We are officially on the cusp of EA Sports releasing the 25th installment of their flagship hockey simulator in NHL 16 , and the developer needs to deliver big with this one. The hockey gaming community was severely let down this time last year when the publisher launched NHL 15 as what many felt was an unfinished title. The list of absent features and entire game modes was staggering and the backlash was so severe that longstanding gamers threated to abandon the franchise altogether. For the first time in the nearly three-decade-old tradition of the NHL series, gamers left EA Sports with no choice but to either drastically improve the experience or pack it in for good.
I can’t help but feel that the coming week is essentially going to define the direction of the NHL franchise based on how core fans react to the title. If it flops like it did in 2014, then you can kiss the series goodbye for good. If it does well, then EA Sports can slowly win back gamers who have already decided against the title as a result last year’s debacle. A bit drastic? Yes, but here is the method to my madness.
The hockey gaming community is the purest definition of a niche market within the video game landscape. Hockey is most popular here in North America and among small parts of Europe and Asia. Unfortunately, the sport ranks somewhere between fourth and fifth among most popular sports in the U.S – behind football, basketball, baseball, and some would even argue soccer. Group that with its biggest supporter in terms of popularity in Canada, which is around 40 th in terms of world’s population, and you have a somewhat steady group of individuals interested in the sport. If we subtract the number of people who don’t play video games from that figure, then we are left with just enough players for EA Sports to continually produce a title for the fall quarter and turn a decent profit. If the loyal supporters of the franchise leave, then EA Sports would have no choice but to disband the title all together – where else would their user base come from?
The upside of last year’s title came from the revolutionary gameplay mechanics and the true authentic nature the title presented. Players moved as they do in real life and stapling your opponent to the ice with authentic dekes was something never seen before. Puck physics reminded us of how unpredictable that six ounces of vulcanized rubber can be. Goalies reacted as they should, defensemen pinched and got into the play when the puck was near the hash marks, and the team game was on full display. The only issue, which was a catastrophic one, came from the complete lack of game options to take advantage of thse new mechanics. Fans felt directly slighted by EA’s lack of game modes and subtracted features from last year’s version, which eventually lead to complete abandonment by most players.
Now is the time for EA Sports to put their words into action and prove to the franchise gamer that last year’s hideous display was a minor hiccup in the evolving landscape of next-generation game design. The detailed NHL 15 survey completed by thousands of disappointed gamers should have provided them with enough fuel to absolutely blow us away comes September 15. Now is the time to reengage the core hockey gamer and reel them back into the title they all grew up loving – the fate of the genre depends on it.