NHL 09 Q&A: EA Sports Hockey League Revealed

We chat with EA Sports' David Littman about the future of online hockey in NHL 09.

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Over the past couple of years, EA Sports has made no bones about upping its online game. In addition to introducing online team play in last year's NHL 08 and NBA Live 08 (in the latter case via a patch), the developer is branching out even further with efforts like the EA Sports World Web site (which looks to tie together EA Sports games with social networking). You can expect that trend to increase, and the next place you'll see it happen is in the upcoming NHL 09. In May, during EA's spring press event in Vancouver, developers for the annual hockey series promised a new online feature in NHL 09, one they were keeping under wraps until just the right time. Consider now the right time, as EA has finally lifted the curtain on the EA Sports Hockey League. In this exclusive chat with NHL 09 producer David Littman, we've got the first details on the EASHL.

GameSpot: Tell us about the development of the EA Sports Hockey League in NHL 09. What was the goal with the EASHL feature, and what was the toughest challenge you ran into when developing this feature?

David Littman: When we came up with this idea, it was directly related to the fact that everybody on our team at one point or another wanted to be a professional hockey player. Some did play high-level hockey, but others, who are big hockey fans, wanted to get that experience as well. So we took our online team play experience from last year and discussed taking the next logical step--a full six-on-six [game] but with an environment where everybody is a unique player in the world.

Anyone can be a hockey pro in NHL 09, even scrubs with absolutely zero skill.

More to the point, we want to make the people sitting at home into superstars. Instead of wearing someone else's name on the back of your jersey when playing online, it is your name on the back. Your team is trying to win the EASHL Championship and you will feel the pressure to perform for your teammates. With our performance tracker feature, you are graded on how well you play hockey, not on how well you play a video game. The leaderboards show the real names of people instead of their gamertags. This is the first step for people to become the next sports superstars. In a few years, we want there to be SportsCenter-style highlights and interviews with our gamers.

The EA Sports Hockey League is an extension of both our new six-on-six online team play and our Be a Pro mode that we created this year. With the online team play portion of our game going to six-on-six this year, we really wanted to focus on the idea that it's you that is trying to be the star. To accomplish this we took what we did with the offline Be a Pro mode, where you are trying to become an NHL legend, and decided to bring that created user online so the users can have the opportunity to be the best of the best in the EA Sports Hockey League. As I mentioned earlier, we feel it is a natural and important evolution of online team play.

Each club in the EA Sports Hockey League can have up to 50 members, but all games can have two to six players per club playing in a game. Everything a club or player does will be tracked and listed on the EA Sports Hockey League leaderboards as well as your individual performance tracker screen in your game.

The toughest challenge was the technical requirements to make the six-on-six experience a good one for the user. We want it to be a fun and immersive experience for everyone playing.

GS: How will prospective EASHL players meet and join teams online?

DL: Users will have the ability to create clubs that can have up to 50 players. A team must recruit players to their teams. This will be done through three ways: Friends is obviously the easiest way, as you can call up or message a buddy to invite them to play on your team. Another way is the ability to view the EA Sports Hockey League leaderboards and see player statistics and grades and then invite players who you feel would be a good fit for your team. You can invite anybody on the list, though some players could already be on teams. The final way is to talk to people online through our lobbies and recruit players to your team.

GS: Will you be able to create EASHL leagues? How will they work? How many teams will be able to participate in an EASHL league?

DL: The feature will have one league, the EA Sports Hockey League. All teams created are part of this league. The league runs off of the ranked ladder system where the best teams will be on top, but the ladder has been separated into divisions so you can see teams that are close to your team's skill level. You can go up and down divisions based on your team's performance. Getting into the first division is a big accomplishment for a club. In terms of points, you earn more by playing with more players in a game and by beating better opponents as opposed to beating low-ranked clubs with only two users from your club participating.

The EA Sports Hockey League will track the best players and teams in the world.

GS: Will there be a free-agency pool that already-formed teams can recruit from? Will you be able to see stats from a free agent's previous games? Will free agents age or improve their attributes as they play?

DL: The free-agent pool is anybody that is not assigned to a team. These players can play ranked online team play matches with their created Be a Pro characters to accumulate statistics and grades so you can see how good they are in the EA Sports leaderboards. Players not on teams can still improve the same way as the players on a club by playing games and performing well. They will earn online hockey cards giving them points to purchase attributes for their characters.

GS: Will there be an integrated storyline in the EASHL game mode?

