It may have started as a simple extension of a subdivision of Electronic Arts, but it wasn’t long before EA Sports NHL became a household name in the world of video games, let alone sports titles.
A nearly 25-year-old series that continues on to this day because of innovation, and a fan base that can be compared to any of the other hardcore groups in the gaming industry.
But what was once viewed as a seemingly unstoppable titan in the world of sports video games nearly collapsed under itself only to lay out a new foundation as it looks to rise back up to prominence in the sports video game world.
This is the story of EA Sports NHL.
Back in the early 1990s, Electronic Arts was still getting its feet wet in the sports gaming industry. The company had released John Madden Football to much praise, but the ultimate goal was to become a major player for fans of each of the major sports, whether it be football, baseball, basketball, soccer or hockey.
In 1991, the EA dipped into then hockey market with the release of NHL Hockey on the Sega Genesis/Master Drive. It was the first officially licensed NHL video game to feature both authentic teams and players. It was well received for the most part, but it was clear that it was the first effort for a project that was planned for growth.
NHLPA Hockey ’93 released the following year with the addition of fighting, and fans flocked to the game. The improved gameplay showed players that EA, now using the newly created EA Sports Network (EASN), was prepared to take the NHL series to heights never thought imaginable.
What they didn’t expect is just how far the next installment would take them.
In the fall of 1993, EA Sports released NHL ’94 for the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. There was a PC version, but it wasn’t the game that everyone remembers.
Though fighting was removed from the game, NHL ’94 introduced a mechanic that would change the hockey video game genre forever and shoot the series up the popularity charts. For the first time in an NHL video game, fans were able to utilize a one-timer in order to try and beat opposing goaltenders.
The new mechanic blew the doors off a game that seemed to struggle to find its scoring touch in the first two releases. NHL 94’s one-timer feature may have been considered cheese to some, but it allowed players to have contests end in scores of 5-4 and 6-5 as opposed to every game ending 1-0 or 2-1. It made the game much more fun for everyone involved. After all, isn’t that the point of video games? To be fun? Also added was the breaking of glass, a regular season made, shootout and playoffs.
The game became so popular that it still receives yearly graphic and roster updates from dedicated fans by way of NHL94.com. And it’s not the only iteration of the series that has that luxury, but more on that later on. It has even gone on to be named one of the greatest games of all time according to IGN.
After the success of NHL 94, EA Sports had a franchise that continued on an upswing throughout the next few installments thanks to improvements in modes, graphics and gameplay features. With competition from the likes of ESPN NHL Hockey, Brett Hull Hockey, and NHL Breakaway, among others, it just made sense for the company to continue improving on the already solid foundation they had built in order to avoid being overtaken.
NHL 95 introduced a fully-featured season mode for players as well as the introduction of player creation, editing, trading and signing. It was the first time fans could put themselves into the game to play alongside their favorite players from the NHL. NHL 95 also improved on NHL 94’s great gameplay mechanics by adding drop passes, fake shots and the ability to block shots.
NHL 96 brought back the fighting engine for the series as well as improved the game’s realism with the inclusion of double minor and major penalties to the mix. The PC version also debuted multiple camera angles for the series, allowing 2D sprites in a 3D environment.
With the release of NHL 97, EA Sports had to deal with a bit more competition in 1996. Because of the competition from games like NHL FaceOff and NHL PowerPlay, the developers had to up the ante by using a full 3D engine with motion-captured players for the very first time. The game also featured Jim Hughson of Hockey Night in Canada fame as the official play-by-play voice.
The game only continued its upswing as games like NHL Breakaway and NHL Hitz came and went after failing to grab a significant share of the hockey market. And while the game’s installments over the next few years were well received, it was the title released in the fall of 2003 that had fans and critics alike buzzing.
NHL 2004 was viewed by many as the game that really took the EA Sports NHL franchise over the top. Not only did the game feature the addition of three new leagues, but the gameplay and game mode improvements helped make NHL 2004 not only the best hockey game on the market but the best sports game for the year.
Puck control was improved along with the game’s skating and checking mechanics. Off the ice, an overhauled franchise mode was known as Dynasty Mode was put in place that allowed arena and personnel upgrades, scouting of players, and complete control of your franchise.
NHL 2004 was so well respected that, like NHL 94, it still receives yearly content updates. However, NHL 2004 Rebuilt takes the updates to a whole new level in the forms of multiple scoreboard displays, updated logos, jerseys, face structures, arenas and more. There is even an online league for players to take part in.
But despite the game’s popularity and success, there was another title that tried to come in and steal some thunder after a bit of a hiccup with the series during the mid-2000s.
A Short Stumble
After the juggernaut that was NHL 2004, EA Sports clearly looked to ride the wave of momentum into next year with NHL 2005. Unfortunately, things just didn’t feel right for players. The fact that there weren’t major changes to the game as well as the feeling that the changes made hindered the experience more than anything led to a negative response to the title.
