It’s that time of year again. The time when summer finally lets slip its months-long chokehold on our sweat glands, when autumn settles in for a few weeks of civilized discourse before cranky Mr. McWinterpants arrives and busts us right in the chops. It’s a time when birds flap en masse towards warmer climes to avoid falling out of the sky like so many flash-frozen, feathered projectiles, when the essence of woodsmoke wafts on biting winds and when a young Canadian’s fancy turns to gloves, sticks, and pucks.
I know a lot of people who can’t stand sports games, and with the lone exception of my yearly foray onto the digital ice, I count myself among them. In fact, I can’t stand most sports, but for nearly as long as I can remember, hockey has been the shining exception. Ever since I first displayed a fourth-generation genetic disposition towards the New York Rangers in 1981, and discovering Activision’s two-on-two Ice Hockey (with the puck constantly moving back and forth on the stick) on the Atari 2600 the following spring, hockey has been part of the foundation not only of my entertainment, but of my entire life.
I don’t know about you, but I spent the ages between birth and 25 in a constant state of anxiety about everything from the color of my hair to the length of my pants to the way I walked. As a kid, if there was something to feel insecure about, not only did I find it, I clubbed the bastard over the head, tossed it into a cage, carted it back to civilization and charged admission for people to gawk at it while “oohing” and “ahhing” in curious, indignant revulsion. I was, in effect, the Carl Denham of my own self-doubt.
Learning to play hockey at 13 didn’t exactly change all of that; I was still ungainly and insecure, but stopping pucks – or in my case, mostly blue Mylec cold-weather balls (yes, yes, I know) – was the first thing I was ever truly good at. At an age when identity crisis was a constant, clown-under-the-bed companion, I was fortunate to find something that helped bolster my sagging self-esteem well enough to make the rest of life’s carnival o’ horrors much more bearable.
It wasn’t winning, specifically, that hooked me on the game, but rather the isolated achievement of individual actions; a sweeping glove save, a darting skate placed in the way of a well-aimed wrister, the sting and sense of fleeting invulnerability from a shot to the mask, all merged to define an experience that was simultaneously more – and less – than the sum of its results. It’s not quite the same as claiming that it’s not whether you win or lose, but I much preferred playing well in a loss over sucking in a win. I suppose this is why the Wheaties endorsement deal fell through and why I haven’t seen a pair of sneakers with my name on them since I was in kindergarten. (Okay, since college.) The point remains: Performing any task with pride and skill, regardless of the outcome, is a worthwhile end in itself.
By extension, good sports videogames must offer compelling abstractions of our expectations, whether our passion is for hardcore simulation, casual arcade action or a comfortable middle ground. The game that allows the player to make the choice between all three while maintaining a convincing level of sensory fidelity is usually the yearly winner in the buy-ours-not-theirs sweepstakes, which, for hockey fans over the last eight years, has automatically meant grabbing the latest offering from 2K Sports and heading for the door. Not so anymore.
As much as it surprises me, EA Sports has managed to leap several hurdles of suck in a fairly short span to become the favorite in the formerly crowded videogame hockey race. (I don’t know where you went, 989 Sports, but wherever you are, I’m glad you’re there.) With an aggregate review score of 91 percent to 2K9‘s 70 percent, EA’s NHL 09 has opened a seemingly insurmountable lead over 2K’s title, and it’s done so not through its former ham-handed tactic of obtaining license exclusivity, but simply by making a better game.
Let me repeat that for those of you who’ve been paying attention over the last few years: EA Sports has won critical and financial acclaim by being better than the competition. Go figure.
Chief among the reasons for EA’s on-ice achievement this year is the new “Be A Pro” mode, which puts you in control of a single player over the course of his career from the minors to the pros. It is, for me, the most compelling addition to any hockey game in recent memory, simply because – as a goaltender – it skillfully recreates the experience of standing between the pipes as the play rushes towards you, excitement and tension building in equal measure to a finale of success or failure with each shot.
There were times when every thump of the puck on my pads was a victory, when the snap of the glove bending back on my wrist was as much of a reward as I’d ever need. The same can be said for every great hockey videogame I’ve played. Winning and losing become secondary to the simple acts of scoring goals, rattling the boards with a jarring check or watching a spray of ice arc into the air after a quick stop.
This is the reason for the game, not simply winning (although I must say losing still blows), but picking up a skill and using it well, like nailing a well placed headshot or solving a challenging puzzle; not simply for the outcome, but for the enjoyment of being good at something you love.
Matt Turano wishes strife and calamity upon anyone who uses football metaphors in a business setting.