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Feature Article

NHL 20 Dev On Bringing Battle Royale To Ice Hockey And What's New In Pond Hockey This Year

Sean Ramjagsingh breaks down what's new in NHL 20.

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By now you might have heard that NHL 20, which is launching today on PS4 and Xbox One, features a battle royale mode. How does battle royale work in an ice hockey context? Not the way you'd expect. GameSpot recently caught up with EA Sports producer Sean Ramjagsingh, and he spoke to us about NHL 20's battle royale mode, called Eliminator, and lots more.

Ramjagsingh was careful to point out that Eliminator is not a true battle royale experience like another EA game, Apex Legends, or Fortnite and PUBG. "We don't drop a hundred hockey players on an island to spear each other," he explained, though it's exciting--or actually probably horrifying--to think about that.

In the battle royale mode, you can go it alone in Ones or team up with two others in Threes to try to survive four consecutive rounds in a bracket to win the tournament. Like the battle royale games it's inspired by, it's challenging and high-stakes, and it encourages you to keep coming back and improve your skills and eventually get crowned winner.

Like a real battle royale game, NHL 20's version of it aims to capture the intensity and the fear of losing and having to start over. In that way, it's highly replayable, and the time investment is never too long. Winning four matches to win the overall tournament takes about 20 minutes.

Ramjagsingh also spoke to us about NHL 20's updated pond hockey mode, Ones, which this year features an offline mode for local couch play, as well as four new rinks and other welcome adjustments.

"It's in the little details that create that different look and feel. The ice is really different when you don't have a Zamboni clean it after every 20 minutes of play," he said. "The lighting is completely natural, creating shadows you don’t see playing under indoor lights. And you'll hear ambient sounds of wildlife and city life that were created specifically for each rink."

Pond hockey was introduced to the NHL series with NHL 19, and while Ramjagsingh declined to share player-usage numbers, he said the mode overall surpassed his expectations.

"I assumed it'd be a casual mode that players would play just to get their feet wet in World of Chel. But what happened was that players found Ones super competitive and came back over and over again, often to fill the time between longer matches in EASHL," he said.

You can read GameSpot's full interview with Ramjagsingh below. NHL 20 is out now for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

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What's new in pond hockey mode this year?

Pond hockey goes much wider this year. We have four gorgeous and memorable outdoor rinks. The Farm captures the nostalgia of the Canadian prairies and mid-western U.S. The Park is an urban oasis where kids anywhere might have dragged their skates and sticks to the local pond. The Canal brings to life the fantasy of playing hockey on the world’s largest skating rink. And The Peak elevates hockey to 20,000 feet above sea level.

Also, these outdoor rinks are available in more modes than before: Ones, EASHL 3v3/6v6, and now Threes. That last one looks absolutely incredible at night-time.

Specifically on the offline mode feature, can you talk about the decision to introduce offline play this year?

We knew that we’d have fans asking for a couch-play version this year. It was just too addictive for many players that it was an easy decision, but we wanted Ones Now to stand on its own offline. So we added a selection of NHL players, icons, and mascots to choose from. Each has its own style of AI to add variety to gameplay. We pulled together the four new outdoor rinks with the four from Carter Lake in NHL 19. And we added stat tracking per controller so you can easily track who has bragging rights, either for the current session for all-time. In short, it’s the ultimate party game for hockey fans.

Looking at the feedback from last year, what areas did you want to focus on for pond hockey across all facets like gameplay, presentation, etc.?

I think delivering a full-fleshed Ones Now mode was very important, so it could instantly appeal to casual and hardcore fans. Ones was a fast way to play to log lots of wins or to fill time between longer matches. But offline, it’s super-fast to play. There’s no waiting for matchmaking or syncing. And with preset characters to choose from, you don’t need to even create a custom players as you’d do in Ones in World of Chel.

One more key change was introducing a more compact format to Ones online. Playing for the Daily Ones Championship meant having to log literally hours on the top rink. And only one player could feel like the champ. In Ones Eliminator, we put you into a tournament quickly with 80 other players without sitting in a Dressing Room. Losing a game means starting over in a new tournament. Stringing together four wins in a row makes you a champ. These changes may sound really simple, but the result is a mode that’s actually easier to get in and harder to put down.

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Pond hockey was brand-new in NHL 19. Apart from the Winter Classics, it was the first time the series had gone fully outdoors. How do you go about surprising and wowing people a second time?

