Pixels and Pucks: A History of Hockey Video Games

Hockey video games have made an incredible journey the past three decades, from pixelated characters to the spitting images of real players, from mindless fun to managing a salary cap, from something little kids play to something NHL players compete to represent. The Hockey News delves into the world of consoles to unearth the nuts and bolts of every landmark release and paradigm shift in how our great sport has appeared in game form.
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THE 1980s – COLD HARD STEEL

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It is 1988. I am five. I kneel before a large Zenith television, encased in wood panelling, inches away from a black screen, brow furrowed in frustration. It worked yesterday. I thought Dad fixed it. I pop the hood of my Nintendo Entertainment System and yank out the cartridge. I stick my bowl-haircutted head against the console and blow inside it until my lungs are empty. He said it was dust. I jam the game back inside, turn it on and hear the sounds I’ve giddily awaited. First the high-pitched SCHLING! Then the familiar, muffled voice: “Blades…of Steel.”

It brings Dad jogging into the room. We grab controllers, choose our teams and go head-to-head for three hours straight. He beats me 10 times in a row. I cry. His rapid puck movement reminds me of those Red Army guys he told me about. The game’s voice, which I swear has a hand muffling it, haunts me: “HITS THE PASS. HITS THE PASS. HITS THE PASS.”

Mom, furious, tells Dad to let me win. “No way,” he says. “When he beats me for real, it’ll be that much better.” And he’s right.

• • •

Ice Hockey. The simplistic name implied its creator didn’t understand the material. You know who calls it “ice hockey”? People who don’t watch it or play it.

It was thus not a huge surprise the Nintendo Entertainment System’s 1988 release Ice Hockey had four skaters per team, not five, and a few faceless nations to choose from. Colin Moriarty, former senior editor for the juggernaut video game publication IGN and a classic games expert, describes it as one cog in NES’ nondescript sport series, which included such original titles as Golf and Baseball. “The ice was a little bit more wide open, and the game wasn’t a simulation at all as much as it was a very arcadey experience,” Moriarty said. “But it was still fun. It was still a classic game.”

Anyone who played Ice Hockey remembers it fondly for one fun feature. Among those gamers: Sean Ramjagsingh, producer of EA Sports’ NHL series, the pinnacle of modern hockey gaming. “Nintendo hockey: the skinny guy, the fat guy and the medium guy,” he said. “Very basic game mechanics. The fat guy was strong, the skinny guy was quick and fast. That’s how it started. Back then, it was figuring out the easiest way to get something that looked like hockey, that being a player moving on an ice surface, as opposed to the other sports with running, and trying to make that as real as possible.”

That same year, another title carved itself onto the Mount Rushmore of hockey video games. Blades of Steel was a different beast than Ice Hockey. It looked good, it featured real NHL cities such as Toronto and New York, it had fighting, it had shootouts, and it was the first game to really capture the feel and spirit of hockey. “If you just take screenshots and put them together and look at them, Ice Hockey is very rudimentary, and Konami’s Blades of Steel…it’s actually a very impressive-looking game,” Moriarty said.

With presentation touches such as intermission cut sequences and mini-games, plus the fun factor of getting a penalty for losing a fight, Blades of Steel inspired tournaments and bitter rivalries between friends. It was the game you were pumped to play after watching Hockey Night in Canada.

“At my pal’s house, we go play NHL ’94 and NHL 96 all the time, but if we had a working NES, I suspect we would actually rather go back and play Blades of Steel,” Moriarty said. “Blades of Steel is more in line with what EA would do later on with the series, which is give you an authentic experience as opposed to a more arcadey experience. That’s not to say Blades of Steel is the ultimate realistic hockey game, but it is to say 25 years ago, Blades of Steel was where it was at.”

THE EARLY 1990s – ENTER ELECTRONIC ARTS

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It is 1994. I am 10. I pace frantically up and down the hallway outside my room. My irritated parents yell up to me to quit stomping. They’re trying to enjoy Forrest Gump on VHS. But I can’t help it. I just learned EA Sports’ NHL 95 will let you create your players in season mode. Oh. My. God.

