Can NHL 17 make hockey’s biggest video game franchise great again?

Matt Larkin
Photo Courtesy of EA Sports

Gone are the days when hockey video games were practically carved out of concrete before their release dates. NHL ’96 was NHL ’96. Once it hit stores, that was the game, for better or worse. If you found a glitch goal, a cheap way to score, too bad.

But the times have changed. We live in the era when the online experience of any games, let alone sports games, trumps the individual “campaign” experience. And online players have formed their own highly vocal communities. If there’s a problem with a game, they let the world know about it.

Companies like EA Sports can now release beta modes of their games to get feedback before finalizing their releases. And even “finalizing” doesn’t carry the same meaning anymore, as the game makers can tweak their products on the fly based on how users react and comment.

“We’re at the point now where our fans will message us via social media or whatever avenue it is and say ‘Hey, listen, the scoring from the top of the slot, going top shelf or to the glove-hand side of the goalie is way too overpowering. Can you guys dial it back?’ ” said Sean Ramjagsingh, head producer of EA Sports’ NHL series since 2009. “We can make changes hourly if we wanted to right now based on the feedback that we’re getting.”

This new era is a blessing for the most part, but it’s also a curse sometimes. Gamer expectations have never been higher. They want the slickest, most fluid, most realistic gameplay standards. They want believable physics for fair human-on-human competition. They want lots of different game modes. And while the game manufacturers can make plenty of changes on the fly via downloadable bundles, known as “tuner sets,” they can’t make seismic shifts. Sooner or later every release of the game has to stand on its own as a finished product, as a company like EA Sports has to get working on the next season’s edition.

And that worked against EA two years ago, when it dropped NHL 15, the series’ first foray into eighth-generation consoles Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The leap in graphics quality meant a gorgeous game but also that the series had to eschew many of its popular game modes, most notably the EA Sports Hockey League, which let players create their own characters and join online leagues with all-human 6-on-6 play. Fans were outraged. NHL 15, according to aggregate review site Metacritic, was the worst-reviewed title in the franchise’s history. Critics gave an average score of 60 out of 100 for the PS4 edition and 59 out of 100 to Xbox One. Users were savage, rating NHL 15 1.4 out of 5 on PS3 and 3.2 on Xbox One.

But NHL 15 might have simply been a necessary blow for EA to absorb. The first year in every console generation requires game makers to iron out kinks. The company took the feedback to heart and rebounded with last year’s NHL 16, bringing back the sorely missed online features, and game was generally well received. A key reason for the turnaround was EA Sports’ Game Changers program – a group of hardcore players brought in as an expert feedback panel. It worked so well last year, especially with its input on the goalie physics, that EA expanded the Game Changers group. Included in the NHL 17 process were reps for various modes of the game, from Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) to offline Franchise Mode to Be a Pro Mode. There was even “a guy from Europe” devoted to “hardcore gameplay and presentation,” Ramjagsingh said.

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Vladimir Tarasenko selected as NHL 17 cover athlete, first trailer released

Jared Clinton
Vladimir Tarasenko (via St. Louis Blues)

Vladimir Tarasenko has had himself quite a year.

In the past 365 days, the 24-year-old St. Louis Blues sniper has scored 40 goals for the first time in his NHL career, led the Blues in points with a career-high 74, added nine goals and 15 points in 20 post-season games and helped St. Louis get to the Western Conference final. Oh, and he also signed an eight-year, $60-million contract in there, too.

As if that wasn’t enough, Tarasenko has earned himself another honor: being the cover athlete of the newest instalment of EA Sports’ NHL franchise. Tarasenko is the second Blue to grace the cover, following Chris Pronger, who was on the cover of NHL 2000.

“It’s an incredible honor to represent my teammates and all the Blues fans around the world on the cover this year,” Tarasenko said. “As a player, it’s a big deal to be fan selected for something like the Cover Vote, and I’m excited to be involved in the game this year.” Read more

ECHL fans, rejoice! Minor league is coming to EA Sports’ NHL 17

Jared Clinton
The Orlando Solar Bears will be one of the ECHL teams available in NHL 17 (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

EA Sports’ goal with each passing iteration of their NHL video game series is to deliver a deeper experience for fans, and the upcoming title is going to present gamers with an opportunity to do something they’ve never been able to before: hit the ice with ECHL clubs.

The feature list for the upcoming title was released Tuesday afternoon, and as part of the reveal was the announcement that the ECHL will make its debut in the EA NHL series starting with NHL 17. The NHL series has long included the AHL, but this will be the first game to offer a second level of minor-league affiliation.

“We are very excited to be working with EA Sports and include the ECHL teams in the NHL franchise,” said Ryan Crelin, the ECHL’s senior vice president of business operations, in a statement. “The NHL 17 product is an amazing gaming experience, and we are pleased to be able to allow our fans to engage with their favorite ECHL club or player within the game, interacting with our League beyond the in-arena experience.” Read more

Jori Lehtera, shirtless action hero astronaut politician? So says his chip commercial

Matt Larkin

To most North Americans he’s Jori Lehtera, St. Louis Blues center, fine puck distributor and habitual Vladimir Tarasenko linemate.

To his native Finns, Lehtera is more. What Chester Cheetah is to Cheetos…Lehtera is to a chip brand? In Finland?

Yes, according to this zany TV commercial that surfaced on YouTube Wednesday:

Lehtera stars as himself, being pitched by a scenery-chewing American to be the spokesman of Linkosuo Ruislastu chips. Cut to fantasy sequence including: Lehtera getting cozy with a blonde woman and showing off his ripped physique, a-la jeans model; Lehtera as an action movie hero; Lehtera as a governor? Lehtera as an astronaut? Yes. And he sells it all pretty well.

The chips are actually from a Finnish bakery. Linkosuo specializes in rye-based snacks. The mysterious woman Lehtera snuggles and later carries away from wreckage? His wife, Lotta Lehtera, a fitness model. As Finnish broadcaster Antti Makinen explained to me, Lotta’s father, Timo Janne, just happens to be GM of Linkosuo. And it all makes sense now.

A little over the top for a rye chip company? Nah. It’s fun. It would be nice the see more North American ads going this far. Connor McDavid, leading man? Why not? And we might as well say what we’re all thinking: couldn’t the World Cup ads be more like this?

First trailer released for EA Sports’ NHL 17, cover vote launched

Jared Clinton
Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.58.41 AM

The post-season is the best time of year for hockey fans, and the reasons for that have started to go well beyond the action on ice.

For the past few seasons, the team at EA Sports has started slowly releasing information about the next iteration of the NHL video game franchise during the playoffs, and the hype train is ready to get rolling for NHL 17 with the release of the game’s first trailer. While there’s not a ton of actual gameplay footage featured in the 90-second preview of what’s to come in NHL 17, there are some hints as to what gamers can look forward to.

One facet of the game that appears as if it will get an overhaul is the ‘Be A GM’ mode, which looks like it will dive deeper into front office management than any current generation game has. Check out the trailer and see what you can pick up: Read more

How EA Sports puts your favorite players — and their faces — in the game

Casey Ippolito
Nigel Nunn helps get the faces of your favorite players into EA Sports' NHL series. (Courtesy Nigel Nunn)

When the NHL draftees of 2015 picked up their first video game controllers around the turn of the millennium, the architects of EA Sports NHL were adding a revolutionary detail to the series: recognizable player faces. By today’s standards, the game-faces of the early 2000s looked ridiculous, but still, Lemieux looked like Lemieux, Sakic like Sakic, Pronger like Pronger. It was a start. Today’s budding stars were once wide-eyed, hockey-mad gamer kids, most of whom grew up as avid fans of the NHL series, and many of whom still are. So in addition to the checklist of cliché milestones every future pro daydreams about, the EA NHL generation also dreamed of playing as their authentic virtual selves.

Nigel Nunn helps this dream come true. He’s the digital imaging lead at The Capture Lab, a company that does the head scans for EA’s various sports titles, including FIFA and UFC. Nunn is a road warrior, darting from city to city with a portable camera setup capable of swiftly capturing the raw materials for what will become a nearly photo-realistic game face. As the quality and the volume of recognizable in-game faces has rapidly increased, fan expectations have risen as well. “I have people who find me on Facebook, give me a list of players that aren’t scanned, the clubs that I need to go to still, and give me contact names and addresses for the clubs,” Nunn said. “They know I’m on the road and what I’m up to. It’s really strange.” Read more

NHL 16 Review: EA bounces back big time after disappointing with NHL 15

Jared Clinton
Jonathan Toews will now grace the cover of EA Sports NHL 16 by himself. (via EA NHL Sports/Twitter)

Over the past several years, the second week of September has become one of the best for those whose favored hobbies and time-wasters include hockey and video games. As training camps get set to open and prospects hit the ice, EA’s annual NHL title lands on store shelves and into the ever-ready hands of gamers ready to chase the Stanley Cup in their own, personal digital NHL.

This year’s title, NHL 16, was considered by some to be the most important release in recent memory. Last season’s NHL 15 was disappointing and bereft of several popular game modes. It left some longtime fans wishing there was another major NHL title on the market. Understandably, EA Sports had a tall task in front of them and the pressure was on to win back some of the fans who were upset by the first iteration of the game available on next generation consoles Xbox One and Playstation 4.

With NHL 16, EA Sports stepped up in a big way and will win back the trust of some longtime players, yet there are still areas where the game could improve en route to once again becoming Sports Game of the Year. Read more

NHL 16 released. Who does the game say will win the Stanley Cup?

Jared Clinton
Phil Kessel as a Pittsburgh Penguin in NHL 16. (via EA Sports/YouTube)

New York Islanders fans can plan the parade, or at least NHL 16 seems to think so.

With the release of EA Sports’ NHL 16 Tuesday, we took it upon ourselves to see what the league could look like in 2015-16 — or at least what the game is projecting will happen in the campaign through a full-campaign simulation of its season mode. The results actually weren’t too far-fetched, so long as you can picture the Islanders taking home the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup. Read more