I’m proud of how our artists captured the look and feel of playing outside on a cold winter’s day in NHL 19. But this year, each one of the new outdoor rinks has a very distinct vibe. For example, The Farm and its big sky and light snow make it awesome and quiet at the same time. And playing in the tree-cast shadows of The Canal turn a big city attraction into something that feels so natural. I’m sure our fans will be wowed, and will bring their own hockey memories and fantasies to these great venues.

The new locations look terrific and varied. What drew you to these locations specifically?

In recent years, EA Sports NHL has embraced the challenge of showing hockey in all of its forms. EASHL is the ultimate cooperative experience. Threes introduced over-the-top action and playing as mascots. Ones captured the freedom and creativity of outdoor pond hockey. We choose the new outdoor locations to bring new visual and emotional depth to this wide variety of game modes.

In creating the outdoor environments and replicating the pond hockey experience, what kind of research was involved?

Lots of photos, videos, and maps were involved. And the passion of an art team that re-iterated these rinks until everyone in the room was so proud of the results.

What kinds of things have you done with NHL 20 to replicate pond hockey culture?

It’s in the little details that create that different look and feel. The ice is really different when you don’t have a Zamboni clean it after every 20 minutes of play. The lighting is completely natural, creating shadows you don’t see playing under indoor lights. And you’ll hear ambient sounds of wildlife and city life that were created specifically for each rink.

How does progression work in Ones this year relative to last? And what kinds of things can you collect?

We split Ones into Ones Eliminator online and Ones Now couch play. In Ones Eliminator, you win your way through a four-round tournament. The further you get, the rarer the vanity items you can win. And in Ones Now, the more you play, the more choices you unlock. You’ll unlock more outdoor rinks, more NHL stars, more NHL icons (like Mario Lemieux), and more mascots (yes, Gritty is one of them).

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Your version of battle royale is a cool standout feature for Ones this year. Can you talk about why you wanted to get involved with the battle royale phenomenon and how it works in NHL 20?

I’d say we didn’t get involved in Battle Royale per se. We don’t drop a hundred hockey players on an island to spear each other. For Ones Eliminator, we included elements that make sense for an online hockey tournament: fast matchmaking, match intensity because of the fear of losing and having to start over, and being able to be a champion within about 20 minutes. Our Ones daily tournament took, well, a day to be crowned champion. I’d say 20 minutes is a lot more accessible! (Note that we still have the daily championship for those dedicated enough to win the most Eliminators in a single day!)

Are there any player numbers or datapoints you can provide that speak to the popularity of Ones within the NHL package?

We don’t share usage numbers with the public. But what I can say is that Ones surpassed my expectations. I assumed it’d be a casual mode that players would play just to get their feet wet in World of Chel. But what happened was that players found Ones super competitive and came back over and over again, often to fill the time between longer matches in EASHL.

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The NHL video game package altogether has multiple elements that are all quite different; the standard sim game, Franchise, Ultimate Team, Threes, and Ones. What are some of the challenges of making the overall experience feel cohesive with so many disparate elements?

I think it’s the second-to-second re-creation of hockey moments that runs through every mode. In NHL 19, we revamped shooting and hitting to great acclaim. In NHL 20, we revamped just about everything else you do at speed on the ice: passing, pick-ups, and one-timers. While we added better control and animation coverage that is more realistic, it’s also made gameplay more fun no matter which mode or game style you choose. EASHL and Ultimate Team fans benefit from more scoring chances. Threes players get even more end-to-end rushes. In Ones you have even more control to show off your individual skills. So it’s really our increasingly polished gameplay that ties the whole package together.

Do you see Ones as an experiment that you tried with '19 and are honing for 20, or rather as part and parcel with the overall NHL game package these days and going forward?

I think Ones and also Threes showed that fans want more variations that broaden the skills and strategies you need to win. Having no rules or penalties in Ones is really fun when you also don’t have teammates or zones. Also having a sudden death overtime in which the third place skater can come back to win is really exciting. Moneypuck in Threes makes absolutely every goal meaningful. I think we will continue to search for new variations that leap ahead of real-life hockey, without sacrificing the authentic NHL experience when you want exactly that.

Anything more to share about Ones in NHL 20?

Check out the skills and styles specific to each skater in Ones Now. And give us feedback on who your favorites are and who you’d like to see in future updates.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

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Eddie Makuch

Bring back the Whalers.

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