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Pixels and pucks: a history of hockey video games

Matt Larkin
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Author: The Hockey News

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Pixels and pucks: a history of hockey video games

Matt Larkin
By:

From Ice Hockey to NHL '94 to the pinnacle of gaming in the new millenium, THN chronicles the evolution of hockey video games, with a little help from some famous friends.

Hockey video games have made an incredible journey over the past three decades, from pixelated characters to the spitting images of real players, from mindless fun to managing a salary cap, from something little kids play to something NHL players compete to represent. THN delves into the world of consoles to unearth the nuts and bolts of every 
landmark release and paradigm shift in how our great sport has appeared in game form.  

THE 1980S: COLD, HARD STEEL

  It is 1988. I am five years old. I kneel before a large Zenith television, encased in wood panelling, inches away from a black screen, brow furrowed in frustration. It worked yesterday. I thought Dad fixed it. I pop the hood of my Nintendo Entertainment System and yank out the cartridge. I stick my bowl-haircutted head against the console and blow inside of it until my lungs are empty. He said it was dust. I jam the game back inside, turn it on and hear the sounds I’ve giddily awaited. First the high-pitched SCHLING! Then the familiar, muffled voice: “Blades…of Steel.” It brings Dad jogging into the room. We grab controllers, choose our teams and go head-to-head for three hours straight. He beats me 10 times in a row. I cry. His rapid puck movement reminds me of those Red Army guys he told me about. The game’s voice, which I swear has a hand covering it, haunts me: “HITS THE PASS. HITS THE PASS. HITS THE PASS.” Mom, furious, tells Dad to let me win. “No way,” he says. “When he beats me for real, it’ll be that much better.” And he’s right. Ice Hockey. The simplistic name implied its creator didn’t understand the material. You know who calls our sport “ice hockey”? People who don’t watch or play it. It was thus not a huge surprise the Nintendo Entertainment System’s 1988 release Ice Hockey had four skaters per team, not five, and a few faceless nations to choose from. Colin Moriarty, senior editor for the juggernaut video game publication IGN and a classic games expert, describes it as one cog in NES’s nondescript sport series, which included such original titles as Golf and Baseball. “The ice was a little bit more wide open and the game wasn’t a simulation at all as much as it was a very arcadey experience,” Moriarty says. “But it was still fun. It was still a classic game.” Anyone who played Ice Hockey remembers it fondly for one fun feature. Among those gamers: Sean Ramjagsingh, producer of EA Sports’ NHL series, the pinnacle of modern hockey gaming. “Nintendo hockey: the skinny guy, the fat guy and the medium guy,” he says. “Very basic game mechanics. The fat guy was strong and the skinny guy was quick and fast. That’s how it started. Back then it was figuring out the easiest way – the consoles weren’t anywhere close to what they are now – to get something that looked like hockey. That being a player moving on an ice surface, as opposed to all the other sports with running, and trying to make that as real as possible.” Ice Hockey (1988)   That same year, another title carved itself onto hockey video game Mount Rushmore. Blades of Steel was a different beast than Ice Hockey. It looked good, it featured real NHL cities like Toronto and New York, it had fighting, it had shootouts, and it was the first game to really capture the feel and spirit of hockey. “If you just take screenshots and put them together and look at them, Ice Hockey is very rudimentary, and Konami’s Blades of Steel…it’s actually a very impressive-looking game,” Moriarty says. With presentation touches like intermission cut sequences and mini games, plus the fun factor of getting a penalty for losing a fight, Blades of Steel inspired tournaments and bitter rivalries between friends. It was the game you were pumped to play after watching Hockey Night in Canada. “At my pal’s house, we go play NHL ’94 and NHL 96 all the time, but if we had a working NES I suspect we would actually rather go back and play Blades of Steel,” Moriarty says. “Blades of Steel is more in line with what EA would do later on with the series, which is give you an authentic experience as opposed to a more arcadey experience. That’s not to say Blades of Steel is the ultimate realistic hockey game, but it is to say 25 years ago Blades of Steel was where it was at.” And it was only the beginning. Blades of Steel (1988)    

