It’s not always the case that an annualized sports video game’s cover athletes signal what’s new and improved this year. But it’s true for NHL 23 and its two cover stars, Trevor Zegras of the Anaheim Ducks and Sarah Nurse of the Canadian women’s national team — each one tells you something about the areas of focus for EA Vancouver this time around.
“Trevor and Sarah are really inspiring a more accessible, inclusive future of the sport,” said Sean Ramjagsingh, vice president and general manager for NHL, UFC, and baseball at EA Sports, during a presentation to the media earlier this month. He added that the game’s developers are “taking inspiration from players like Trevor that are pushing the limits.”
Any sports fan who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past year has likely seen some of Zegras’ highlight-reel plays. In December, while standing behind the net facing down all five opposing skaters, he flipped the puck over the goalie to his lone teammate in the area, Sonny Milano, who whacked the puck out of the air past the stunned netminder. That flip pass? It’s in NHL 23, along with one of Zegras’ other favorite moves, the lacrosse-style goal known as “The Michigan,” which EA added two years ago in NHL 21.
One of the main new gameplay features this year is intended to help NHL 23 players make Zegras-esque plays. The developers are calling it Last Chance Puck Movement, a term for more than 500 new animations for puck carriers who are stumbling but can still try to make a move. They’re meant to address a longtime frustration: getting stuck in a jostle animation that momentarily robs you of the ability to control your player. The fan community refers to this issue as “stun lock,” borrowing a term from action and fighting games.
“We’re giving actually a few frames back in responsiveness and control for the player to decide on, OK, I’m bumped now. I still have possession of the puck; what do I want to do?” said Clement Kwong, lead producer on NHL 23, in a Zoom interview with Polygon. “So I think in that extra... call it extra second, it changes the way the game flows and plays completely.”
If you can make a big play with the puck, you’ll hear it from the fans in the arena. Last year’s transition to EA’s Frostbite engine allowed the developers to make some major upgrades to the game’s graphics and visual presentation, and they’re ramping up the audio side in NHL 23 with much-needed improvements to crowd atmosphere. The in-game crowd now responds in real time to the action on the ice in much the same ways that fans do in real life. And it’s not just for key goals or big hits; the fans will get amped up as you maintain pressure on the power play or penalty kill, and will convey an excited sense of holding-their-breath anticipation during odd-man rushes and breakaways. They’ll count down out loud with the last 10 seconds of a big home-ice win.
Other exciting upgrades are coming off the ice in the franchise mode, which will allow players to customize the NHL as they see fit. Leagues in the mode can have anywhere from six to 48 teams, and you’ll also have control over the conferences, divisions, salary cap, schedule of opponents, season format, playoff format, and season length — the latter of which can be as short as five games.
Franchise is a solo mode, of course, but EA Vancouver will be putting a major focus on social play with a patch that’s currently scheduled for November, the month after NHL 23 launches: The online modes World of Chel (including EA Sports Hockey League) and Hockey Ultimate Team will offer cross-platform matchmaking, fulfilling a long-running community request. By widening the player pool, this feature will have the side benefit of reducing matchmaking wait times, which got multiple minutes long in NHL 22.
There are a number of caveats and limitations to be aware of; as the developers explained it, they need to establish a solid foundation before they can build on top of it in the future. For now, online play will be available across platforms but not generations — for instance, people on PlayStation 5 won’t be able to game with friends on PlayStation 4. And cross-platform matchmaking will work only for competitive play, not cooperative play. So a full six-person EASHL squad on Xbox Series X could go head to head with a team of six PS5 players; teammates must all be playing on the same platform.
As for a feature like full cross-platform play with mixed-platform parties, Kwong couldn’t make any promises that it’ll be in NHL 24 next year, but said, “One of our top priorities is starting to address that gap.”
Cross-platform matchmaking isn’t the only new feature coming to HUT. With Nurse being the first woman to appear on the cover of EA’s NHL franchise, the publisher is bringing women’s hockey to the fore through the HUT mode: Expanding upon the debut of national teams for both men and women in a midseason patch for NHL 22, EA Vancouver is fully integrating women into HUT, allowing NHL 23 players to build mixed-gender rosters.
Women are thus “part of the HUT experience from the get-go,” said Mike Inglehart, creative director of NHL 23, during the presentation. And EA will continue to put a “heavy focus on raising the profile of the women’s game” in live updates to HUT throughout the season, Kwong told Polygon, such as by including women alongside men in Team of the Season and Team of the Year content.
NHL 23 is set to be released Oct. 14 on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.