I hyperventilate. When I get the game for my birthday a month later, I fall to the floor, pretending to faint. I start my season and create myself, my Dad, my dog. Hell, even my teddy bear. Seriously. He’s my goalie.

• • •

Jeremy Roenick gets recognized everywhere he goes, which is hardly surprising for a 500-goal scorer. He left a permanent mark on the game with his tenacious, flashy play and his mouth. He was ‘J.R.,’ the voice of the people, the league’s court jester, the guy who smashed through the stereotype of the quiet, cliché-spewing player. He parlayed that personality into a post-career gig as an NBC Sports studio analyst.

Yet when people approach Roenick in the street these days, their excited chatter doesn’t often touch on his play or his quips. They want to talk about NHL ’94. A video game. And not just any video game – the defining hockey game of our time. Most commonly, he says, they tell him one of two things: (a) they survived college thanks to NHL ’94 on Sega Genesis, playing as his character with the Chicago Blackhawks, or (b) they created a rule that no one could play as Roenick and the Hawks because it was unfair. “To me it’s a great honor,” Roenick said. “You’re etched in video-game history regardless of what you do in your daily life, in your real world, in your real sports. For people to play you on a video game, to be such an icon in it, was one of the coolest things in my career, there’s no question.”

And Roenick doesn’t exaggerate when he uses the term “icon.” His ratings in NHLPA Hockey ’93 and NHL ’94 were so high that his avatar’s unstoppable nature joined ‘Tecmo Super Bowl Bo Jackson’ in video-game lore. And that’s why Vince Vaughn, Hollywood actor and lifelong Blackhawks fan, incorporated Roenick into the 1996 cult-classic movie Swingers. In a famous scene, Vaughn controls Roenick’s character and levels Wayne Gretzky, leaving him a bloody heap.

Roenick and Vaughn ended up meeting in an L.A. nightclub and bonding over it. “I’m like, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to meet you to say thank you for putting that video-game scene in your movie with me,’ ” Roenick said. “He goes, ‘Dude, that was all respect. You deserve the utmost respect. That was my way of showing you respect in my movie for the way you played.’ And I thought that was really cool.”

So how did EA usher in an era of gaming so significant that it reached the silver screen? EA actually debuted on the 16-bit hockey scene a few years earlier, first with the NHL-licensed NHL Hockey on Sega Genesis in 1991, then with the NHL Players’ Association-licensed NHLPA Hockey ’93 on Genesis and Super Nintendo in ’92. But 1993’s NHL ’94 release merged the league and player licenses into one authentic game with every NHL team and player. And users weren’t competing simply for pride anymore. They were battling through seven-game playoff series to hoist the Stanley Cup and playing under NHL rules.

Suddenly, hockey fans had a game to represent the best their sport had to offer. Everything about ’94 brought them into a realistic NHL world. It had a crowd that reacted with cheers and got louder and louder for the home team after goals and hits. It had authentic organ music. It even had an out-of-town scoreboard that cut to computer-generated highlights from other games. Frills like these immortalized the game to the point it’s more nostalgically acknowledged today than any other. That’s why the current editions have an NHL ’94 controller configuration available.

“A lot of people still think of NHL ’94 as the best ever,” Ramjagsingh said. “A big part of that was it was a fun game, it was
a fast game, it had the teams as well. People remember playing a simple game where they could pass and shoot and hit. One
button press would get them exactly what they wanted, and they haven’t moved on to the PlayStations or the Xboxes of the world. They look at both controllers, and they find them intimidating and don’t know where to start. So a lot of people haven’t made the jump.”

Some gamers never will. As recently as 2011, IGN ranked NHL ’94 as 47th on its “100 Greatest Video Games of All-Time” list. No other hockey game made it. “When you look back at the ’94 game, literally every character looked the same except for the numbers on the back,” Roenick said. “The way the technology has advanced the game, where it’s all lifelike, that historical aspect of going back and playing that ’94 game is really neat for people. Your first love sometimes will be your love forever.”