THE EARLY 1990s: ENTER ELECTRONIC ARTS

  It is 1994. I am 10 years old. I pace frantically up and down the hallway outside my room. My irritated parents yell up to me, tell me to quit stomping. They’re trying to enjoy Forrest Gump on VHS. But I can’t help it. I just learned EA Sports’ NHL 95 will let you create your players in season mode. Oh. My. God. I hyperventilate. When I get the game for my birthday a month later, I faint on the spot. I start my season and create myself, my Dad, my dog. Hell, even my teddy bear. Seriously. He’s my goalie. It’s hard for Jeremy Roenick to walk anywhere without being recognized, even as a retired NHLer. The 500-goal scorer left a permanent mark on the game, not just with tenacious, flashy play, but with his mouth. He was ‘J.R.,’ the voice of the people, the league’s court jester, the guy who smashed through the stereotype of the quiet, cliche-spewing player. But often when people approach Roenick in the street, their excited chatter doesn’t touch on his play or his quips. They want to talk about NHL ’94. A video game. And not just any video game – the defining hockey game of our time. “People say one of a couple things: ‘I got through college playing ’94 Sega, playing with the Hawks, being Jeremy Roenick,’” he says. “The other thing they say is in college there was a rule that you couldn’t be Jeremy Roenick and the Blackhawks when you were playing. To me it’s a great honor. You’re etched in video game history regardless of what you do in your daily life, in your real world, in your real sports. For people to play you on a video game, to be such an icon in it, was one of the coolest things in my career, there’s no question.” And Roenick doesn’t exaggerate when he uses the term “icon.” His ratings in NHLPA Hockey ’93 and NHL ’94 were so high that his avatar’s unstoppable nature joined Tecmo Super Bowl Bo Jackson in video game lore. And that’s why Vince Vaughn, Hollywood actor and lifelong Hawks fan, incorporated Roenick into the 1996 cult classic movie Swingers. In the famous scene, Vaughn controls Roenick’s character and levels Wayne Gretzky, leaving him a bloody heap: Swingers (1996)   Roenick and Vaughn ended up meeting in an L.A. nightclub and bonding over the scene. “I’m like, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to meet you to say thank you for putting that video game scene in your movie with me,’ ” Roenick says. “He goes, ‘Dude, that was all respect. You deserve the utmost respect, that was my way of showing you respect in my movie for the way you played.’ And I thought that was really cool.” So how did EA usher in an era of gaming so significant that it’s reflected on the silver screen? EA actually debuted on the 16-bit hockey scene a few years earlier, first with the NHL-licensed NHL Hockey on Sega Genesis in 1991, then with the NHL Players’ Association-licensed NHLPA Hockey ’93 on Genesis and Super Nintendo in ’92. But 1993’s NHL ’94 release joined the league and player licenses into one authentic game with every NHL team and player. Users weren’t competing simply for pride anymore; they were battling through seven-game playoff series to hoist the Stanley Cup and playing under NHL rules. Suddenly, hockey fans had a game to represent the best their sport had to offer. Everything about ’94 brought them into a realistic NHL world. It had a crowd that reacted with cheers and got louder and louder for the home team after goals and hits. It had authentic organ music. It even had an out-of-town scoreboard that cut to computer-generated highlights from other games. Frills like these immortalized the game to the point it’s more nostalgically acknowledged today than any other. That’s why the current editions have an NHL ’94 controller configuration available. “A lot of people still think of NHL ’94 as the best ever,” Ramjagsingh says. “A big part of that was it was a fun game, it was a fast game, it had the teams as well. People remember playing a simple game where they could pass and shoot and hit. One button press would get them exactly what they wanted and they haven’t moved on to the PlayStations or the Xboxes or the world. They look at both controllers and they find them intimidating and don’t know where to start. So a lot of people haven’t made the jump.” And some gamers never will. In 2011, IGN ranked NHL ’94 as 47th on its “100 Greatest Video Games of All-Time” list. No other hockey game made it. “When you look back at the ’94 game, literally every character looked the same except for the numbers on the back,” Roenick says. “The way the technology has advanced the game, where it’s all lifelike, that historical aspect of going back and playing that ’94 game is really neat for people. Your first love sometimes will be your love forever.” NHL '94 (1993) Not that it meant EA patted itself on the back for a job well done after ’94’s success. The Super Nintendo’s NHL Stanley Cup, a graphically superior competitor with pseudo-3D graphics called Mode 7, introduced a battery backup for console cartridges, meaning users could play full seasons with recorded statistics.   NHL Stanley Cup (1993) EA responded with season modes in NHL 95 and onward on Sega Genesis and the SNES and took another huge step by allowing users to create their own players and place them on NHL teams in 95. Hockey games began trending away from arcade-like fun and more toward a hyper-real, customized user experience.  

