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NHL 19 - Alexander Ovechkin hoisting the Stanley Cup

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NHL 19’s online overhaul is a surprising triumph

The best-playing hockey game in years

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.

It’s been a while since a sports video game genuinely surprised me in a positive way, but EA Sports managed to do it with NHL 19.

As someone who almost never plays sports games online — because I get tired of how often I lose — I was very skeptical of the focus that developer EA Vancouver put on online play this year. The studio dedicated a lot of resources to overhauling the series’ online suite for NHL 19, so I went into the game intending to give the new modes a fair shake while figuring I’d dedicate the bulk of my time to exploring the offline modes and this year’s promising gameplay updates.

Instead, during more than a week playing NHL 19, I’ve spent the vast majority of my hours in World of Chel, the new online hub. In some capacity, World of Chel is simply a smart way for EA to reuse existing elements of the NHL series in a much more enticing package. EA also elevated the new online component by combining on-ice improvements with an emphasis on lighthearted, romanticized ideas of hockey fandom. It’s not an unqualified success, although most of my complaints have to do with the fundamental nature of an online experience. But I did not expect to get so deeply invested in NHL 19’s online modes.

NHL 19 - an EA Sports Hockey League team celebrating a goal EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts

EA’s NHL franchise has a long history of offering innovative online features, dating back a decade to NHL 09’s introduction of the EA Sports Hockey League, which allowed for players to join a virtual club and partake in ranked six-on-six play. This year, EASHL is one of the four modes in World of Chel, along with the returning three-on-three arcade mode NHL Threes and two new offerings: a free-for-all solo mode called NHL Ones and an offline practice setup named NHL Pro-Am.

In World of Chel, all four modes are linked by a single progression and unlock system. (If you’re wondering about the name, say “NHL” out loud — quickly — and listen to the last syllable.) That unified profile is the key to World of Chel’s allure. With every game you play in any of the four modes, you earn experience points. Each time you rank up (and in certain other cases), you’re rewarded with a “Hockey Bag.” This is essentially a loot crate containing an assortment of personalization options for your created character, such as clothes, accessories, goal celebrations, equipment and even sound effects with which you can craft your own goal horns. Hockey Bag items are all cosmetic, but leveling up also gives you perks that let you modify your player’s attributes. There’s plenty of stuff to play for, and you’re always making some progress — including in Pro-Am, which lets you level up without having to play other humans.

There are absolutely no microtransactions in World of Chel, which, these days, is a pleasant surprise and a cause for celebration. Unlike with loot boxes in, say, Overwatch, which can both be earned through play and purchased with real money, the only way to get Hockey Bags is to play World of Chel. Since there’s no in-game currency, you can’t choose to unlock what you want. Sure, I’m slightly annoyed that I have yet to receive a single piece of New York Rangers-themed gear even though I’ve reached level 20. But that seems a fair trade-off to avoid microtransactions, especially because there are plenty of other good-looking customization items that I’ve unlocked.

NHL 19 - players on The Lot in World of Chel’s NHL Ones mode
The guy in the flamboyant teal/pink/purple jacket? Yeah, that’s me.
EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts via Polygon

The accessories and clothes in World of Chel are split between “casual” and “pro” versions of your created player, with choices for both skaters and goalies. Pros have the usual set of options for real-life hockey equipment available in Be a Pro, whereas the casual player dresses down — donning jeans, hoodies, knit caps, parkas and more — for World of Chel’s big new thing: outdoor hockey.

The frigid setting is easily my favorite thing about World of Chel. So much of hockey mythmaking begins with childhood tales of waiting for the local pond to freeze over so you could skate around until your ears turned red, and that shared origin story comes to life here. It’s a fun way for EA Vancouver to touch on the NHL’s outdoor hockey initiative, especially since the studio still hasn’t brought back the Winter Classic from the previous generation of consoles.

All games in World of Chel play out on rinks at a fictional ski resort, with festival trappings that evoke the Forza Horizon series. I do wish NHL 19 had more than one outdoor backdrop, but the game renders this wintry environment beautifully, with snow-covered trees, mountains and buildings framing the rinks. Plus, it feels like there’s more than one setting in NHL Ones because it spans four different rinks, which increase in stature along with the level of competition.

NHL 19 - wide shot of The Ring and the resort behind it in World of Chel’s NHL Ones mode
It really does feel special to make it to the Diamond tier in NHL Ones, where you play under the lights at the Ring for a championship trophy.
EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts via Polygon

NHL Ones is the simplest World of Chel mode, yet perhaps the most challenging. Three players vie to outscore their opponents in a three-minute match on a half rink. You begin in the lowest of four tiers of competition; with each win, you move up one level, but you get demoted if you lose two straight games. The mode offers a daily championship, crowning the player with the most wins at the top tier every 24 hours.

Alas, I will never be one of those champions. NHL Ones is my white whale: I have reached the Diamond level a bunch of times, but have never come away with a victory. It would be fine if I had lost every Ones game fair and square, but I’ve run into enough network issues and internet jerks to consider stepping away from the mode.

On multiple occasions, I’ve seen the third player fail to load into a game. A 1v1v1 experience becomes way less competitive when it’s cut down to one on one — once your opponent gets past you, all you can do is hope that they screw up their free shot on the goalie. I really wish Ones didn’t force me to watch the game-winning goal, let alone the trophy presentation when I lose a Diamond game. And I’m tired of lumbering oafs who simply knock everyone down with big hits. But of course, c’est la vie in online gaming.

NHL 19 - Brent Burns checks Mikko Rantanen EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts

At the same time, the action on the ice in NHL 19 keeps pulling me back. EA Vancouver revamped the technology that governs the way players move in the game, with a focus on physics and animation for both skating and collisions. The new system pays major dividends in both areas. I had a ton of fun laying massive checks on opposing players, watching them crumple as I pasted them into the boards. This is even more pronounced in World of Chel, where all of the modes (except EASHL) feature a faster-paced style of hockey that falls somewhere between arcade and simulation.

What’s maybe more notable is the engine’s success in simulating incidental contact. It’s thrilling to watch plays like an undersized defenseman nudging a brawny attacker off the puck, or a forward bumping a goal post as he tries to go behind the net. The overhauled skating also feels terrific, with a palpable gap between slow and fast players, and visible differentiation in how they accelerate and turn. The changes haven’t solved all the issues — I still have trouble sometimes with picking up the puck near the boards and the net — but NHL 19 easily feels much better than its predecessors, delivering more significant gameplay improvements within a single year than EA has managed in ages.

These are the kinds of upgrades you expect if you follow an annualized sports franchise. Yet I feel more impressed at the fact that EA Vancouver was able to build an online suite for NHL 19 that didn’t just draw me in with the shiny trinket of outdoor play, but kept me going despite the frustrations that are sometimes inherent to online gaming. World of Chel seems like a firm foundation for a new way to play sports games online, which, of course, is something the developers of the NHL series have some experience with.

NHL 19 was reviewed using a final “retail” Xbox One download code provided by Electronic Arts. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.