Not that it meant EA patted itself on the back for a job well done after the success of ’94. The Super Nintendo’s NHL Stanley Cup, a graphically superior competitor with pseudo-3D graphics called ‘Mode 7,’ introduced a battery backup for console cartridges, meaning users could play full seasons with recorded statistics.

EA responded with season modes in NHL 95 and onward on Sega Genesis and the SNES and took another huge step by allowing users to create their own players and place them on NHL teams in 95. Hockey games began trending away from arcade-like fun and more toward a hyper-real, customized user experience.

THE LATE 1990s – THE SIMULATION ERA

It is Christmas 1997. My pubescent voice cracks with joy as I unwrap NHL 98. I pop it in the PlayStation and marvel at the presentation. Did the game just open with a movie of Chris Pronger throwing a massive bodycheck? And is that Jim Hughson I hear doing full play-by-play? What planet is this?

• • •

At first, the job was a piece of cake. Jim Hughson was among the most recognizable voices in hockey broadcasting, even 20 years ago, and he happily lent his pipes to EA for a single hour. “I wrote and recorded these scripts that went something like, ‘Hi and
welcome to EA Sports 1995,’ and that was about it,” Hughson said. “They didn’t have much memory in the game then, so they couldn’t do very much. It was things like, ‘Welcome to Chicago Stadium.’ Then it mushroomed.”

EA wasn’t the first to do it. Sega’s Joe Montana II: Sports Talk Football and Sports Talk Baseball were the pioneers. But EA took simulation broadcasting to a new level. Did the Sports Talk series already show the ability to accurately call each play? Yes. Was it also laughably bad? Hell yes. Users would hit a homer and hear “Going, going, gone,” two outs and a pitching change later.

EA set out to create a real broadcast that made users feel like they were playing what they’d watch on TV. The guinea pig was Mr. Hughson. He fondly likens the EA building, where he did his recording work, to a
college campus with lots of energetic, creative minds and high turnover. “In the early years, the producers didn’t have a clue how we were going to do this,” he said. “We had all this memory, all this ambition and didn’t really know how to put any of it to work. That was one of the neat things about it. Not only was it my voice in there, but it was a collaboration.”

It quickly became apparent the project would take a lot of work. Hughson would have to record thousands of small phrases, not sentences, so the programmers could mix and match for different situations. Not only that, but he’d have to record everything in multiple intonations. “You couldn’t have the screaming play-by-play man in the first minute of the first period, but you do need to raise your voice in the last minute of the third when it means a heck of a lot more,” Hughson said. “If you’re screaming a name like ‘SELANNE!’ the tone couldn’t go down to (lowering voice) ‘passes to.’ We had to figure out how to do everything so when the computer stitched it together, it sounded like a sentence.”

EA had to load its database with every hockey expression from “He scores!” to “Great save by” to “wins the draw.” That meant sequestering Hughson for hours on end – in a “tiny, dark little room in the basement” with thousands of pages of script to read. He was thrilled to do the work, but it pushed him to the brink of insanity at times. “Imagine yourself for five hours saying nothing but, ‘Passes to. Passes to. Passes to. PASSES TO. PASSES TO!’ and add a name to that,” he said. “Or ‘Stopped by’ and think of every goalie in the world, and you’d have to do ‘Stopped by,’ ‘Saved by,’ and add a goalie’s name to that. And not just the NHL guys, but AHL guys that might become NHL players. And then we got into the world guys.”

The end result was worth it. When you popped NHL 97 and especially NHL 98 into your PlayStation, your understanding of hockey video games completely changed. These editions had real video of NHL action, real music, 32-bit graphics and cavernous arenas. The voices of Hughson and color commentator Daryl Reaugh (in NHL 98) added the extra touch. And while the play-by-play improved year to year, even its first incarnation was shockingly seamless.

Anyone intimidated or bored by the shift toward hyperrealism still had options in the mid-1990s. The most notable was 1996’s arcadey and popular Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey on the Nintendo 64. No console has ever done wacky four-player fun like the N64, so Gretzky Hockey was a fitting release, complete with snippets of NBA Jam-inspired commentary, flaming nets and actual brick walls erecting behind goaltenders. But as the new millennium
approached, the arcadey hockey experience faced extinction. Expectations for sports games changed. Users wanted more immersive, personal play.

