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Video Game Week: What can EA do to improve their NHL franchise?

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The luster has been wearing off for years.

2019 NHL Awards Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

On Thursday, Electronic Arts hosted EA Play to showcase upcoming games for the current and next generation of consoles. The publishing company highlighted some impressive stuff, and this included their EA Sports division.

FIFA 21 and Madden 21 were the cornerstones of the presentation, and for good reason. The next gen product looks incredible:

A specific franchise that’s usually announced this time of year was conspicuously missing. Normally announced and showcased at the annual NHL Awards, EA’s NHL franchise wasn’t just left out of next gen highlight videos; it wasn’t even mentioned. Needless to say, it set off the ire of fans of the franchise. The r/EA_NHL subreddit was full of comments like this one:

This isn’t a new grumbling. For the past several seasons, fans of the franchise haven’t been happy with EA and the lack of attention/funds paid to their NHL series. Part of the lack of funds is pure economics - FIFA and Madden make EA crazy amounts of money, especially with on-line play and sports-specific loot boxes. These features are in the NHL series in the form of HUT and CHEL, so it’s not like the franchise is a loss for EA, but it’s not as profitable for the company as their other sports properties. And, for a business that’s consistently rated as everyone’s least favorite video game company because of their monetizing ways (there’s even a dedicated Wikipedia page on how much everyone hates EA), it shouldn’t be shocking that they’re going to focus where the cash is.

The fact that the once proud series is an afterthought is pretty clear to people who play it, and it has been clear for a while. Starting with NHL 15, the series has stagnated. It actually lost features coming over to the PS4 from the PS3 and it hasn’t recovered. Physics are constantly tweaked to be more realistic but glaring bugs that impact the quality of play remain. Be a Pro has been neutered to the point where I stopped playing it on NHL 15 and haven’t tried again since. If you’re not a fan of on-line play, EA’s made it pretty clear that they’re not interested in you. The annual demos ceased being about playing the last Stanley Cup Final game and shifted to CHEL and loot boxes (sorry, hockey bags). Character models are improving (just ask Ryan Reaves, whose avatar now actually kind of resembles him) but animations haven’t changed much over the last five editions. Mascots now roam the stands, but realistic venues for All Star Games and Winter Classics are out.

Many fans complain that the annual release is a $60 roster update at this point. Now, on top of fans being discontent about the game itself, comes increased ire at EA and a suspicion that the entire franchise is an afterthought that won’t be improved upon for the next gen.

I’ve bought every NHL game from NHL 11 through NHL 17 (NHL 18 was a review copy, and I guess EA didn’t like my review because I didn’t get a chance to do it for NHL 19), and was gifted NHL 20 for Christmas this year. To be honest, if I didn’t get the review copy of 18, I wouldn’t’ve purchased it. NHL 19’s demo turned me off for a few reasons, but overall everything seemed like NHL 18 pt. 2, and NHL 20 hasn’t improved enough to justify thinking about buying it at full price.

So, what can EA do to make fans want to rush out and buy a next gen edition of a game that the company appears to have forgotten about?

The biggest thing they can do is not repeat the mistakes of NHL 15. Rolling the same game out on two consoles at once is a good profit maximization strategy; slicing features from the new generation’s game is not. Fans are already irritated with the franchise - don’t make it worse.

The second thing that EA can do is not make it a glorified roster update. Beef up player animations and the quality of the player renderings. The game’s been running on the same engine for years, while FIFA and Madden have gotten upgrades. Upgrade the damn engine. Fix weird bugs and unrealistic gameplay.

Finally, back off shoving on-line play down everyone’s throat. Some people don’t enjoy it, some folks don’t have an internet connection that supports it, and some people don’t want to have to pay for PlayStation Plus/XBox gold support. Be a Pro was a beloved mode for solo players and can and should have more features - the interview responses and career decisions about sponsorship deals and contracts were a fun addition. The locker room morale in Be a GM mode is a solid balancing act - incorporate it more into BaP.

One of the on-line features that did consistently work well was GM Connected, which EA introduced in NHL 13 then pulled for the next gen games. It was basically a beefed up fantasy hockey league, and fans loved it. Fans are begging for it to come back.

If the company could do a better job policing racist jackwagons in online play, that would also be an improvement.

EA has to do something to bring the excitement back to their hockey franchise. It’s getting harder and harder to justify it as a purchase. With the incredible slate of games coming out on the PS4 to end its lifecycle and on the PS5 to start its tenure, hockey’s going to get lost in the shuffle. Unless you’re a die-hard, that $60 on a new game can be spent, and spent better, elsewhere.