In advance of Tuesday’s release of the NHL 15, the third-most popular sports video game franchise (next to FIFA and Madden), Sportsnet caught up with the game’s proud producer, Sean “Rammer” Ramjagsingh, as well as a pair of real-life players to learn a few things about the new edition.
Here are 15 of them…
1. No player is ever happy with his rating. (Except, perhaps, this year’s No. 1-rated star, Sidney Crosby. Not even a fake arrest fazes him.) EA Sports maintains a year-round relationship with a professional scout, who works with the CHL, AHL and NHL. The video game company tells him which categories to adjudicate, and he rates all the players.
“We drop [the ratings] into the game and work with him throughout the year as we do roster updates,” Ramjagsingh says. “We can update rankings on the fly to reflect which players are hot and which ones are slumping.”
“I’m not super happy about my rating, but I’ll take it,” says Montreal forward Max Paciorettty, an 89. “I wasn’t happy with my speed rating [in the low 80s]. When I go home I think I’ll work on my speed.”
2. Especially Justin Bailey. The 2013 second-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres reached out to EA in advance of NHL 15’s release and his attending training camp, so Ramjagsingh sent him his rating, a 62.
“He’s like, ‘My defence! My defence is better than that!’ ” the producer recalls, with a laugh. “I said, ‘You make Buffalo, you’ll get the automatic NHL bump. So we’ll see what happens.’ ”
3. The fans demanded new commentators. And the producers obliged, recruiting NBC Sports’ Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk to record a throat-punishing 35,000(!) lines of speech for in-game commentary.
“They were in studio for 14 sessions of seven to eight-hour days,” Ramjagsingh explains. “So it’s not a small amount of effort, and it’s taxing on them and their bodies and their voices.”
4. Never before have the arenas looked this realistic. EA scoured the Internet for reference pictures and asked each NHL arena to send photos so they could get the look of all 30 teams’ rinks just right. “We want to get to the point where, if you’re a season-ticket holder, you can go find your seat in the arena,” Ramjagsingh says. “We’re almost there right now.”
5. But the people filling those arenas are even more impressive. EA created a time-intensive 9,000 unique fans to fill the stands’ lower bowls and dispel the franchise’s notion for plunking a bunch of generic-looking fans near the glass. It’s not just the number of super fans, however; it’s how they act. “We’ve got vendors walking up and down the aisles,” Ramjagsingh says. “And you’ll see people in the crowd taking selfies.”
Pacioretty, an Xbox guy, calls this season’s aesthetic leap one of the most impressive he’s seen from year to year. “One thing that really struck me was how real it all looked, and they had Doc and Eddie up there announcing,” he says. “I thought that was pretty cool as well.”
6. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ appreciation for the armed forces extends beyond the between-whistles standing ovations. The current players’ game of choice is Call of Duty, says defenceman Morgan Rielly.
“We play a lot of Call of Duty against each other. That’s our game,” says Rielly, who names James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and roommate Jake Gardiner among the biggest video-game heads in the dressing room.
No one can beat JVR in NHL, though. Van Riemsdyk frequently beats the guy who created the game, Ramjagsingh, at his own invention. “He’s a nerd,” Rielly pokes. “I’m not a nerd by any extent. I play at home with Jake a little bit. Not too much. But it’s always a good time when we get to play.”
In addition to JVR, EA gets a lot of input from NHL addicts Nathan MacKinnon and Marc Savard. But with the prevalence of social media, feedback is both constant and instant. “We’re a tweet away,” Ramjagsingh says.
7. EA went and hired a physicist to improve the physics of the gameplay. And the biggest difference is how the puck reacts. “It’s really changed the flow of the game, the bounces in the game. It’s made it more realistic,” Ramjagsingh says. “A puck passed back to the point can take a bad bounce and hop over the defenceman’s stick. Now you’ve got a breakaway going the other way, which is something that would never happen in our game before.”
8. Fans of the franchise are upset with the disappearance of many of the game’s features. As NHL makes the leap to the next generation of PlayStation and Xbox consoles, a long list of elements have been lost in transition, including GM Connected, EA Sports League, and several customizable options.
Ramjagsingh defends that tight time lines and a focus on presentation and improved puck/player physics are the main reasons for this.
9. The novelty of players doing motion capture wears thin fast. “We need people to come in and work eight hours straight for multiple days in a row. It’s much like a movie shoot, where we’ll do take after take after take until we get it right.” Ramjagsingh says.
So the franchise has actually convinced fewer NHL stars to take part than you might imagine. Corey Perry, Jeremy Roenick, Drew Doughty and Patrick O’Sullivan have done it in the past. Vancouver local Eddie Lack has told the producers he wants to be part of the process. “So, we’ll see.”
10. EA gets called out for how their players’ mugs look. While stars like Jarome Iginla and Patrice Bergeron look incredibly lifelike in the new version, only 200 to 300 of the NHL’s 700-plus players actually get the authentic face treatment. The remainder are selected from a mix of generic faces.
“Some guys will tweet pictures of themselves with a generic head,’ Ramjagsingh admits, “and we’ll be like, ‘Yeah, we know we gotta fix those up.’ ”
11. The objective of the game’s producers is at odds with the objective of the game’s wizards. “We have a vision for the game to play like real hockey. Once you go online, the competitiveness of people comes out,” Ramjagsingh says. Hence, in past versions, we’ve seen gamers rely exclusively on wrap-arounds or one-timers.
“They want to do whatever they can to win at all costs. So if there’s an easier way to score than playing proper hockey, they’ll take that and use it to their advantage.”
12. Once physics were introduced to game, glitches are to be expected. “The first time we put physics in the game, we had [Zdeno] Chara get hit into one of the players’ benches. Because of the angle he went over, his arm and his stick got caught under the bench and he just couldn’t get out, so he was just twitching going down the boards,” the producer explains. Then he cites NHL 13’s memorable Hercules check on Crosby, which sent him flying into the crowd. “That’s physics. A force in an animation that’s a little faster than it should be hits a guy in rag-doll and sends him flying.”
13. Despite its bells and whistles, the game still offers a simple two-button old-man mode. “It allows anybody to pick it up and play like they did in the early 1990s—just pass, shoot, switch player and throw a hit,” Ramjagsingh says. “So dads can play with their sons and have a competitive game while their sons can use the skill stick.”
14. The Habs’ digital defeat of the Leafs could serve as foreshadowing for opening night. Even though Rielly’s Leafs lost to Pacioretty’s Canadiens 4-2 during their head-to-head match, Rielly doesn’t believe Pacioretty should have any bragging rights. There were still 17 minutes left in the contest when the game ended. (To be fair, Jonathan Bernier should have been pulled after giving up four goals on four shots.)
“The game wasn’t over when we stopped playing,” Rielly protests, “so I don’t think he’s got anything on us.”
15. NHL 16 should bring even more fresh ideas. Asked if he has a pie-in-the-sky idea for his game that he hasn’t been able to execute yet, due to money or time or technology, Ramjagsingh lets out a devlish laugh: “Yeah, and it’s still in my head for NHL 16.”