THE 2000s – PUTTING YOU IN THE GAME

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It is 2006. The sound of “OHHH!” rings out in my dingy apartment. My friends and I show each other up in shootout mode thanks to NHL 07’s ‘Skill Stick.’ The crazy bastards have turned the controllers into a hockey stick for your right thumb. We show each other up with dangle after dangle. I duplicate Sidney Crosby’s water-bottle goal. How much better can these games get?

• • •

One defining feature in EA Sports’ NHL 07 embodies the modern era of hockey video gameplay: the Skill Stick. It unified two crucial elements of EA’s programming today. One is utterly realistic physics. The other is a game in which the users significantly influence and control their own experiences.

Whereas Blades of Steel and NHL ’94 were essentially two-button games, Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft (Xbox) produced far more complex controllers in the mid-to-late 1990s, each of which featured at least one miniature “joystick.”

Through the early 2000s, hockey games gave players’ left thumbs something to do, allowing them to move their skaters
around more fluidly than ever before. The right stick, however, was almost
vestigial: present, but not in use. The Skill Stick changed all that.

Ramjagsingh, the NHL series’ head producer, worked for two hockey-centric people: David Littman and Dean Richards. Littman played goal for Buffalo and Richards, a winger, played pro overseas. “They wanted the controller to feel like a hockey stick felt in their hands when they were playing real hockey,” Ramjagsingh said, “and that’s where the vision for the right stick being your hockey stick came from. It was a completely different mentality shift that people had a hard time wrapping their hands around. Instead of just saying, ‘We want to put a toe drag in there and put a cool new deke in there, let’s map it to the A and the B button,’ where all you could get was those two moves on those buttons, it was trying to create an open-ended gameplay. We were basically giving users the tools, the feel of a hockey stick, allowing them to create original moves.”

The newfound ability to free-form stickhandle was one example of many efforts from EA – and competitors like the NHL 2K series – to recreate real-world physics. One way of doing it was to record actual movements via motion-capture technology. That meant hiring players – usually college-caliber guys, as they had time to work the odd 16-hour day and “appreciated the money,” Ramjagsingh said – to wear sensors and perform every in-game action imaginable. The sensors are actually reflective balls. Cameras surrounding the rink bounce light off them to triangulate and “record” every movement instantaneously.

The process is painstaking. When NHL 13 introduced the True Performance Skating gimmick, it required more than 1,000
individual animations to achieve a new feel of momentum, stopping and starting on your virtual blades. The motion-capture work can also be painful. “Years ago we were literally getting guys on the ice and having them hit each other,” Ramjagsingh said. “There were tales of guys getting concussions and not remembering where they were the day before, stuff like that, because it got pretty aggressive. We wanted it to be authentic.”

Flash back to 1988. If you asked Ice Hockey’s programming team, “How’d you create the different movements for the fat guy, skinny guy and medium guy?” the answer would not be, “We have a physicist.” It is
today. EA has a “guy on the team with a PhD in physics” who makes mathematical calculations to ensure the gameplay is realistic while also unpredictable. “You get limbs flying in all directions,” Ramjagsingh said. “You get that organic feel, and every hit can be different.”

For NHL 15, EA went a step further, hiring a physicist who’d worked creating black holes on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Black holes. You read that right. He applied his skills to revolutionize the puck physics.

The simulation goes beyond the game’s physicality, of course. Developers also go the extra mile nowadays to evaluate real-life players, rate them and have their avatars perform as much like their real-life counterparts as possible. EA has its own scout who takes in games in various pro and junior leagues and produces player ratings. The key is scouting multiple leagues to create relativity. Junior players’ skills should be comparatively underdeveloped. A 16-year-old OHL player, for instance, performs like a boy, not a man, in the game.