THE LATE 1990s: THE SIMULATION ERA

  It is Christmas 1997. My pubescent voice cracks with joy as I unwrap NHL 98. I pop it in the PlayStation and marvel at the presentation. Did the game just open with a movie of Chris Pronger throwing a massive hit? And Is that Jim Hughson I hear doing full play-by-play? What planet is this? At first, the job was a piece of cake. Jim Hughson was among the most recognizable voices in hockey broadcasting, even 20 years ago, and happily lent his pipes to EA for a single hour. “I wrote and recorded these scripts that went something like, ‘Hi and welcome to EA Sports 1995,’ and that was about it,” Hughson says. “They didn’t have much memory in the game then, so they couldn’t do very much. It was things like ‘Welcome to Chicago Stadium.’ “Then it mushroomed.” EA wasn’t the first to do it. Sega’s Joe Montana II: Sports Talk Football and Sports Talk Baseball were the pioneers. But EA took simulation broadcasting to a whole new level. Did the Sports Talk series already show the ability to accurately call each play? Yes. Was it also laughably bad? Hell yes. Users would hit a homer and hear “Going, going, gone” two outs and a pitching change later. EA set out to create a real broadcast that made users feel like they were playing what they’d watch on TV. The guinea pig was Mr. Hughson. He fondly likens the EA building to a college campus with lots of energetic, creative minds and high turnover. “In the early years, the producers didn’t have a clue how we were going to do this,” he says. “We had all this memory, all this ambition and didn’t really know how to put any of it to work. That was one of the neat things about it. Not only was it my voice in there, but it was a collaboration.” It quickly became apparent the project would take a lot of work. Hughson would have to record thousands of small phrases, not sentences, so the programmers could mix and match for different situations. Not only that, but he’d have to record everything he said in multiple intonations. “You couldn’t have the screaming play-by-play man in the first minute of the first period, but you do need to raise your voice in the last minute of the third when it means a heck of a lot more,” Hughson says. “If you’re screaming a name: ‘SELANNE!’ The tone couldn’t go down to (lowering voice) ‘passes to.’ We had to figure out how to do everything so when the computer stitched it together, it sounded like a sentence.” So EA had to load its database with every hockey expression from “he scores!” to “great save by” to “wins the draw.” That meant sequestering Hughson for hours on end – in a “tiny, dark little room in the basement,” he says – with thousands of pages of script to read. He was thrilled to do the work, but it pushed him to the brink of sanity at times. “Imagine yourself for five hours saying nothing but ‘Passes to. Passes to. Passes to. PASSES TO. PASSES TO!’ and add a name to that,” he says. “Or ‘Stopped by’ and think of every goaltender in the world, and you’d have to do ‘stopped by,’ ‘saved by,’ and add a goaltender’s name to that. And not just the NHL guys, but AHL guys that might become NHL players. And then we got into the world guys.” The end result was worth it. When you popped NHL 97 and especially NHL 98 into your PlayStation, your understanding of hockey video games completely changed. These editions had real video of NHL action. Real music. 32-bit graphics. Cavernous arenas. The voices of Hughson and color man Daryl Reaugh (in 98) added the extra touch. And while the play-by-play improved year to year, even its first incarnation was shockingly seamless. “What you were hearing was actually six separately recorded phrases stitched together by the computer,” Hughson says. “Very few of those were actually recorded as sentences.” NHL 98 (1997) Anyone intimidated or bored by the shift toward hyperrealism still had options in the mid-1990s. The most notable was 1996’s arcadey and popular Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey on the Nintendo 64. No console has ever done wacky four-player fun like the N64, so Gretzky Hockey was a fitting release, complete with snippets of NBA Jam-inspired commentary, flaming nets and actual brick walls erecting behind goaltenders. Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey (1996) But as the new millennium approached, the arcadey hockey experience faced extinction. Expectations for sports games changed. Users wanted more immersive, personal play.  

