NHL Hall of Fame goaltender and current member of the Canadian Parliament Ken Dryden once said that the golden age of any sport is when you are twelve years old. And so it was for me, in 1992 on my SEGA Genesis with EA’s NHL Hockey. In that golden age, I learned the lessons that would help me defy my parents’ constant insistence that “staying inside and playing games will get you nowhere.” Eventually making a career out of it, this was my education. I played games of all genres and all types, but nothing excited me like a new EA Sports release.
Over the years, others have attempted to assail EA Sports’ mountain perch. Recently, one company – Take Two Interactive – gained a foothold with their 2K line of sports titles. EA Sports responded with its nuclear deterrent: exclusivity. Suddenly, EA ceased to be a chosen favorite, and instead became a monopoly. For the NFL, NCAA Football and NASCAR, EA’s lawyers ensured what their game designers no longer could: market supremacy. Take-Two responded by securing the MLBPA license, effectively spelling an end to EA’s Major League Baseball series. This back and forth has inspired harsh feelings from fans of each sport, and created a kind of hysteria in the communities for non-exclusive sports, most notably the NBA and NHL. Conventional wisdom says that competition breeds success and innovation. Thus, a market without competition leads to stagnation and complacency. Within the 2006 line of games, the world got its first taste of several exclusive franchises.
Despite the cries of those who feared monopoly, EA remains good at what they do. At no point was this more apparent than E3 2005. A group of die-hard gamers and I met in one of the many Los Angeles pizza haunts to discuss our best games of the show. When the topic of sports titles came up, EA remained king. In one particularly memorable moment, while simultaneously cursing EA for its tactics, Madden NFL ’06 was nominated for – and eventually co-won – best sports title, venom notwithstanding.
Similarly, EA’s NHL offering, in my opinion, regained a position of prominence – a crown they had lost for a few years to Take-Two – with NHL ’06. The latest title breaks out of a long slump arguably stretching back to last century and produces a fun, challenging and less exploitable representation of NHL hockey. At some points in history, the hockey titles were more popular than the league upon which they were based, but over the last several installments, this iconic status eroded. Making matters worse, earlier this year a temporary art gaffe on EA’s official NHL website led media and fans to believe EA was about to ink another exclusivity deal. Hot on the heels of a mediocre 2005 version, one that was soundly beaten by Take-Two’s hockey offering, the community was furious. Luckily for fans of the rival franchise, this was a mistake on EA’s part, and no such deal exists.
The recent struggles and glimmers of resurgence with NHL ’06 have been close to my heart. As a fan of the series, I have owned and played every single incarnation of this series. I began in 1992 on the SEGA Genesis and ultimately switched to the PC for the 1997 release. Over that period, I’ve seen the series evolve from a 2-D, top-down game played on blue ice, to a fully 3-D game with eerily life-like players and full franchise modes built in. Yet for me, it goes back to the words of Ken Dryden. Has the series truly been stuck in mediocrity, or did I simply enjoy the game that I discovered more than those that followed?
EA put Dryden’s theory to the test this year. NHL ’06 for the PlayStation 2 comes with NHL 1994 – to many, the crown jewel of the franchise – built in. This trip down memory lane excited many, but ultimately reminded me what I long suspected to be true. The games from your youth may be your favorites, but they are often best left in your youth. NHL 1994 is still an exciting title, but it also shows just how far technology and gaming have come over the last decade.
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.