Pressure turns coal into diamonds, or at least that’s how the old saying goes. All of the world’s best things have competition. Coke has Pepsi, Sony has Microsoft, Ford has Chevrolet. Everywhere, companies, and people compete against one another to be the best they can be. Without that competition, we get lazy. We take our foot off the gas pedal and stop generating new ideas, original ideas. At that point, it becomes rinse and repeat. For the EA Sports NHL series, this is very much the case.
Believe it or not, there was a time when the EA Sports NHL sector was producing exceptional games. First, you have the early 90’s, with NHL ’94 being the standout game-changer, and one that’s to this day played by sports gamers across the globe. Times changed, and so did the games. Heading into the new millenium, NHL 2002 to 2004 were all fantastic games, for hardcore hockey fans and the general gamer. With wicked soundtracks, limitless creation options, in-depth GM modes, and serious attention to detail with in-game physics and player attributes, these games, NHL 2004 in particular, are absolutely phenomenal.
Then, along came the NHL 2K series. 2K took the greatest aspects of the EA Sports games and focused on why sports gamers came to adore hockey games. The first part of breaking into the market for 2K, was the price tag. While most console-based video games cost $50 back in the early 2000’s, NHL 2K3 debuted on the Xbox Orginal at just $20 a pop. So, if you’re a big fan of EA Sports, but willing to try something new, why not pick up a copy of 2K just to see what they’re up to. And while the graphics, animations and attention to detail wasn’t quite on the same level as their counterpart, the 2K games were always original. Whether it was the arcade with table hockey, the zamboni mini-games, plus the GM mode features which made EA Sports’ games back in the early 2000’s so good, 2K was onto something. And it shook the EA Sports NHL team.
It didn’t help that NHL 2005 was a major step backwards for EA Sports. With 2004 being a huge hit, NHL 2005 dialed back on the customization and creativity, removing the option to create a player, something that had been a part of NHL games since NHL ’95. The Franchise mode was still serviceable, but nowhere near NHL 2004’s standards. The game heavily promoted the EA Sports World Cup, with countries doing battle, and while it wasn’t terrible, it can’t be the biggest part of your game. The Free-4-All mode was a blast, and really saved the game from being a complete disaster, but it opened the door for NHL 2K to really make a splash. And they did.
With ESPN sponsoring the game, NHL 2K5 featured a broadcast-style presentation, Bill Clement on play-by-play, and an overall authentic feel, whereas NHL 2005 still wasn’t quite there. And you don’t have to look further than the most recent EA Sports NHL games to see that they’ve learned their lesson about broadcast-style presentation, hence why we get to see Doc Emerick and Eddie Olczyk before every opening face-off.
With EA Sports NHL in a bit of a lull from 2005-2007, it allowed NHL 2K to capitalize and broaden their fan base. I don’t have the facts, but I’d go as far as assuming that there were more copies sold of NHL 2K games than EA Sports NHL games in the span of 2005-2008. And it all came down to creativity, and moving forward rather than staying status quo. This was the peak of NHL 2K games.
It must’ve been somewhere in the early months of 2007 that EA Sports realized they needed to get their asses into gear if they were going to take back their monopoly on hockey video games. The franchise’s saving grace came in the form of NHL 2008, which introduced the skill stick and changed the way we played hockey video games. Previous games had flirted with the concept of using the thumbstick for stickhandling, but EA Sports was the first to include puck protection, dekes and shooting all with one flick of the stick. Add the inclusion of the EASHL in NHL ’09, with an amazing soundtrack, great visuals and an overall superb product, and the EA Sports NHL department regained their supremacy. NHL 2K would have moderate success with 2K10 and 2K11, but discontinued their product after the 2011 release. 2K is still releasing hockey games on mobile, but it appears their run as a console-based developer in the hockey side of things are over. If you’re a wrestling fan, the 2K vs. EA battle on the NHL front feels eerily similar to the WWF/WCW Monday Night Wars in the mid to late 90’s.
With that history lesson, let’s jump to 2017, and look at EA’s last three releases. I’m giving NHL 15 a bit of a free pass given their tight timeline, and the fact they were forced to release a product for the new generation consoles, and it was obviously a rushed project. However, it’s yet to really expand from their leap to next-gen consoles. NHL 16 saw the re-addition of EASHL, but it wasn’t true EASHL. The mode was still missing a lot of key features, some that had been in the game since the mode’s inception in NHL 09. Be A GM / Franchise Mode still doesn’t feel right for some reason, whether they’re getting too in depth or aren’t focusing on the basics, it’s not what it used to be. The relocation options and customization is coming around with NHL 17, but the franchise needs to follow suit with the NBA 2K series and make everything customizable. EA Sports has failed to let their gamers use their full creativity to make something they’ll enjoy. They’re on the right track with NHL 17, now they just need to commit to the idea 100 percent. There’s already been a couple teaser trailers for NHL 18, and to be honest, it looks the exact same as NHL 17 with a couple new dekes. My point is, EA Sports needs a kick in the pants once again. Whether they need some more funding from Electronic Arts or simply more creativity and effort, the series is getting stale.
I’ve owned every NHL game since NHL 99, and I’ve owned every NHL game within the first week of release since NHL 08. I played NHL 11 vigorously, ranked in the Top-100 in HUT for the whole year. I know what it’s like to be invested in a good NHL game, and since NHL 14, I’ve pretty much let my NHL games collect dust for NBA 2K, MLB: The Show and an assortment of other games. GM Connected mode, which was highly regarded as a breakthrough for the franchise, has been discontinued since NHL 14, and while it had it’s flaws, needs to be in the game in this day in age. NHL is notorious for introducing new game modes and features, only to take them away in six years and reintroduce them three or four years later as a “new feature” to draw gamers in.
Whether it’s 2K re-investing in a console-based NHL game, or an outside video game publisher giving the EA Sports crew a run for their money, it needs to happen in order for EA to start churning out good, original material. As of right now, it feels EA looks at what NBA 2K does, and introduces features 2-3 years down the road, for example, the whole relocation feature brought in for NHL 17. For those of you keeping track, NBA 2K introduced that in 2015.
In the end, this is a disgruntled diehard NHL gamer who wants something fresh, something that feels new, and original. It’s time for a wake up call over at EA Sports when it comes to the NHL franchise.