THE 2000s: PUTTING YOU IN THE GAME

  It is 2006. The sound of “OHHH!” rings out in my dingy apartment. My friends and I show each other up in shootout mode thanks to NHL 07’s Skill Stick. The crazy bastards have turned the controllers into a hockey stick for your right thumb. We show each other up with dangle after dangle. I duplicate Sidney Crosby’s water bottle goal. How much better can these games get? One defining feature in EA Sports’ NHL 07 embodies the modern era of hockey video gaming: the Skill Stick. It unified the two most important elements of EA’s programming today. One is utterly realistic physics. The other is a game in which the users significantly influence and control their own experiences. Whereas Blades of Steel and NHL ’94 were essentially two-button games, Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft (Xbox) produced far more complex controllers in the mid-to-late 1990s, each of which featured at least one miniature “joystick.” Through the early 2000s, hockey games gave players’ left thumbs something to do, allowing them to move their skaters around more fluidly than ever before. The right stick, however, was the equivalent of vestigial wings on a human body: present, but not in use. The Skill Stick changed all that. Ramjagsingh, the NHL series’ head producer, worked for two hockey-centric people: David Littman and Dean Richards. Littman played goal for the Buffalo Sabres and Richards, a winger, played pro overseas. “They wanted the controller to feel like a hockey stick felt in their hands when they were playing real hockey,” Ramjagsingh says, “and that’s where the vision for the right stick being your hockey stick came from. It was a completely different mentality shift that people had a hard time wrapping their hands around. Instead of just saying, ‘We want to put a toe drag in there and put a cool new deke in there, let’s map it to the A and the B button,’ where all you could get was those two moves on those buttons, it was trying to create an open-ended gameplay. We were basically giving users the tools, the feel of a hockey stick, allowing them to create original moves.” NHL 07 (2006)   The newfound ability to free-form stickhandle was one example of many efforts from EA – and competitors like the NHL 2K series – to recreate real-world physics. One way of doing it was to record actual movements via motion capture technology. That meant hiring players – usually college-caliber guys, as they had time to work the odd 16-hour day and “appreciate the money,” Ramjagsingh says – to wear sensors and perform every in-game action imaginable. The sensors are actually reflective balls. Cameras surrounding the rink bounce light off them to triangulate and "record" every movement instantaneously. The process is painstaking. When NHL 13 introduced the True Performance Skating gimmick, it required more than 1,000 individual animations to achieve a new feel of momentum, stopping and starting on your virtual blades. The mocap work can also be painful. “About four or five years ago we were literally getting guys on the ice and having them hit each other,” Ramjagsingh says. “There were tales of guys getting concussions and not remembering where they were the day before, stuff like that, because it got pretty aggressive. We wanted it to be authentic.” Flash back to 1988. If you asked Ice Hockey’s programming team, “How’d you create the different movements for the fat guy, skinny guy and medium guy?” the answer would not be, “We have a physicist.” It is today. EA has a “guy on the team with a PhD in physics” who makes mathematical calculations to ensure the gameplay is realistic while also unpredictable. “You get limbs flying in all directions,” Ramjagsingh says. “You get that organic feel and every hit can be different.” For the new release NHL 15, EA went a step further, hiring a physicist who'd worked creating black holes on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Black holes. You read that right. He applied his skills to revolutionize the puck physics. The simulation goes beyond the game’s physicality, of course. Developers also go the extra mile nowadays to evaluate real-life players, rate them and have their avatars perform as much like their real-life counterparts as possible. EA has its own scout who takes in games in various pro and junior leagues and produces player ratings. The key is scouting multiple leagues to create relativity. Junior players’ skills should be comparatively underdeveloped. A 16-year-old Ontario League player, for instance, performs like a boy, not a man, in the game. EA takes the ratings seriously, incorporating all facets of a player’s game. That’s why a complete player like Pavel Datsyuk carries a perennially sky-high rating. Do the players notice or care when they see themselves in the game? “We don’t rib each other, but once the game comes out, everyone looks at how their rating is from the previous year, how their stats compare,” says Philadelphia Flyers center and self-described video game nut Brayden Schenn. “There’s no real chirping or anything, but most guys that play check up on themselves, that’s for sure.” Back to the Skill Stick. It epitomizes the realism of modern hockey gaming, but also empowers users like never before. “The real magic was, after the game had shipped, people started using the Skill Stick and creating moves and uploading videos to the Internet of stuff that the team hadn’t seen in an entire year of development,” Ramjagsingh says. “It’s something designers take a lot of pride in. It means you’ve created something that allows other people to create these moments as opposed to you saying exactly the moves you want in the game and only allowing the users to execute those moves.” NHL 13 (2012) Whereas gamers traditionally relied on the software to guide and create their experiences, it’s only a springboard now. In NHL 95, you could play a season and compete for the Cup or take on anyone within a few meters of you. Today, online gaming has surpassed the computer experience as the preferred style of play. A 50-year-old woman in Sweden can play against a 10-year-old boy in Japan.  