EA takes the ratings seriously, incorporating all facets of a player’s game. That’s why a complete player such as Sidney Crosby carries a perennially sky-high rating. And to be clear: players pay attention to their ratings. The NHL’s oldest current player was born in 1977, the youngest 2001, so the entire active generation has grown up in the video-game era. “We don’t rib each other, but once the game comes out, everyone looks at how their rating is from the previous year, how their stats compare,” said St. Louis Blues center and self-described video-game nut Brayden Schenn. “There’s no real chirping or anything, but most guys that play check up on themselves, that’s for sure.”

Back to the Skill Stick. It epitomizes the realism of modern hockey gaming but also empowers users like never before. “The real magic was, after the game had shipped, people started using the Skill Stick and creating moves and uploading videos to the internet of stuff that the team hadn’t seen in an entire year of development,” Ramjagsingh said. “It’s something that designers take a lot of pride in. It means you’ve created something that allows other people to create these moments as opposed to you saying exactly the moves you want in the game and only allowing the users to execute those moves.”

Whereas gamers traditionally relied on the software to guide and create their
experiences, it’s only a springboard now. In NHL 95, you could play a season and compete for the Stanley Cup or take on anyone within a few meters of you. Today, online gaming has surpassed the AI experience as the preferred style of play. A 50-year-old woman in Sweden can play against a 10-year-old boy in Japan.

THE 2010s – THE CUSTOM ERA

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It’s 2014. I’m pissed off and bored. What kind of call was that, ref? I barely touched the guy. Stupid obstruction crackdown. I sit in the penalty box and wait. And wait. And wait some more. Finally, I get out of the sin bin. My coach gives me feedback: “Great positioning out there but watch the dumb penalties.” He’s right. I need to stay out of the box more if I want to up my draft status this June. Oh, and by the way, this is a video game.

• • •

It doesn’t get any more “me” for a gamer to experience entire hockey games – and careers, from major junior to the Hall of Fame – with a focus solely on them, a concept EA introduced in NHL 09 with Be a Pro Mode. “It’s cool,” Schenn said. “The camera is right on you the whole time, you’re sitting on the bench waiting for your next shift. All that stuff, it’s pretty accurate.”

Better yet, the latest hockey games let players join their own leagues. NHL 13’s GM Connected Mode threatened to ruin marriages and grade-point averages everywhere, as it allowed users to create 30-team leagues in which they managed all facets of their respective franchises and still played full schedules against each other. They could even do so with 24 teammates, meaning a GM Connected league could have up to 750 human players.

Game modes like that spawned a unique community of users who interacted with each other, and that population has grown into an immense influencer on the games, particularly through social media.

This new era keeps the programmers honest like never before. Gamer expectations have never been higher. They want the slickest, most fluid, most realistic gameplay standards. They want believable physics for fair human-on-human competition. They want lots of different game modes. And while the manufacturers can make plenty of changes on the fly via downloadable bundles, known as “tuner sets,” they can’t make seismic shifts. Sooner or later, every release of the game has to stand on its own as a finished product, because a company like EA has to get working on the next season’s edition.

That worked against EA five years ago, when it dropped NHL 15, the series’ first foray into eighth-generation consoles Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The leap in graphics quality meant a gorgeous game but also that the series had to eschew many of its popular game modes, most notably the EA Sports Hockey League which let players create their own characters and join online leagues with all-human 6-on-6 play.

Fans were outraged. NHL 15, according to aggregate review site Metacritic, was the worst-reviewed title in the franchise’s history. Critics gave an average score of 60 out of 100 for the PS4 edition and 59 out of 100 for Xbox One.

But NHL 15 might have been a necessary blow for EA to absorb. The company took the feedback to heart and rebounded with NHL 16, bringing back the sorely missed online features, and the game was generally well received. A key reason for the turnaround was the introduction of EA Sports’ ‘Game Changers’ program – a group of hardcore players brought in as an expert feedback panel. The Game Changers have become essential contributors to the construction of each game.

“They play a ton of our game and know the game inside out, and we leverage them to really represent the community and the thoughts from the community,” Ramjagsingh said.

