January 20, 2011
Adam Baratta works with superheroes, but doesn't need mutant powers of perception to assess the initial reaction to the NHL's Guardian Project.
"I understand what's happening right now. We're getting negative feedback from some of the hockey purist bloggers," said Baratta, chief creative officer for Guardian Media Entertainment.
For the last few weeks, the NHL has been releasing images and videos detailing 30 superheroes created by comics legend Stan Lee and Guardian Media Entertainment -- with designs and abilities representative of each NHL team and city. Many hockey fans have greeted this bold marketing initiative with clever ridicule or outright scorn, rhetorically pummeling these characters like a Marvel piñata on message boards, blogs and social media.
Cutting through that cynicism, said Baratta, is the fact that the Guardian Project's Facebook campaign has generated over 1,000,000 votes from fans in an ongoing contest to see which Guardians are revealed on NHL.com each day.
The NHL has put so much faith in the project that it's made the Guardians part of its All-Star game marketing hook this season. The superheroes will officially debut in a five-minute live segment during next Sunday's NHL All-Star Game in Raleigh; "a combination of in-arena ice projection and hologram show," according to Baratta, as the 30 heroes "save" the Carolina fans from their arch enemy after he takes over the arena.
Sure, it sounds corny; but Baratta said the creators of this project are confident that once the Guardians' mysterious storyline and the sprawling scope of this campaign are revealed, the detractors will believe that a hockey-based superhero project can fly.
"Right now, it's like asking you to judge how good your steak will be from Wolfgang's by looking at a cow in the field. We haven't even rolled this thing out yet. All we've done is reveal an image, and given you a slight tease on what's to come," he said. "This is not a one-off, or a small, limited scope venture where it's just at the All-Star game. There is a major business venture behind this, with a tremendous amount of planning."
So what is the NHL Guardian Project? Where did it come from? Where is it going? And is there any chance it can turn derision into dedication? Like every Stan Lee creation, there's an origin story ...
About 12 years ago, Tony Chargin, now the executive vice president of GMW creative affairs, was home for Thanksgiving when he asked his nephews if they wanted to go outside and toss around the football -- but they weren't into it.
Chargin began to think about the disconnect between professional sports leagues and generations of young fans growing up in the digital age. What would make a kid today interested in a sport he or she wasn't already fascinated with?
Chargin turned to his own childhood, when he was obsessed with superheroes, and had this brainstorm: Turn each team in a pro sports league into its own unique character, and there's your entry point.
Stan Lee, the legendary former president of Marvel Comics, joined the effort about seven years ago. They first took the idea to the NFL, only to walk away from a deal with the league, according to Baratta. The reason? The NFL wanted to cast active players as the superheroes, something the creators felt had obvious pitfalls because you can't always anticipate the mistakes and poor judgments of real people.
"At the time," recalled Baratta, "they wanted to center it around Michael Vick."
GME's involvement with the NHL spans roughly 16 months, as Chargin and co-creator J.D. Shapiro pitched the idea that this superhero project was a way for the league to grow its brand globally and especially among "9-14-year-old boys and girls" who may not follow hockey at all. (Strange demographics, incidentally, considering none of the Guardians appear to be female.)
"We want to give fathers and mothers an opportunity to introduce the sport of hockey to their kids in a way that speaks more to what the kids are interested in," Baratta said.
"Hockey fans, above and beyond all other sports fans, are purists. We've been cognizant of that since the start. So we're trying, right now, to create something for hockey that will expand their awareness -- hopefully around the globe."
The design team visited with each NHL franchise, talking with presidents and CEOs to ensure that the characters were representative of the team and the city. The Predator, for the Nashville Predators, is a "skilled musician" who is duty-driven since he's from the Volunteer State. That sort of thing.
Once their attributes were established, next came the look of the characters, which has proven to be problematic in the eyes of some fans. The Bangin' Panger blog has been chronicling the similarities between Guardians and other recognized comic characters; for example, the Juggernaut may want to get lawyer'd up and go after the Edmonton Oilers Guardian:
But face it: Stan Lee created his first character (Destroyer) in 1941; since then, nearly every superpower, costume and look has been claimed by comic book heroes and villains, with plenty of crossover.
