More than a game

The latest iteration of the NHL series got an assist from the community it helped create

EA Sports

For me, it all began with Terry Yake.

I was in eighth grade when NHL ’94 – the iconic title in Electronic Arts’ long-running series, considered one of the greatest video games of all time – hit the shelves.

Not long after that, I got a haircut.

(Stay with me here.)

During the cut, my barber told me he was a relative of veteran NHLer Terry Yake.

Generally, an appropriate reply would be, “Who’s Terry Yake?” Or, “What’s a Terry Yake?”

Then there’s me.

“Whoa, really? He plays for the Whalers in NHL’ 94. He’s OK in real life but in NHL he’s awesome, ‘cause the Whalers have Pat Verbeek and Geoff Sanderson, and they’re good, but Andrew Cassels also starts and he’s just sorta whatever. So what you gotta do is take out Cassels and put in Terry Yake. His overall rating is 66 and I think Cassels is only 65, but it must be a glitch or something because Yake is a way better passer. It’s for sure the best move. Put in Terry Yake and you’re scoring one-timers all day. ”

To be clear, this was no hyperbole. Regular life Terry Yake was a run-of-the-mill journeyman who played for five teams before finishing his career in Europe.

Video game Terry Yake ruled.

He and I led the Whalers to wins they had no business winning. He was a good skater and could score some goals, but the passing! Oh, the passes. He set the table like a pixelated maître-d.

So I rambled on and on and on about the strategic brilliance of Yake-for-Cassels for another five minutes, to which my barber said nothing, then: “Um… you want a fade at the back, or straight line?”

We did not talk about video games for the rest of the haircut. Or Terry Yake.

In fact, I didn’t engage in any conversation, period, until I skulked out of the chair and toward the barbershop door, when a kid around my age walked up to me.

“Dude, I heard that,” he said. “So awesome. I do it too! Terry Yake is money.”

* * *

Twenty-two years since Terry Yake captured the imagination of bowl-cutted Canadian teenagers, Electronic Arts has released NHL ’16, its latest installment of the wildly popular series. Hitting shelves this week, it’s the 25th title released under the NHL umbrella.

And with it, EA has some pretty high stakes.

Last year’s version was a pothole in an otherwise smooth road; after years of cranking out successful releases, NHL ‘15 was largely panned as users were dismayed with what they saw as a stripped-down, lackluster product.

And the reviews were harsh.

For years, these games were praised as some of the most innovative and enjoyable on the market. The series also had a strong tradition of excellence; in ESPN’s recent ranking of the greatest sports video games, NHL ’94 finished second all-time.

So imagine the reaction when the following came out.

From IGN: “On a big-picture level, NHL 15 foregoes and forgets much of the minutia that hardcore hockey fans really care about. For as solidly as it plays, some of the series’ most important hooks – some of which inspired me to cheer it on in past years – have completely disappeared. On the ice, NHL 15 shines. But everything around it feels a tad bit empty.”

From Gamespot: “EA Sports has ripped the heart out of its long-time arcade hockey game, taking what was supposed to be a brave first step for the franchise on the new-generation PS4 and Xbox One and turning it into a pratfall.”

Fan responses were similar, if not more emotional.

They were choked. Many players literally grew up with the NHL series, sitting for hours on Dorito-dusted couches in dank basements and dorm rooms, recoiling at the prospect of facing natural light or, God forbid, actually going outside.

Later, it became clear other people were doing this too – and occasionally, those people were famous. After Vince Vaughn made Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed in “Swingers” and Jason Lee took the Whalers – the Whale! — to a historic victory in “Mallrats” (breaking up with Shannen Doherty in the process), it wasn’t long before playing NHL carried a certain cachet, something that went beyond video games.

Like me and that kid from the barber shop, talking about Terry Yake. Unbeknownst to us at the time, but we were part of a fledgling community.

One of the key architects of the NHL series, producer Sean Ramjagsingh, was part of it too.

“You’re describing me,” he explained, just weeks prior to the release of NHL ‘16. “When I was coming through university with my roommate, we were playing NHL ’94 and that’s what we literally did to decide who would clean the apartment, scrub the toilets and wash the shower.

“I’m still a fan at heart, so for me, there’s massive pressure involved, knowing how passionate our fans are. Being so active on social media, and being able to interact with them, that’s incredible – but it raises the bar around the expectations that we need to deliver on every single year.”

One of the game’s designers, Ben Ross, echoed those sentiments.

“There’s a big weight on your shoulders,” he explained. “People have been along with us on this ride since it first made its way into Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, so you need to think about what made this game successful in the beginning.

“You are responsible for this franchise on the whole.”

* * *

So this year, how did EA respond to pressure?

It turned to the community.

For NHL ’16, the company took a bold step by enlisting the services of “The Gamechangers,” a group of enthusiasts chosen primarily by the NHL community – representatives, if you will – to interact with producers and the development team. The Gamechagers, all 12 of ‘em, provided feedback on the highest to lowest levels of game detail; EA even created a 24/7 Skype chat so it could receive suggestions in real time.

