Gamers are famous for the question “what if?” What if they could mix their favorite two games, or do a specifically popular title in a different way? Hobbyists sometimes spend hours discussing this idea, as they turn popular franchises like Battlefield 1942 into everything from Star Wars to pirates. Yet aside from some fun, very little ever comes of most these scenarios, especially not when your “what if” scenario would involve several large corporations and upwards of fifteen licenses. But, that is just what Sports Interactive and developer Risto Remes accomplished with the birth of NHL Eastside Hockey Manager (NHL EHM) a few years ago. Now in its second edition, NHL EHM is the only major hockey-themed game in the popular sports management market. Born out of a longtime niche desire to adapt the wildly successful soccer simulation, Championship Manager, for hockey, Remes began developing the original Eastside Hockey Manager in his Finland apartment as a hobby. Several years and a move to England later, Risto Remes heads up the development of the fully licensed hockey title at Sports Interactive, alongside those who originally inspired him.

Although the last place you would expect to find a hockey management game is England, that is just what is going on at Sports Interactive as they work on the annually updated franchise. Published by SEGA, the sophomore edition of the franchise was launched in Europe earlier this year, while a heavily modified version – complete with the new rules of the NHL collective bargaining agreement – slides into North American stores this fall. A third incarnation is due out for the 2006 – 2007 NHL season.

NHL EHM places the player in the role of general manager of one of a plethora of North American or European hockey teams. As the GM, the player must hire staff, manage a budget, trade players, negotiate contracts and – in some leagues – draft prospects for the future. Moreover, the GM is also responsible for the on-ice tactics, player training regimens, and lineups. Appropriately, a game born out of a “what if” actually allows gamers to play out their own fantasy “what if” scenarios.

So just how did this crazy dream ever make it to market? Simple: Risto Remes was a person with a dream. Inspired by Championship Manager from Sports Interactive and Hockey League Simulator 2 from Bethesda Softworks, he and some friends from their native Helsinki, Finland began development on their game. He set out to fill a void: A game with the depth of Championship Manager, but done for the sport he loves – hockey. From this, the freeware project Eastside Hockey Manager was born and gained a cult internet following. In one of those rare cases where a hobbyist gets a break as a professional, the very company that inspired him offered him a job in the summer of 2002 to begin development on an adaptation of their engine for a hockey title.

“Most sports management games work fundamentally in quite a similar way if you simplify the areas of the game,” said Remes. “In a way, we used the existing code base as a skeleton, rewriting most of the muscles … then adding a couple of whole new body parts with new bones and muscles … and later on doing some cosmetic surgery to bring the interface looks to a new level.”

The entire adaptation process took nearly two years, but the company continued to face several large hurdles outside the studio. First, they needed to find a publisher for a text-based hockey management game. Second, they needed to secure the licenses that the team had counted on. The game had been in development for well over a year with the assumption that the legalities would fall into place. Any of these issues threatened to scuttle the project, and then in late 2003, things – from the outside – seemed to deteriorate. Sports Interactive and longtime publisher Eidos parted company. In the split, Eidos took with them the famous flagship name Championship Manager (which they continue to develop to this day at subsidiary studios), while Sports Interactive retained rights to the underlying technology. Things looked bleak for the studio’s flagship title, tidings that did not bode well for their smaller, secondary title. Enter SEGA. They reached a deal to publish the newly dubbed Football Manager as well as Eastside Hockey Manager in North America and Europe; previously Sports Interactive games had been held to the other side of the pond. With a publisher in place, the chances of securing major hockey league player and team licenses – especially the NHL – were restored and the painstaking process began in earnest.

“We’re actually pretty lucky to have Nivine Emeran,” said Marc Duffy, Product Manager at Sports Interactive, in reference to the representative at SEGA who handles licenses for their game. “She’s been able to deflect much of the stresses and strains away from us on a day-to-day basis. We gave a list of our ideal licenses and she did a fantastic job securing most of them for us.” Thus, just before its launch in the summer of 2004, the original game was renamed NHL Eastside Hockey Manager as part of an agreement with the NHL.

Oddly enough, it is the lawyers who handle these license agreements who manage to keep things interesting; the league and team licenses are a major reason of why I purchase each installment of this franchise. EA Sports is famous for putting out an updated version of their games each year, and some often question if the update is worth the ticket price. Typically, the new version simply gives players updated rosters of the one to four leagues it covers. EA’s NHL series is first and foremost an NHL game, and their license allows for only that league (and occasionally a few European leagues). Players like hockey phenom Sidney Crosby cannot be placed into EA games until they have played their first NHL action. For the consumer, that means he cannot legally be included until NHL 2006. Contrast that to NHL EHM, where there are over fifteen playable leagues and – beyond that – almost every league of note currently in existence. Sidney Crosby has been in every incarnation of the game, thanks to the inclusion of Canadian junior leagues.

It is the growing scope of Sports Interactive’s games that keep me coming back for each installment. Many fans were dismayed at the lack of minor-pro North American leagues in the first installment. The AHL, ECHL and others were replaced with fictional leagues to fill the void. Thus, with NHL Eastside Hockey Manager 2005, the introduction of the AHL and ECHL, as well as the highly competitive German league, gave me a major reason to go out and buy the game. Each year Sports Interactive and SEGA face the challenge of adding those licenses gamers demand and maintaining the agreements they already have. “I guess the greatest hurdle would be trying to convince the licensors that the product we have is good enough and will serve to enhance their league,” mused Duffy. “It’s a different type of game, and so it takes a little time to get across what we are all about.”

This challenge was never more apparent than when a graphical oversight at EA Sports threatened to spell doom for not only Sports Interactive, but any other company working on a hockey title. EA Sports has recently sewn up exclusivity deals with the NFL, NASCAR and college football, and speculation has been rampant as to which leagues the company would sign next. Several weeks ago, the official NHL 2006 web site was launched with the words “exclusive license.” It turned out to be a mistake – there is no such exclusivity agreement between EA and the NHL – but this nonetheless underlined the fragile nature of working with a spider’s web of licenses.

As they approach the North American launch of their latest product, the team at the small London-based developer can rest easy in knowing that they have overcome a number of landmines to create a quality product. With over 3,200 teams and 32,000 players and staff, the sheer size of the global sports simulation can only be rivaled by the more mature Football Manager.

The game is a behemoth both in both a physical and legal sense, yet they soldier on each year fully armed with the knowledge that lawyers could derail them at any moment. If – for example – the NHL and EA were to sign an exclusivity agreement, three years of hard labor on the part of Sports Interactive would instantly go up in smoke. The flagship league would disappear from NHL EHM and, realistically, the game’s future would almost certainly be nonexistent. A game born out of one young Finn’s dream to see his favorite sport melded with his favorite game has marched past landmines of publishers, licenses and even the flagship league’s crippling labor dispute to see another year.

Common sense at some of the world’s larger publishers would never allow a niche sport in a niche gaming market to see daylight. Sports Interactive provides a shining example of how a dream and a passion can win out over “pragmatism” and create something fun for a significant group of gamers.

Dana “Lepidus” Massey is the Lead Content Editor for MMORPG.com and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.

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