THE FUTURE: WHAT COMES NEXT?

  It’s today. I’m pissed off and bored. What kind of call was that, ref? I barely touched the guy. Stupid obstruction crackdown. I sit in the penalty box and wait. And wait. And wait some more. Finally, I get out of the sin bin. My coach gives me feedback: “Great positioning out there, but watch the dumb penalties.” He’s right. I need to stay out of the box more if I want to up my draft status this June. Oh, and by the way, this is a video game.   It doesn’t get any more “me” for a gamer to experience entire hockey games – and careers, from junior to the Hall of Fame – with a focus solely on them, a concept EA introduced in NHL 09 with Be a Pro Mode. “It’s pretty cool,” Schenn says. “The camera is right on you the whole time, you’re sitting on the bench waiting for your next shift, all that stuff, it’s pretty accurate.” Better yet, the latest hockey games let players join their own leagues. NHL 13’s GM Connected Mode threatened to ruin marriages and grade point averages everywhere, as it let users create 30-team leagues in which they managed all facets of their respective franchises and still played full schedules against each other. They could even do so with 24 teammates, meaning a GM Connected league could have up to 750 human players. Modern video games allow us to play in a completely unpredictable, customizable universe. Which begs the question: what on Earth is next? All we can safely say is virtual reality is not the next phase of hockey video games. Wacky helmets that hurt our eyes joined the Y2K Bug among the biggest technological busts of the late 1990s. Sorry, Virtual Boy. Other than that, the next advancement is anyone’s guess. “I can’t see having actual videotape of games where kids can control the guys,” Roenick says. “That would be too crazy. Up to this point, the players look so similar, their skating styles are so similar, their habits are so similar, it’s pretty close to its max in terms of realistic imagery. If it’s more than this, these computer guys are totally out of their minds.” One look at NHL 15 suggests J.R. is bang on. The body, equipment and jerseys flow freely, independent of each other, creating entirely unpredictable puck bounces. There are 9,000 individual fan models for the crowds, and the ice surfaces are so real that the programmers even replicate the paint an inch-and-a-half beneath the ice. NHL 15 (2014)   Ramjagsingh doesn’t go into great detail talking about the future. Programmers begin working on next year’s edition before this year’s game is even released, he says, so a video game producer must focus on the now. He does envision an increasing synergy between what happens in the NHL and the gaming world. He wants to give gamers the chance to replay a real-life event almost immediately after it happens. He also believes we're inching closer to an era in which gamers themselves become publicly observed stars. Gamers will stream live as they play and others will watch for entertainment. He refers to it as E-Sports. Gamers watching and worshipping other gamers? What crazy times we live in. Whatever’s next, we await it with bated breath – and restless thumbs. Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin This is an updated version of a feature that ran in the February 2013 version of THN Fully Loaded magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.
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Pixels and pucks: a history of hockey video games