The game maker respects the game player so much now that the former put the latter on the payroll. By 17, Dustin Wade, a.k.a. ‘The Clapperton,’ a.k.a. ‘Clappy,’ was a hockey-gaming nut, already the third-largest NHL video-game content creator via his YouTube channel. EA Sports brought him in as part of the original Game Changers program, and his feedback on the game as a voice of the people proved so valuable that the company offered him a job in the quality assurance department straight out of high school.

Just four years later, he’s risen to the role of the NHL series’ community manager. He collects feedback from the vast gaming populace. He delivers any complaints to the software engineers, who try to reproduce any problem in the game on their end, as they must witness it to solve it.

Managing the community can be taxing, as Wade bears the brunt of the users’ passion, for better or worse, and the programmers have to carefully vet any complaint before applying it universally to the game. But Wade’s job is crucial in today’s gaming world. He understands what it’s like on the gaming and programming side. He thus also knows which typical problems aren’t really problems, such as the most common gripe, known as “ice tilt,” which is the idea that the game makes characters play above their overall ratings if you’re losing or playing with a weaker team for the sake of keeping scores artificially close. “They’ll send over screenshots of them losing 5-1, but they outshot their opponent 26-10 or something like that,” Wade said. “Does that really tell us anything? Did you take shots from the blueline all game? Did you give up five breakaways? I get it, though. Hockey is a sport where stuff like that can happen. But I think ‘CHEL’ does a pretty good job at giving the better player the win.”

Sometimes, as was the case with NHL 15, the online community is right. And the developers listen. It’s fitting that the online players arguably have a greater influence on the NHL series now than the NHL players do, because the dominant form of hockey video gaming is moving away from gamers worshipping their real-life counterparts.

Not only are Esports starting to penetrate the hockey world, opening up chances for gamers to earn money and become stars in their own right (see pg. 82), but Ramjagsingh says the customization element has become a vital part of the experience as it gives users a bigger “stake” in the game.

The most popular formats fall under the umbrella of CHEL (named after the slang term for the NHL series, pronounced “chell”), through which players compete in various tournaments and competitive formats, including Ones, which is like Hog, and 3-on-3.

Thanks to the introduction of pond-hockey environments, gamers can customize themselves with far more personality and specificity via their winter clothing. It’s what Ramjagsingh calls the “vanity” aspect of gaming, largely inspired by the Fortnite craze. The most meta twist of all: real NHL players are now becoming committed gamers, customizing their characters in the CHEL universe.

Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy reached out to EA asking about acquiring some Bruins-themed items for when he plays NHL, and he took the game on the road throughout the 2019 playoffs. Alex Turcotte, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2019 NHL draft, has become so good at the game that he signed up for external competitive leagues, Wade explains. So when you’re playing NHL online, you might occasionally match up against real-life NHLers.

Gameplay itself has become so photo-real that the industry faces a “law of diminishing returns” problem. The gap between, say, NHLPA Hockey ’93 and NHL ’94 was significant, but many of the newer releases today are almost indistinguishable from year to year. They’re just too good-lookin’ to get much better.

The most common annual critique about a new release comes in the form of “Same game as last year’s, so why buy the new one?” Because of that, community, competition and customization are more important than ever. They represent the future of hockey gaming.

It’s not the future we necessarily envisioned years ago. You know how every depiction of the future in movies used to feature flying cars? Virtual reality was the equivalent for hockey video games. It hasn’t happened because of one crucial problem. The very thing that makes hockey such an exciting sport makes it a nightmare for VR. The game is too fast for the brain to process in a VR format. That’s why hockey VR hasn’t evolved much past prototype stages. “As soon as your character in VR is moving around in too many different directions, you’re also turning your head, and your mind’s telling you that your body’s not actually moving,” Ramjagsingh said. “It just plays with your mind a lot, and a lot of people get that sick feeling.”

The sports games that lend themselves best to VR are things like golf and baseball, right? That’s because their movements are much more stationary. If hockey ever makes VR strides, it will thus most likely be on the goaltending side, as a user would be relatively anchored to a small region of the ice.

But VR hockey will have to wait. As the calendar flips to 2020, hockey gaming is all about the medium’s incredible democratic capabilities. It’s an experience for the people, by the people. Whatever comes next, we await it with bated breath – and restless thumbs.

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