DL: The story we want to tell our users is that each player in the EA Sports Hockey League is striving to be the best at what they want to do, whether that means being the best goalie in the world or the best playmaker. The leaderboards aren't about how many wins and losses you have as an individual using the teams off the disc, but it's about the character that you have brought online and how good you are as an individual player in helping your club win. You are trying to become an EA Sports Hockey League legend.

Keep track of your performance as you go through your career.

Your team is also trying to win the first-ever EASHL Cup. We will have a real cup that the winning team will get to keep and prizes for the winning team and EASHL all-stars.

GS: Will you be able to play multiple seasons?

DL: There are no seasons in the EA Sports Hockey League. It is built through a leaderboard system and will have teams move up and down the rankings similar to versus gameplay online.

GS: How will teams that dissolve midseason be handled?

DL: Since there are no seasons, teams that have stopped participating for a period of time will be removed from the club rankings and removed from the server. The players on those teams will then become free agents again.

GS: Will there be a commissioner like in NCAA Football's online dynasty?

DL: EA Sports is the commissioner of the league. This league is officially sanctioned by EA, and they will be the governing body of it.

GS: How will your created player progress over time? Will his stats improve, then gradually decrease as he ages?

DL: When you first create your player, you will choose a player or goalie type. Based on this player type each player will start with a character template, which is their attribute set when going online.

There are 10 player types, each with their own template for attributes.

Forwards: dangler, grinder, playmaker, power forward, sniper
Defensemen: defensive defenseman, offensive defenseman
Goalie: stand up, hybrid, butterfly

As in our Be a Pro mode, we will have hockey cards, which a player can earn online. These cards give you points to spend on your player's growth in three areas: offense, defense, and athleticism for players and reflexes, puck control, and athleticism for goalies.

Similar to other massively multiplayer games, there will be no aging when a player earns the cards and distributes the points to his character. As you level up you will maintain those points for the rest of your online career. If a player should choose to change his player type, then the points that he has earned will be given back to the user to redistribute among the ratings.

GS: Will you be allowed to switch positions midway through your career?

DL: When creating your Be a Pro character, you will choose what your preferred position is; this will allow club GMs to know this information, but, when going into the dressing room to play, there will be times where you can't play your preferred position because someone else chose to be that position that game. Anybody can play any position, similar to playing recreation league hockey--you sometimes have to fill in at a position that you aren't used to. Versatility will be key in becoming a legend online.

Take to the ice with your teammates, but don't let them down. They'll let you know it.

GS: How will players communicate in-game? Is it just via voice chat, or are there some other graphical cues to help you discern what's going on, such as when a teammate is calling for the puck?

DL: Players can communicate in many ways within a club. There are club blogs, which lets players know the coming and goings of players, as well as a private message board for the team.

On the ice there will be full voice chat. The user is given guidance on where to be on the ice, but the decision making with the puck is up to each user, and there will not be graphical cues for users to know which teammates are calling for the puck. We didn't want to clutter the screen with a bunch of visual cues, as a user could have four different cues for calling for a pass. After playing a few games, people start to figure out quickly that dancing through a whole team is not an easy task, so teamwork becomes key.

GS: Thanks for your time, David.

Stay tuned for more on NHL 09, including an interview with Littman on GameSpot's weekly sports gaming podcast, From the Bleachers, airing this Wednesday, July 23.

Discussion

77 comments
_Treize_
_Treize_

looks awesome, one question tho, wat do u do durin line changes

hybrid3214
hybrid3214

O.K. so we did get a demo and now that i have calmed down i will tell you about the demo. So i have played over 100 games in the demo (its only 1 period). the majority of them in the be a pro mode, first thing is that you can only be zetterberg or crosby in the be a pro mode which kind of sucks but i guess they dont want to give u to much in the demo. The game itself is absolutely amazing, it is so realistic its incredible. The speed has been toned down from last year so it is a lot more realistic, no more 100mph wrist shots or 60mph skating etc. vast improvement. The next thing that has been vast improved is the puck physicsm last year the puck could be flipped way up and land on the ice flat without bouncing lol. This year the puck bounces very realisticly, perhaps a touch more bouncy than in real life but nonetheless much better than last year. Another thing that has been vast improved is the A.I. wow, last years game i could beat the computer on superstar (hardest) by 6 goals almost every time. This year i played on all star(second hardest) and it was an extremely close game but i won it in a shootout. After practicing awhile i win most of the time against the computer now but it is still a hard fought battle and i occasionally still lose. I think it will be very hard to win on superstar difficulty this year. In keeping with the theme the goalies have been toned down as well, last year they saved slapshots that you couldnt even see with relative ease now because the shots r slower the goalies are worse but there are still way less goals than last year, much more realistic scores. stick lifts are excellent not to easy and you can get penalties relatively easily. poke check is vastly improved and is a lot better, defensive skill stick is ok but i dont use it much, i think it will be important in be a pro when you are a defenseman. the protect the puck button also works quite well and it good when going around the net while wanting to shield the puck. Hitting has been improved as well it is harder to hit this year no more auto hits like last year. The pace of the game is a tad slower than last year but that was much needed. shooters arent as superhumanly accurate as they were in 08 A LOT of shots miss the net especially if shooting after a deke or a one timer, hey just like in real hockey. Overall they have vastly improved the game and taken out almost all the bad things. A few bugs in the demo but those will be out by retail release.

