The flaw with the NHL line of games is not a lack of innovation. Rather, they often tried too hard to do new things as a result of their corporate insistence on putting out a new game every year. NHL 2005 is a prime example of this. Fundamental gameplay changes made skating and momentum a hassle; this new "feature" frustrated me, along with many long time fans, to the point of practically skipping a year.
This year, the game follows the traditional formula, with just updated rosters and graphics, and the re-introduction of a few key features, such as "create a player." As a result, NHL 2006 has met with more critical praise. There are only so many new things to be done with the simulation of a sport. For me, it is better to simply update what you can, and then hone the AI and experience itself rather than doing something new - and quite probably annoying - for the sake of it.
As I am often a critic of the lack of innovation in gaming, the above is a tough argument for me to make. However, in this case, it is necessary. Take the example of soft drinks. Coke and Pepsi often produce alternative flavors in an attempt to trump the other. While they have a wide range of success, the core product of Coke or Pepsi remains the same. When Coke attempted a wholesale change to their taste with New Coke, it was met with mass rejection. EA Sports needs to look to this example. Fans have expectations for an EA Sports game, no matter what the sport, when they pick up the latest installment. To fiddle with the core of the game simply to justify a new version is counterproductive. Sometimes change is necessary, such as the transition to 3-D, but at its core, the game experience needs to remain comparable. To me, this is where EA got into trouble in the early part of this century.
How will the lucrative sports gaming wars play out? It is tough to tell, but some say it's ultimately in the hands of fans, not EA. If, over the next ten years, EA's NFL series disappoints you, do not buy it. Only through a vote with your pocketbooks will the NFL be able to evaluate whether or not exclusivity is good for their sport's gaming franchise. I firmly believe the outcry of the NFL community played a huge role in EA's failure to secure NHL and NBA licenses. Neither league is blind and quite probably considered what had happened with the NFL when the subject was brought up.
At the same time, it is my fervent hope that the control of the big licenses in some sports will mean that a genre long set in its path will once again begin to evolve in new directions. I sorely miss games like Mutant League Football. While I hope that the official EA games remain true to their roots as a good arcade-simulation of the sports they cover, the lack of "official license" leaves the door wide open for other companies to make innovations in gameplay and fun-factor. That is a sentiment that should appeal to sports gamers everywhere.
Dana "Lepidus" Massey is the Lead Content Editor for MMORPG.com and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.