After racking up 11 points in the three games of the round-robin tournament for the Memorial Cup — the Canadian Hockey League’s championship trophy — Neil Yoshi was held off the score sheet through regulation time in the championship game itself, which headed to overtime tied at 2. But he went out and got the job done, netting the Cup-clinching goal for the London Knights in the second half of the overtime period.
Six months after that triumph, Yoshi — who had performed well enough in the tournament to get drafted No. 2 overall by the Los Angeles Kings — was told by his head coach that if he didn’t pick up his play, there was a chance he wouldn’t make the team. Welcome to the pros, kid!
Such are the highs and lows of a hockey player’s career in NHL 21’s Be a Pro mode, which developer EA Vancouver has finally revamped this year. Last week, I spent a few hours with a preview build of the career mode on Xbox One, starting with the Memorial Cup and going through my rookie debut with the Kings in the regular season.
EA has introduced off-ice interactions to Be a Pro, in the form of conversations in which your choices shape your career. It’s a major overhaul to the mode, and it’s the kind of evolution that fans have been asking for. But it remains to be seen just how different the Be a Pro experience will actually be in NHL 21.
When it debuted in 2008’s NHL 09, Be a Pro was one of the first single-player career modes in sports gaming. The fundamentals of the mode — create a hockey player and improve their skills as you grow them from the amateur level up to NHL superstardom — are the same as they’ve been for a dozen years. That makes sense, of course, especially because Be a Pro is perennially one of the most popular modes in the game. But the experience had gotten stale over the past few games, with EA focusing on making refinements (like revisions to the progression system) rather than massive changes.
That’s not the case with NHL 21. This year, your choices in Be a Pro don’t come only in the form of deciding how to allocate your upgrade points. The dialogue choices in the mode exist as part of “hundreds of story beats,” said Will Ho, creative director on NHL 21 at EA Vancouver, during a press briefing last week.
To clarify, this isn’t an experience like the authored narratives in Madden or NBA 2K; it’s instead very similar to the latest iteration of MLB The Show’s Road to the Show mode. I asked Ho if EA wrote a specific story for Be a Pro that everyone will experience, and he said that no, the player’s path is not predetermined — your career depends only on the choices you make and the way you perform on the ice, so each player’s career will be unique.
“There are certain story beats that recur because they are general stories for a typical NHL season,” Ho told me, saying that your coach will check in with you for progress updates in the lead-up to the Thanksgiving break and the playoffs. “But then there’s a large number of story beats that actually depend on your particular status or your team’s particular status.”
Say that your team is in the midst of a cold streak on the power play. Your head coach might ask you to kickstart the power play by scoring a goal in the next game. This is situational — it depends on whether that condition exists in your season, so “not everyone is going to get all of those conversations,” said Ho.
That’s another element of the new dialogue choices: Many of them are tied directly to your play on the ice. EA Vancouver has integrated the conversation structure into the existing “Coach Challenge” system. Instead of just getting a pop-up window saying that your coach wants you to defend a lead, you’ll see an in-game cutscene of the coach calling you over to the bench and actually giving you that instruction. It’s a smart way to liven up a long-running element of the Be a Pro experience and make it feel more immersive. (To clarify, there isn’t any voice-over, either from your player or the person they’re talking to, in these cutscenes or conversations. The choices are just onscreen text.)
The dialogue choices — whether in conversations with your coach or teammates, or interviews with the press — tend to be split into two types aligned with the two main paths that EA Vancouver has set up for Be a Pro this year. You can go the “team” route, following your coach’s instructions to play within the system, or you can opt for the “star” path, putting your interests ahead of the team’s. Each choice sets up different objectives. The team path is usually more safe, with goals that are more easily achievable, while the star path tends to be more risky, with tougher goals that offer greater rewards.
A situation I saw a number of times while playing Be a Pro was an instruction to maintain the pressure on an opponent we were beating. The team response would be to say that I wouldn’t let up; the star response would be to say that I’d put the game away by getting another goal myself. It was pretty thrilling to promise I’d score, and actually come through!
The rewards also fit with the paths. Completing team goals will increase your likability ratings with your teammates and your team’s management, the latter of which affects how quickly you move up (or down) the lines. Completing star goals will raise your brand likability, which affects your number of social media followers and the money you rake in from endorsement deals. In addition to providing more endorsement opportunities, a higher brand likability will unlock salary perks you can buy, which can help improve your attributes on the ice.
Ho pointed out that the team and star paths aren’t mutually exclusive, and that players will make progress in their career mode regardless of their choices. For instance, said Ho, it might make sense to be a team-first player early in your career, and then choose more star-oriented responses after you’ve built up your skills a bit (and are thus better able to achieve the star goals).
The overall goal of NHL 21’s Be a Pro mode is to win the Calder Trophy, the NHL’s rookie of the year award. That’s not to say that it’s only a single-season experience; you can still log a 25-year career in the mode. But most of the storylines, such as they are, and the presentation, which includes a radio show in the mode’s menus featuring play-by-play commentator James Cybulski and analyst Ray Ferraro, are focused on your first NHL season.
“The majority of our presentation is centered on that rookie year,” said Ho. “And then after that, there is still a significant amount of content that tracks your progress through your career — how you’re doing towards career milestones, how you’re doing towards franchise records and such. But really, we spent most of our effort on making sure that rookie year was a top-notch experience. And the people who tend to play through years two through five, to 10 to 25, they are pretty self-motivated, and we keep a maintenance level of presentation for those longer-term players.”
I only had the chance to play one game at the NHL level in Neil Yoshi’s career, so I’ll have to play a lot more to see how much the choices in NHL 21’s Be a Pro mode matter in the long run. Thankfully, NHL 21 is scheduled to be released soon — Oct. 16 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.