constructing transmedia narratives — in part because they cost less to produce and are thus lower risk than developing games or filming additional material (Source: Confessions of an Aca/Fan)
It’s easy to mock the NHL for trying out comic book superheroes, especially when they make for easy punchlines. The odd selection of characteristics for some of the guardians as well as the strong resemblance to older Stan Lee characters have been a more popular topic of conversation. But there is good reasoning for a professional sports league, that’s trying to grow its game, to try something as imaginative as this.