"There were certain limitations we had in the creation of these characters. The Flame had to have fire, OK? The Bruin had to be a bear. I think we've been fairly creative," Baratta said.
"If you look at the majority of the superheroes created out there, there's a similarity in the way they're created. They all have ripping muscles and tight suits and have very similar looks and feels. We needed to have 30 characters that were unique and distinct and recognizable."
[Related: Masked 'superhero' fighting crime in Seattle]
OK, so the Guardians are derivative of other, better-known characters. What do you expect when, within the storyline, they were actually created by a child?
Part of the disconnect between hockey fans and this project is, quite frankly, that they haven't a damn clue what it's all about. Which is a point of frustration for Baratta in the weeks leading up to the project's big reveal.
"Look, there's a lot that I'd like to share with you about what we've done, how we've put this project together and where we're going in the future," he said in a phone interview last week.
To hear Baratta spin the plot summary of the NHL Guardian Project is like hearing a screenwriter pitch a fantasy film to a skeptical studio head: He knows all the characters, all the origins, all the plots and explains them all in painstaking detail. It's a fully realized world these characters exist in, to the point where there's a 400-page book in the works to provide more back-story.
The full plot is under wraps; we had to sign a non-disclosure form after seeing all 30 character designs and hearing the complete origin story for the project. But the non-spoiler summary goes like this:
Mike Mason is a huge hockey fan, and was born "special" at birth. Not a disability, mind you; "special" in the sense that he's smarter and stronger than other kids, for reasons we can't share. By the time he's 15, Mason is your average teenager; Stan Lee calls him a "Peter Parker" type.
He's obsessed with hockey and with superheroes, and earlier in his life created 30 different characters for the NHL teams: Meticulously designing their powers and personalities; giving them alter-egos and writing about grand adventures they'd embark on.
We can't explain how, but know this: Eventually, these Guardians come to life for Mike as a combination of artificial and organic materials. They "download" all of the information he's created for them, from their origin stories to their hockey knowledge. Hence, the Ranger and the Flyer don't get along, and neither do the Blackhawk and the Red Wing. (A bickering team of super-powered heroes? How very Stan Lee.)
They become Mike's friends, partners and protectors; banding together to fight the evil Devin Dark and his military machines. (For those who are speculating about the Big Bad of the Guardian Project, sorry to disappoint; it's not actually Sean Avery(notes) or the NBA.)
Alas, that's as much as we're allowed to share. The rest of the origin includes things like nanobots and medical miracles and some classic Stan Lee comic traits like crisis of identity. The creators have done more than just develop 30 artistic drawings with NHL logos for posters and lunch boxes; they've developed a complex narrative that, in their eyes, will play out over the course of years, maybe decades.
"We are teasing this in a way that has no frame," said Baratta. "The truth is that I fully expect that when people understand the depth and the passion that we have to stay true to hockey while at the same time staying true to Stan Lee's fanboys, they're going to be blown away by the thought process that goes into this."
THE MULTIMEDIA ASSAULT
Nine months ago, GME had a chance to do a Guardians TV series. "The problem was they wanted to do it around four characters, and we didn't want to do anything that didn't involve 30 teams," said Baratta, who probably will never be hired for a programming job with NBC if that's his vision for the NHL.
Television is still in the plans. So are feature films, video games and social media games.
So is incorporating each Guardian into the in-arena experience, so they "react" to what's happening in the game.
"You're at a hockey game. Everything you see on the LED boards is controlled by a game operations director. We've talked with purists from the Canadian teams and some of the younger teams, and what we found from start to finish is that they have their own approach. If we design content that's cookie cutter to all 30 teams, they wouldn't run it. So we're working with the teams to tailor these characters for their cities," said Baratta.
What does that mean? How about the Los Angeles Kings Guardian either raising his sword in celebration or slamming it down in anger during a home game, depending on what the team does on the ice?