hybrid3214
hybrid3214

oh look a demo came out for ps3 today...... oh wait..... nvm EA are retards so we didnt get it.... its too bad M$ had to pay EA not to release the demo or we might of had it. Its also very sad that EA accepted the money to delay the demo for ps3. Well life goes on at least we get it next week...... maybe.... i hope..... probly not oh well at least the game comes out soon. EA should take 5$ off the cost for false advertising about their demo and because of the money M$ gave them oh well. life goes on.

break5
break5

see you all online, this is a first hour purchase.

TheReview
TheReview

This looks pretty cool. I cant wait for it to come out! :)

Swedish_Chef
Swedish_Chef

Last year was the first time that I swore off sports games because they're simply not worth their money year to year, but finally they've added a mode that is unique and worth buying the game for.

Uhero41
Uhero41

This makes me actually want to purchase a hockey or even a sports game now! Awesome idea EA!

lebanese_boy
lebanese_boy

Sounds nice, I can't wait to get that game.

sirbargearse
sirbargearse

I got to admit that after buying EVERY update since Mega Drive's (Genesis) very first EA Hockey game way back in 1991 that I actually DID NOT purchase NHL 08. Why? Just saw the demo and figured EA didn't do enough. I've played it. Yeah they did up the AI alot. Quite alot. But it just felt like a NHL 07 patch. So unless 09 makes me feel like I've purchased a whole new game I'm probably going to hold out another year... reluctantly!

yoporahh
yoporahh

@ skit - agreed, they're a good company. some just believe all the sh1t they hear about the company and thats why they hate it

gacmyver
gacmyver

wow i saw the video, and the animations simply sucked so hard omg what a crap game

gamemaster-1234
gamemaster-1234

OK seriously THEY make the hockey game to early right after the game is out A whole bunch of hockey players arent in the roster like last year SAM GANGER WASENT IN THERE and the other bad thing is that NOTHING IS NEW and nothing is FUN MABEY the graphics are good

Nerevarine-
Nerevarine-

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Amir29
Amir29

So basically instead of a patch for NHL 08 that allows us to do this, they will rerelease the same game, put "09" at the end of the title, and charge us $60? The online league is nice, but if the game itself isn't improving, I don't see why I should spend my money.

SkiT911
SkiT911

NOTHING SIGNIFICANTLY NEW!!! HELLLLLLLOOOOOO! WHAT THE HELL DID U JUST READ EINSTEIN!!! Performance Tracker Systems new! In gameplay DEFENSIVE SKILL STICK YOU HOMO along with ONE HANDED DEKES! read sh*t b fore u mouth off you damn idiot! I love EA, they made and are making, some of the best games ever!

SkiT911
SkiT911

YO A**Holes this is gonna be the best Video Game ever, 2K SUCKS compared to this, GameSpot has great coverage and i thank them! Anyways, back to the brainless bozos! Read the reviews from IGN, GameSpot and all other sites, it already has a 10.1! Fan boys...

gut_eater
gut_eater

After watching the most recent gameplay footage...this game looks as though it plays EXACTLY the same as 08, animations, graphics, voice-overs, and audio. I'm predicting a 7.8 on Gamespot's review this time as the game won't take leaps forward as sequels should. Other than superstar mode, there is nothing significantly new to this game at all.

Zerosumgame
Zerosumgame

EA is so good at hypnotizing people who love hockey because they are the only game in town. Sorry I see this through a couple years ago and I am not buying it anymore. The same old franchise is getting boring year after year.

darkswordsman
darkswordsman

"With our performance tracker feature, you are graded on how well you play hockey, not on how well you play a video game." Damn, I was good at playing video games oh well, Sounds like it'll be awesome though

encore33
encore33

I cant wait to get a hold of this game :)

AbsentiaMan
AbsentiaMan

Its nice to see the most impressive online feature ever thought up go to a hockey game first. I enjoy watching all sports, but I've never smashed as many walls, yelled as loud, been as nervous, or been as excited watching any other sport.