Meanwhile, rival 2K Sports released NHL 2k5 with a price point of just $20, making it much more enticing to fans than the $60 offering for a league that didn’t even have a season during the 2004-05 league year. NHL 2005 sales suffered, only shipping approximately 680,000 units compared to the 1.3 million copies that NHL 2k5 sold according to VGChartz.com. Whether it was due to competition from 2K Sports or the league’s lockout, it wasn’t a good year for the series from Canada. But it wasn’t long before the series rebounded in a big way.
After a decent outing with NHL 2006, EA Sports made a strong debut on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles in 2006 with the release of NHL 07. Overhauled visuals, presentation – including new commentary from Gary Thorne and Bill Clement – and gameplay put a much-needed breath of fresh air into the franchise.
The big improvement that added a sense of realism to the series was the introduction of the Skill Stick. Instead of using buttons to deke and shoot, players would control their stick entirely on their own via the analog stick. NHL 08 added new deke abilities by using your stick with just one hand, adding a whole new way to dangle around your opponents and score the highlight-worthy goals.
The new skill stick paired with modes like Be-A-Pro, which debuted in NHL 09 and allowed you to control a player from a minor league prospect all the way to NHL Superstar and the EA Sports Hockey League in NHL 10 that allowed fans to put together a team of friends and face other teams online for league dominance, ultimately put the EA Sports NHL franchise over the top for players. Sales soared as the modes were improved while the competition crumbled. Ultimately, the 2k Series ceased to exist on consoles after it became apparent it was more harmful than beneficial to continue to try and compete against the EA Sports NHL machine. This left the game unopposed on consoles.
The game continued to see sales success even after becoming the lone NHL video game offering and no longer offering the title on PC for players without consoles. The release of NHL 13 in 2012 saw the game break opening week sales records by selling nearly 500,000 copies at launch.
Unfortunately, after the resounding success that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 generation of games had, the next one would get off to a rather inauspicious start.
The Giant Face Plant
With the transition to new consoles in the form of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, many fans were excited about what the NHL development team would do for the next generation of gaming. But while the hype was incredibly strong, fans were left disappointed, and even angry, by what they received from EA Sports with NHL 15.
After taking an extra year to get ready for a next-gen debut, NHL 15 was released with plenty of features missing as well as current features and modes that had become extremely stale to fans.
Gone was extremely popular mode EASHL, Be-A-GM Connected was wiped out, Be-A-Pro had been watered down and standard Be-A-GM Mode was boring. The only mode that was somewhat in-depth was Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT), which didn’t sit well with fans due to it being a mode that was micro-transaction heavy.
Sure, the game featured new broadcast presentation features in the form of NBC Sports’ Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk and TSN’s Rey Ferraro, but even that came off as repetitive, forced and dull. Frame rate issues plagued the pre-game cut scenes, and the on-ice gameplay just seemed slow and lacking any sort of redeeming values.
Because of the negative outlook on the game before and after its launch, NHL 15 sold less than 100,000 units during its first week on the market. No doubt, it was a dark time for a franchise that had been so well-regarded for the past decade-plus.
It was later learned that the game had lost developers due to the production of the upcoming EA Sports UFC title, but that didn’t ease the minds of fans. If anything, it may have just made them angrier knowing that something they loved was depleted for something else.
Rising Back Up
After the disappointment that was NHL 15, EA Sports looked to rebound with NHL 16. Back was a retooled EASHL as well is improved on-ice gameplay and physics. However, the game still featured stale Be-A-Pro and Be-A-GM modes and didn’t get player customization until a post-launch patch after fan complaints. This lead fans to continue to wonder if the game would ever get back to the glory it once had.
With NHL 17 right around the corner, the developers at EA Sports Canada hope that the franchise is getting back to being known as one of the best sports titles on the market.
The third installment on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles, NHL 17 features an overhaul Be-A-GM mode that has been renamed back to Franchise Mode that includes the ability to upgrade your arena, relocate existing teams to new markets, financial management, satisfying ownership goals and improved roster and player management.
EASHL is back for the second year on the new generation of consoles and continues to try and innovate while giving players what they want. Be-A-Pro is still a work in progress, but plans are in place to revamp the single-player mode for future installments. With those plans on the mind of developers alongside the changes that have been introduced to fans on the latest generation of consoles, there is the strong belief that the darkest days of the franchise is behind everyone.
The franchise isn’t back to the height of what it was five-to-10 years ago, but the game is heading in the right direction. It just feels like it’s only a matter of time until people will once again be talking about EA Sports NHL in the same way that people feel about EA Sports Canada’s other major franchise, FIFA Soccer.
Michael is a former Managing Editor for The Hockey Writers. He’s covered the Buffalo Sabres, along with the NHL in general, for various outlets since 2009. His work has been featured on outlets such as Yahoo, Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports.