EA Sports Hockey League is one of many items returning to NHL 16 after a one-year absence from the series. Following the disappointing NHL 15, developer EA Canada is trying to right the ship under a new order: listen to the community.
That effort kicks into high gear next week, when the studio will launch a beta for EA Sports Hockey League, publisher Electronic Arts announced today. It's a public beta, but with limited access: The beta will be available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One to NHL 15 owners. (If you bought NHL 15 on PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 and have upgraded to one of the current-generation consoles, you will "have a chance to access the beta through a limited distribution of beta access codes," according to EA.)
NHL 15 owners will be able to download the beta through the game's main menu starting July 30. EA Canada will run the beta for one week, until Aug. 6.
The new EA Sports Hockey League, built with fan input
The beta is part of EA Canada's new approach to its NHL series, a strategy implemented after the harsh response from critics and fans to NHL 15. In its initial reveal of NHL 16's feature set in May, the studio promised it would be more forthright with its fans and would listen to their feedback more closely.
"It was an opportunity for us to reset the EA Sports Hockey League with NHL 16 and ensure that we're delivering an experience that our fans wanted," said NHL 16 producer Sean Ramjagsingh of the mode's absence from NHL 15, speaking during a conference call with members of the media this week.
EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL), which debuted in 2008's NHL 09, is an online league in which people create a character and team up with others for games in which all 12 players on the ice are controlled by humans. Players join clubs and attempt to rise up through the league's ranks by defeating other teams. It's a mode in which teamwork is essential to success.
The EASHL that appears in NHL 16 differs from its previous incarnations in a few key aspects, with the most notable change being the elimination of player progression. This could prove to be a controversial shift for a mode that has always been built around improving your created player's attributes, but it's what the fans want, according to EA Canada.
Progression in the old EASHL worked like this: You could play dozens of online or offline games to unlock boosts that would raise your player's attributes, or you could bypass some of the grind by buying boosts with microtransactions. So people had to invest either a lot of time or a little money in order to make their EASHL player better.
In EA Canada's conversations with longtime EASHL fans, Ramjagsingh said the players "told us they want to see an even playing field [...] and they don't want an attribute system where you can grow your character." That way, your EASHL player's potential for success depends only on your skill at the controls and your teamwork.
"It was all about balance and ensuring that somebody who may have more time on their console, say, to put in hundreds of games versus 10, 20, 30 games a week, that there wasn't a big divide from that alone," said Ben Ross, associate producer on NHL 16. "We wanted to make sure that when those friends jumped in, they didn't feel like a detriment to their team just because they couldn't log the amount of hours to get their attributes up and that kind of thing."
Player differentiation in NHL 16's EASHL will instead come from the class system. Here, you'll pick from a list similar to the one for the offline Be A Pro mode: sniper, playmaker, two-way forward, offensive defenseman and so on. The classes are also associated with locked body types to prevent people from unbalancing the game by creating, say, a sniper the size of the 6-foot-9, 255-pound Zdeno Chara. Along those lines, speed and acceleration are set at the same levels for everybody.
The idea is to give EASHL clubs some tough decisions on how to set up their squads. Snipers will have high shooting abilities, of course, but will be weak on defense. A team with three snipers up front, for example, will have to rely on those players to outscore opponents. You'd usually put a playmaker at center, but two-way forwards will win more faceoffs.
"We believe that it'll create a much more dynamic team-based play"
"We believe that it'll create a much more dynamic team-based play, where people are really thinking about who they're putting on the ice, as opposed to trying to find that one perfect build where everybody ends up kind of playing the same way," said Ross.
People will play differently in NHL 16's EASHL, and they'll look different, too. The game offers robust customization options for both Be A Pro and EASHL, allowing players to alter uniform details as minute as the ear guards on their helmet and the color of their skate chassis. Customization isn't available for team-specific elements like arenas and jerseys; you'll have to choose a sweater from one of the vast array of real-life teams in NHL 16.
The league structure in EASHL this year is very similar to the Online Seasons setup in NHL 14, with teams ranked in 10 divisions from Amateur to Elite. The mode also tracks individual and team statistics over time. But without player progression, those are the only incentives to keep playing EASHL: improving your club's standing — where becoming a divisional champion will net you a banner to hang up in your arena — and racking up numbers.
When I pressed the developers on this point, Ramjagsingh told me their research found that EASHL fans cared less about improving their player's attributes than they did about playing with friends against other people.
"The people that said that EA Sports Hockey League was their mode of choice, it was really about two things: It was about the competition that you get from playing in the online team play space [...] and also just the social aspect of it as well," he said.
Ross touched on a more salient point: The presence of player progression created a system where EASHL was less fun to play during much of the life of an NHL game. Everyone started out at the same level, but then there was a long period during which there was a great disparity between players' in-game attributes, because some people had unlocked (or bought) boosts while others hadn't.
"the game, even within the progression system, was at its best when everybody was equal"
"Two statements that we heard often was that our game was the best at launch, and then there was kind of the elitist mentality within the community that the game was best when everybody had their Legend 3 cards," said Ross, referring to the state of reaching the attribute cap. "Which really meant that the game, even within the progression system, was at its best when everybody was equal — either at day one, when everybody was a 65 overall, or day 300, when everybody was, like, an 85 overall.
"So it wasn't as much about the progression on the route there as it was about everybody eventually getting to that spot where they were all even again," Ross explained.
That's why EA Canada is eliminating player progression for EASHL this year, attempting to maintain an even playing field for the life of NHL 16. It's a risky step, and the beta will be a good way for the studio to get some feedback from players. But the final verdict will come, as always, when NHL 16 launches Sept. 15 on PS4 and Xbox One.