So are the NHL Guardians like a second tier of mascots for NHL teams?
"These guys are not mascots," said Baratta, curtly.
"Mascots are cute and cuddly and really for the very young fan. Superheroes are the kick-ass tough guys that represent the spirit of the team."
OK, BUT HOW DOES IT CREATE FANS?
Admittedly, we had to ask Baratta several times during our chat about how any of this will create a single new NHL fan. Because, like you, we're sorta baffled by that notion.
The first thing to know, according to him: "It's really not all about hockey."
Making the project about hockey, he said, would have repelled those who aren't into the sport. The direction they took allows readers or viewers to fall for the plot and characters, and then gradually ease into hockey fandom.
"Do I expect kids to fall in love with the sport because the superhero is wearing the logo on his chest? Immediately, no; I expect the kid to fall in love with the story and what the hero represents," he said.
So say junior loves the Blackhawk Guardian. How does that lead to his becoming a Chicago Blackhawks fan? There are three primary ways the project reaches out to non-hockey fans:
1. Brand Recognition. Baratta said the average person can name about two hockey teams. His hope is that in five years, these characters and their logos become so popular that it leads to better name recognition of NHL teams.
2. Social Media Gaming. Fans of a particular Guardian will be encouraged to follow his hockey team every night. Social media games in which users earn points or bonuses when the team does well are being designed; for example, if you're a fan of the Flyer, and the Philadelphia Flyers go on the power play, you'd have a chance to earn double points within whatever Guardian social media game you're engaged in while the Flyers are on the man advantage. So while dad's watching the game, his young fan is watching both the game and a mobile device, playing along. In theory.
3. Hockey References. "While our story isn't about hockey, the entire spirit of it is inspired by it," Baratta said. "When Mike creates the Flyer, he knows everything that's ever been written about the Flyers, and instills all of that into the character. He knows who Bobby Clarke is. All of these histories of every single club, these characters represent."
What they envision is a bit of a "Shrek" effect: References to hockey in the comics and cartoons that make hockey fans chuckle and young non-hockey fans want to seek out the meaning of the allusions.
If the project works, there will be generations of fans discovering hockey in this manner. Because Baratta and Co. believe the Guardians are here to stay.
I caught an episode of the old "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" cartoon the other night on cable. Through 33-year-old eyes, it was a tepid mishmash of obvious plotting, ridiculous dialogue and homoerotic overtones. But back when I was 9, I wanted to watch every episode five times and get all the toys for Christmas.
I thought about that experience in thinking about the NHL Guardian Project. Like most of you, it has made me cringe more than a few times as a hockey fan and a comic fan. Many of the character designs are unoriginal. Many of the character traits are sometimes laughable: The Minnesota Wild Guardian "is an intellectual and avid reader, taken from the fact that the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is one of the most highly literate in the country." The Buffalo Sabres Guardian has a body "totally comprised of water."
Even after speaking with Baratta for an hour, I still don't quite understand how it converts a kid who's not into hockey into being a puckhead. The social media aspects sound promising; but is a 9-year-old who likes The Lightning because he "is a natural ladies man with an in-your-face bravado" going to eventually want a Steven Stamkos(notes) jersey?
But the thing with my skepticism is ... I'm not the target audience. I never was. Most of you aren't, either. We've been killing this thing for not being about hockey when, in fact, it never was. We've been recoiling at how cheese-tastic the characters are, but a 9-year-old might actually dig the Blue Jackets' "state flag of Ohio made of astral plasma." Or relate to the general storyline of the project in a way we can't.
Maybe the target audience embraces the NHL Guardian Project; maybe it never catches on and we're seeing The Canuck action figures in the dollar-store graveyard in a few years.
Either way, we can all agree on three things: That the Guardian Project goes way deeper than what we've seen thus far, and will live or die on that narrative; that the Canadien is the love child of Iron Man and Cobra Commander; and that the NHL All-Star Game presentation of the Guardians is going to be ... er, memorable.
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