Like the NHL, Electronic Arts forced to adapt to pandemic in making hockey game

·4 min read

TORONTO — Like the NHL, EA Sports was forced to adapt to the pandemic.

While the league opted to finish out its season in a bubble, the video game developer moved to remote production.

"It's been interesting," said Sean Ramjagsingh, executive producer of EA Sports' made-in-Vancouver NHL franchise. "Since March we've all moved to work from home, seemingly overnight.

"Which presented some initial challenges, to figure out how to get the team sort of up and running and running efficiently. So that part we managed through. And then once from an execution perspective we were up and running at home and we figured out the hardware and the software considerations, the next piece for us was really how do we deliver quality?"

Ramjagsingh's concern was that much of the creative process comes from a producer or designer sitting next to an artist, engineer or animator, bouncing ideas off each other or tweaking the game "until it looks and feels correct."

He credits his team "for thinking outside the box in terms of how to figure out different ways for us to still drive strong communication and iteration, to drive and deliver the game at quality."

"It's been a very very interesting and fascinating ride."

NHL 21 was released Oct. 16, with Capitals star Alex Ovechkin its cover athlete. It was later than the normal September release, but nothing has been normal this year. The NHL season ended in late September with the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisting the Stanley Cup in the bubble.

There will be more games to come, on and off the ice. On Thursday, Electronic Arts, NHL and NHL Players Association announced a multi-year renewal to their video game partnership.

Much has happened in the world since 1991 when the first version of the NHL game was released. But this year has been unique, with video games providing both an escape from the real world and a chance to connect to sports on hiatus.

“The past eight months illustrates how EA is a critical extension to real-world sports, as fans turned to EA Sports NHL to play and watch hockey while we temporarily paused during the pandemic," Brian Jennings, the NHL's chief brand officer and senior executive vice-president, said in a statement. 

"Our shared approach for competitive gaming has enabled the league to create a touchpoint to younger fans who may experience the NHL for the first time through EA Sports NHL. Sustained connection that enhances fandom is what EA delivers and we look forward to continuing the incredible partnership.”'

Like finishing the season, just finishing the game was a challenge. But quality not delivery was the goal.

"Just getting the game out of the door would have been an accomplishment for sure" Ramjagsingh said. "But (it) would not have been our expectation of delivering the game at quality for players."

The EA game continues to deliver authenticity, albeit in a non-COVID world. There is no bubble option in the game, just real arenas with fans in the stands.

But the video game continues to reflect what's happening on the ice. A new generation of stars, growing up with YouTube and video game controllers, come equipped with an arsenal of slick tricks.

The NHL video game has added such signature moves.

"I've been working on this NHL franchise since 2008," Ramjagsingh said. "All of these kids that you're seeing playing in the NHL have pretty much grown up with our game and don't know a world without our video game. For a lot of people, our game is the first touchpoint to the sport of hockey which is really real exciting."

So gamers can try to pull off flamboyant lacrosse-move goals or the no-deke deke by Tampa's Nikita Kucherov.

EA will have to continue to adapt with a new season possibly starting in January.

"It's all sort of flux, all up in the air right now as we try to figure out how the world's going to play out over the next little bit here," Ramjagsingh said.

That includes the next-generation PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles out later this month. "NHL 21" can be played on the new consoles, although the game was not specifically designed for them. 

EA also announced Thursday a new multi-year partnership with the UFC to continue making its MMA video game.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2020

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press