Last month, fans of the NHL series were finally able to experience the latest updates to the franchise with the release of NHL 21. While the series has been issued new iterations yearly since its initial release back in 1991, when players were limited to the Sega Genesis and the basic mechanics and graphics it offered, this year was of particular significance to fans of NHL, as it coincided with the release of new generation consoles: the Xbox Series X, and the PlayStation 5.
However, the potential for a groundbreaking new title – something that would, in one fell swoop, reinvent the entire series and bring something new to players’ screens – was, for many, not realised. As promised, the game offered faster loading screens on the Series X, for instance, but graphics offered no significant improvement – despite the added power from the hardware. Promises of improving the Be a Pro mode fell decidedly flat.
It is widely understood that EA Sports chose to focus their manpower on optimising other titles for the next-gen consoles first – namely, the football titles Madden NFL and FIFA 21. While we can anticipate a more powerful NHL game to accompany the new hardware next year, the general consensus among ice hockey fans is one of disappointment.
Football as long-since dominated the sports gaming world and, even now, at a turning point for the entire gaming industry, it seems as though it is retaining the lions’ share of attention from developers. So, has ice hockey been left behind by the gaming industry? Read more below.
Ice Hockey’s Significance Beyond Console Gaming is Growing
EA Sport’s blinkered focus on football is understandable, though perhaps misguided. Their FIFA and NFL games have drawn in the crowds over the years, but focusing on their football fans seems, in many ways, somewhat outdated.
There are few niches within the gaming industry as time-honoured and far-reaching as sports betting, and ice hockey is no exception to the ongoing entanglement of sports and iGaming. While this has been the case for many years – and sports betting has held a strong position around the world for much longer than almost any other area within the broader gaming community – its significance is stronger than ever before.
Just this year, the UK ice hockey betting world has been conquered by the iGaming powerhouse, Aspire Global. Following their acquisition of the B2B sports betting provider, BtoBet, Aspire Global’s influence over sports betting has seen unprecedented growth.
In practical terms, fans of ice hockey betting can feel rest assured that the industry’s leaders will be able to offer better services to punters than ever before, and that the sport is likely to experience a fantastic boost as competition continues to mount between the best in the business.
EA Sports Has Been Struggling with…Sports
Anyone with any interest in EA Sports titles will recall the disaster of FIFA 20, released to significant backlash last year. While not quite as poor, the reception for NFL 20 was also incredibly mixed.
NHL has faired a little better among its fan base over the years. The titles have, to an extent, carried the series forward as game development has allowed more realistic and intelligent games to supersede older versions. Nothing much as changed for the NHL, with the exception of a few additions, tweaks, and improvements.
As such, EA Sports turned its focus to what was broken, and applied the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke’ to ice hockey. For some franchises – those that are not based on real world events – this may work as a stalling mechanism as developers scramble to reinvent the series, but not here.
Excitement and spontaneity have always been the defining forces behind ice hockey; it is often renowned as the most exciting sport in existence. Fans know the game, which means that they know how to judge a game, and recycled content will never pass muster with them. EA Sports is stalling fans while they work on bringing other sports into the new generation of gaming, but the sport – and the fans themselves – will not wait.
EA’s struggles over the past few years have been clear to see. The technology is there to make considerable changes to their longest running franchises, and yet there is a strong sense that the real world games have progressed further than the titles that were always designed to complement them, and give fans experiences that are akin to watching from the side lines, or even joining the teams themselves.
Their decision to prioritise other sports as we move up to a new level of gaming is likely to take a significant toll, particularly as ice hockey continues to grow in significance in the broader contexts of the gaming world.