Sins-of-Mosin
Sins-of-Mosin

Never been a fan of hockey but have usually enjoyed these games. I haven't played a hockey game thou in 3-4 years so looking forward to getting back into it.

ohjtbehaaave
ohjtbehaaave

Since this is one of the few games I like online... I'm pretty pumped for this new online stuff in NHL 09.

ericG717192
ericG717192

Looks like the same old thing ooooover and ooooover again

billzspikez51
billzspikez51

wow.. the gameplay EXACTLY the same as 08, even the same boring commentary phrases... its a let down but they better make up for it with good "off ice" features

Jokis
Jokis

Looks pretty awesome.

ThAdEa82
ThAdEa82

Isn't being a unique player on a game already been done for the last 10 years? Why is it pointed out as a selling point?

hotdork70minus1
hotdork70minus1

I used to love hockey games but in the last few years i've almost completely stopped playing them. This idea is great and I can't wait but what I want most of all is a finely tuned control scheme. NHL's controls are changed every year and it feels like a lot of extra crap is just tacked on.

gabrielrobert
gabrielrobert

This looks sick, but does anyone know how long they will update the rosters for NHL '08???

Fricking
Fricking

@ prototype24red How constructive of you!

stewiegriffin20
stewiegriffin20

@Arguyle No, i actually never buy sport games, i have gamefly and i actually do play hockey and its a lot more satisfying than sitting in front of a TV. @ SkullXero They use different servers for different games, anyone that had NHL 08 when it came out will agree that the online play wasn't really operable until 2 months after it came out what I'm saying is that this game will be the definitive hockey game, but because its made by EA they have a reputation to screw these things up, just like with the roster updates, they promised up to the date roster updates, and they trickle out slow, and when they do add new players they give them crappy scores, Crosby because hes the face of the NHL has to get a 90+ but players like Kane and Toews don't get good stats. It'll be fun to see how they treat the stats for the Red Wings, because they have a stacked team, they'll have to lower the stats for all the players to keep the team competitive with everyone else to make sure it isn't the "cheap" team online

prototype24red
prototype24red

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Lightz39
Lightz39

I'm pretty sure if EA is putting this much effort into their online league they finally see this series at the level of madden. Which means they will fork out some of their tons and tons of cash to host a few servers so it doesn't lag.

FlashCharge
FlashCharge

A really innovative approach to a great sports game. It should be a blast!

Galadreil782
Galadreil782

Wow! This looks AMAZING! I cannot wait for this game , hopefully EA will deliver on their promises.

chex81
chex81

im glad to see EA making the most of this franchise...geez, for almost 10 years it went practically dead (to the hardcore fans) but after the skill stick...everythings working upwards. getting this day 1.

SkullXero
SkullXero

@ stewie If EA can host Battlefield servers with 24 guys at once with no lag from what I have played on. What is so hard about 10 people on a sports game thats in one small arena. This would def be eaiser than the hude warzones and areas that battlefield has. EA is def capable =)

Arguyle
Arguyle

I believe this is a great idea!! And i believe that the NHL online community is big enough to support this new feature. @stweiefgriffin20 1) I would agree for NHL 07. Well you maybe did not play NHL '08, it's lag free 1-on-1 90%. Usualy lag is due to user problem, not server (like not having full bandwith). So the reputation you're talking about doesn't exist anymore. On team play, i've played 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 lag free 75-80%. 2) They are not so bad now, but i agree that some improvements are necessary. 3) Why pointing out this? If they wanna play, just let them. I don't see how this could be a problem. 4) This is totally trolling. EA has produced the best hockey experience for ages, and particularly recently 5) Maybe YOU should play real hockey... i do not want you on my team :P Bottom line: Troll please get away... I know you'll buy this game anyway

stewiegriffin20
stewiegriffin20

Its actually a very good idea, couple of problems i can see though 1) EA has always had a reputation of its servers not working and games lagging with 2 people let alone throwing 10 more in. 2) Goalies must have had a complete reworking if your going to have them controlled by people online 3) It said something about GM's will they play or will they just manage? 4) This is an EA game so dont get your hopes up 5) why not just play real hockey?

caninexrs
caninexrs

@Fandango(of course): "been(sic) there done that"? On what base do you supplant your reasoning? It's already obvious that EA Sports is taking their franchise to new heights, the last thing the online community needs are bumbling trolls like you. The '09 iteration looks marginally better, but drawing from the information we know, the big changes are in the gameplay. Sounds like a play-it-to-believe-it game to me.

Fandango_Letho
Fandango_Letho

been there done that, just release these games for free EA, only morons buy them anyway.