“They were the tool that we used to sift through all the feedback we were getting, and bounce ideas off of, and this was the first year we’ve worked that closely with a group,” Ramjagsingh said. “It’s been an eye-opening and incredible journey.

“For us, this year was about: ‘How can we continue to work with our fans, to make [the game] even bigger and better?'”

One way was enhancing the popular Be a Pro mode, a feature that essentially allows gamers to become real hockey players. You start out in junior, try get drafted and, if you do, work your way onto an NHL club.

This player progression scheme is remarkably intricate. Your attributes rise and fall based on how you play the game – if you turn the puck over too often, your puck control rating is likely to drop – which adds a personal touch unlike any of the previous versions.

“I love the Be a Pro progression,” said EA Sports general manager Dean Richards. “It’s probably one of the most authentic experiences within our historical franchises, where what you actually do on the ice shapes who you are.

“I’ve actually just currently started a career playing goalie – it’s tons of fun. I lost the championship game in the Memorial Cup, wasn’t happy about that, but I got drafted by Pittsburgh, so I get to play with some key players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. So that’s pretty cool. I’m currently backing up Marc-Andre Fleury.”

Enhancing the Be a Pro mode was a nod to the users, who expressed disappointment with last year’s stripped-down version.

Sensing a theme here?

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Once again, EA listened to its community. And the company’s reliance on that feedback, especially from a group like the Gamechangers, further illustrates the social impact of this series. Yes, there are some hardcore gamers – and there’s a tendency to view the NHL community and others of the like as solely comprised of hardcore gamers — but in the case of this franchise and EA’s football sibling, the incredibly successful Madden NFL series, the community cuts across a much wider swath.

It also has staying power.

NHL ’94 might be more than two decades years old, but it’s still popular – there’s a thriving online league, live tournaments held regularly across North America and a documentary (yes, a documentary) in the works. A few years back, the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers went viral when they celebrated a victory by mimicking the movements of the game’s avatars.

“Those early days – NHL ’93 and ’94 — were the first true representation of what people thought hockey was like, or what it was like to be on the ice,” Ramjagsingh explained. “If you go back and play NHL ’94, the guys are sliding all over the place and it’s fast paced, and there’s lots of hitting. That was people’s first real virtual representation of what hockey could be in a video game. And that’s why people have such great memories of it.

“It takes you back to your university days, your dorm room, or playing on the couch with your best buddies and playing for hours and hours.  The game had a level of control where you felt like you were playing hockey, and that you could do what you wanted to do, when you wanted to do it. There was a level of skill to what you were doing. And I think that’s why those games remain so relevant, even today.”

* * *

“It’s the No. 1 comment that is made to me over the course of every day, whether it’s over Twitter or meeting on the street. Whatever the case may be, I would say one out of three people I meet mention ’94 Sega.

“They say one of three things: One, ‘You couldn’t beat the Chicago Blackhawks [in the game] because of Jeremy Roenick.’ No. 2, ‘I got through college playing Jeremy Roenick in ’94 Sega.’ The third is it was a rule that you couldn’t be the Chicago Blackhawks in the game, because they were that unstoppable.

“That still happens almost daily.”

Jeremy Roenick, to NHL.com

If there’s one thing the EA staff is cognizant of, it’s that they’re not just making a video game.

The NHL series has, for many people, been an entry point into hockey. That can yield some pretty wild results, like in the case of Roenick — a nine-time NHL All-Star, U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer and 500-goal scorer… who readily admits a good chunk of his legacy was forged by a 16-bit version of himself.

Strange, but also a source of pride for EA.

“When we work with the NHL, that’s part of the fun conversation,” Ross explained. “We can be another avenue of entry into knowing about the sport.

“People get really excited about the launch of these products because, in some ways, it’s just as much a part of the sport as the real world sport itself. People are waiting for the launch like they’re waiting for the start of NHL training camp.”

Ross, who grew up in a hockey-crazed Vancouver market, acknowledged that, as a kid, he started to recognize hockey players based on their video game likenesses, those “pixelated, black-and-white images that rolled through when it would tell me who had hot and cold streaks in NHL ’94.“

The Electronic Arts folk have plenty of those anecdotes.

“People come up to me all the time and say, ‘I didn’t know anything about hockey until I played your game,’ or ‘I’ve learned hockey through your game,’” Ramjagsingh explained. “We’re creating players that are into the sport because of our game, and to me, that’s a huge testament to the work the guys do here.

“It feels like our little part in trying to grow the sport itself, and expose it to as many people as possible.”

* * *

Not long after talking to the EA guys and researching NHL ’94, something popped into my head:

I wonder what Terry Yake is up to now?

Thanks to the magical power of the Google, I quickly found out. Terry Yake is on Twitter (@tyake27), and doing what most retired hockey players do – playing golf, the odd radio and TV hit, playing more golf.

But Yake didn’t hang his skates up entirely.

In April he won the Allan Cup, awarded annually to the national senior amateur men’s champions of Canada. Yake, who is now 46 years old, scored three points in five games and, in the championship game, set up the insurance marker.

That last bit made me smile.

Terry Yake’s still got it.