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With NHL 19, EA leans into online play in effort to attract new players

Will gameplay improvements be enough for veterans?

NHL 19 - Wayne Gretzky celebrating EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

EA Sports’ long-running NHL series of hockey video games may not be stuck in a rut per se, but it’s still trucking through mud rather than gliding smoothly on ice. Although the franchise has recovered from its poor debut on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One back in 2014, it hasn’t regained the standing it once had with critics and fans.

This year, developer EA Vancouver is taking a different tack in its attempt to expand the series’ player base. In addition to the perennial drive to refine gameplay mechanics — which is getting a particular emphasis with a companywide technology upgrade — there’s a focus on online play.

If the idea of being shut out by a 12-year-old in an online game doesn’t sound appealing, NHL 19 is being designed specifically to be welcoming to everyone. There’s a wide variety of options, along with progression hooks beyond the thrill of playing other humans. It’s about more than being the best — it’s about doing it in style when the game launches Sept. 14 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. (P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators is on the cover of the game itself, while the Legends Edition will feature hockey great Wayne Gretzky.)

Online play may seem like an odd place for EA Vancouver to concentrate its resources, since it has an inherent barrier to entry — especially in EA Sports Hockey League, which is where the most dedicated players compete. But according to EA, there’s a lot of demand for it.

“Where we see the highest customer satisfaction, and people coming back to play over and over and over again, really is in online multiplayer,” said Will Ho, NHL 19’s creative director, in a Skype interview with Polygon last week. “We’re hearing from our fans that they want more different ways to play online.”

So EA Vancouver made it a priority to revamp NHL’s online setup with an eye on offering more variety and simplicity. NHL 19 features a new online hub, World of Chel, that contains four different modes of play. (If you’re wondering about the name, say “NHL” out loud — quickly — and listen to the last syllable.)

EASHL is the foundation of World of Chel, but the other three options are much more on the pick-up-and-play end of the spectrum. NHL Threes, the arcade-style mode that debuted in NHL 18 and proved to be a big hit with fans, is returning as a part of World of Chel; it now allows for drop-in play. Then there are two new modes rounding out the online suite: NHL Pro-Am, which is a practice mode, and NHL Ones.

NHL 19 - playing NHL Ones on outdoor rink
A game of NHL Ones just before sunset.
EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts

The idea of NHL Ones is to get people playing online quickly in a bare-bones setting, and then encouraging them to move up the competitive ladder as they get more comfortable. NHL Ones is inspired by the romantic idea of playing hockey outside — EA’s tagline for it is “from the pond to the pros” — and it plays out on outdoor rinks at a fictional winter festival at a ski resort in the Canadian Rockies.

The first thing every NHL 19 player will do when they enter World of Chel is create a character in one of 12 forward or defenseman classes. They can outfit this created player with two “traits” and one “specialization.” A specialization is a perk, like increasing the energy level for your team every time you score a goal. That one won’t necessarily be useful in this mode, though, because NHL Ones matches are three-player affairs — one versus one versus one, every person for themselves.

EA Vancouver set it up this way so that novice players “don’t have to cooperate with strangers or friends online yet,” said Ho. EASHL is a mode of up to six-on-six play, so it requires teamwork; understandably, many players aren’t ready for that. NHL Ones matches last just four minutes, and participants earn points for a currency called Hockey Bags. Players can then spend Hockey Bags to unlock casual gear with which they can customize their created character. There are more than 900 pieces of clothing and accessories to earn, ranging from typical team gear like a Vegas Golden Knights parka to more outlandish items such as plaid pajamas and an NHL ’94-branded hockey stick.

NHL 19 - P.K. Subban cover artwork
Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban is NHL 19’s cover athlete.
EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts

Because World of Chel has a unified profile and progression, you can play any of the four modes to gain XP and rewards. (An EA Sports representative told Polygon that it is only possible to earn World of Chel gear by playing the mode.) And as you improve your game, you’ll move up through four tiers of rinks, from the resort’s parking lot to right in front of the resort itself. NHL Ones offers daily competition, with the winner of the most matches in a day being declared that day’s champion. I’m skeptical of how fun it will be to grind out one-on-one-on-one matches, but hey, NHL Threes and EASHL will be available if I don’t end up enjoying NHL Ones.

Outside of World of Chel, EA Vancouver is also making some major gameplay improvements to the series in NHL 19. Chief among them is the introduction of EA Sports’ Real Player Motion (RPM) technology, which debuted last year in FIFA 18, the other annual franchise developed at EA Vancouver. In the company’s hockey series, it’s being used to overhaul the way skating looks and feels.

“Our game was very uniform,” said NHL 19 lead producer Sean Ramjagsingh of previous entries in the franchise.

For NHL 19, the team did new motion capture for skating, and Ho said that the RPM technology is “very precise” in how it blends different animations together, taking the motion capture data and finding points to seamlessly transition between moves. The effect is that this year’s game will offer smoother animations and more responsive motion. Plus, different-sized players will skate differently. A smaller guy like the Rangers’ scrappy winger Mats Zuccarello simply doesn’t move across the ice the same way the Bruins’ towering defenseman Zdeno Chara does.

NHL 19 Legends Edition - Wayne Gretzky artwork
Wayne Gretzky is on the cover of NHL 19’s Legends Edition.
EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts

More importantly, the system now feels more responsive and explosive, according to EA. “We absolutely had the look; we got the feel [too],” said Ramjagsingh.

RPM also involves a physics overhaul that will make collisions appear more realistic. Ho described players anticipating and bracing for hits, and said that thanks to improved follow-through animations, it will look like players really finish their checks. A bonus of the system is that it has also solved a long-standing problem in EA’s games: puck pickups. “We’ve basically completely addressed this issue,” said Ho.

The other main change in NHL 19 comes in the series’ Franchise mode, which EA Vancouver upgraded last year with expansion teams. This time around, the studio has focused on the mode’s scouting setup, which fans have long criticized as too simplistic.

In NHL 19, you’ll have a separate scouting budget, and will have to hire and fire scouts with an eye on their regional specializations. For instance, one may be an expert in Russia and Scandinavia but may have a mediocre awareness of players elsewhere. Scouts will return detailed reports with graded attributes and text descriptions, and there’s a fog-of-war element: Any players to whom you don’t assign a scout will be blind spots, with no hints of their abilities. And if you draft someone you haven’t scouted, you still won’t see their ratings until they play a few games somewhere in your organization.

“It’s deep enough to be a stand-alone product,” said Ho of the new scouting system.

Unfortunately, that’s the only major improvement for Franchise. And it sounds like the only change for Be a Pro, the single-player career mode, is the addition of skill trees for traits akin to what’s available in FIFA. Here’s hoping Be a Pro — my personal favorite mode — gets some love next year.

The last major addition to NHL 19 is a boatload of all-time hockey greats, thanks to a new agreement between EA and the NHL Alumni Association. More than 200 NHL legends will be playable in the game, although the publisher is only talking about Gretzky right now. They’ll be available in exhibition games, as well as in three online modes: Pro-Am, Threes and Hockey Ultimate Team. Asked about how game-breaking the legends might be, Ho told Polygon that the developers didn’t want them to be overpowered, saying, “They are hockey gods, but they’re not gods.”

I haven’t yet had the chance to play NHL 19, so it will be a while before I can say for myself how much of a difference the new skating engine makes. I asked EA about whether there will be another EASHL beta this year, but the company declined comment at this point. As with the rest of the game, we’ll have to wait and see if it all comes together.