BEMIDJI -- Even when Aaron Miller isn’t playing hockey, he’s playing hockey. Hockey of the video game variety that is.
“That’s what I’m doing when I go home,” Miller said. “I’m either watching game film, I’m watching the NHL or I’m playing NHL (the video game) or I’m playing hockey.”
The junior forward for the Bemidji State men’s hockey team is about as avid a gamer as you’ll find.
“My life revolves around it,” Miller said. “It keeps my mind at ease when I’m playing hockey.”
Miller, who hails from Superior, Wis., regularly competes in 6-on-6 games with a group of five other gamers from across the continent. The team competes online in leagues against others from around the world.
And this isn’t just a group of guys messing around. Teams have their own custom logos and uniforms, and games are live streamed online.
“I actually play pretty competitively on NHL,” he said. “I play 6-on-6 hockey on NHL and I have teammates that I play every night together with, a group of five guys. We have practice every day and we have systems and what not.”
Being an NCAA Division I hockey player certainly has its advantages when playing the virtual game.
“I don’t think I pick up things playing NHL, but I definitely do some things in NHL that I learn in real life,” Miller said. “That’s a little bit different playing a video game. It’s just something I do. I’m good at it. I can use my real-world expertise in the game and I think I have an advantage playing the video games by doing that.”
“I don’t know about carrying something from the game into a real-life game,” he added. “But definitely from real life to video gaming. There’s stuff that definitely shows you have a little bit higher hockey IQ.”
Miller’s gaming acumen secured him an invite to compete in the NHL Gaming World Championship U.S. qualifiers earlier this year as one of the top 128 players in the country. Though he ultimately didn’t advance to the finals, the championship in Las Vegas was televised on NBC Sports and attended by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, which goes to show how far gaming and esports have come.
Perhaps if a professional hockey career isn’t in the cards for Miller after graduation, he could become a pro player of a different sort.
“It’s just something that’s second nature to me,” Miller said. “I love hockey so just why not, you know? It’s getting big now, too, professional gaming. Maybe my future is something in that. We’ll find out.”
A fallback in esports probably won’t be necessary for Miller, at least judging from his on-ice stats with the Beavers. He tied for the team lead with 11 goals a season ago. Along with Adam Brady, he’s currently the team’s co-leading scorer with 10 points (4g-6a), including two goals in last Saturday’s 4-1 win at Ferris State.
“I think I’m breaking out of the shell right now,” Miller said. “Everything’s coming along a little bit faster. The game feels slow to me right now, which is a good thing. I’m playing with Ross (Armour) and (Ethan) Somoza. They work hard and they help me out a lot with that. … It’s nice to have those two linemates and it’s even nicer when it’s not just you that’s scoring. We have lines one through three, even our fourth line, scoring a couple goals.”
His teammates, though, can’t compete with Miller when it comes to video game hockey.
“To be honest, there aren’t really too many NHL gamers on the team,” Miller said. “(Tyler) Jubenvill a little bit, but nobody is really testing me. Usually the game’s over after the first period if they’re playing me.”