Sports games have the unenviable task of shoehorning a wealth of changes into an eight-month development cycle in the hopes of satisfying the legions of everyday players, the lapsed community haters who jumped off board in disgust over the years, and newcomers who haven’t been along for the ride to this point. For the past several years, NHL has played catch-up under the ire of its impassioned community, which felt betrayed by the sloppy conversion to current-gen consoles and lack of meaningful changes. NHL 19 was the first year in the generation that felt like a meaningful step forward, introducing a much more dynamic skating system, revamping the largely neglected franchise mode, and revamping its multiplayer with a new player upgrade system and some unconventional modes that celebrate the culture of hockey beyond the NHL rink. Sure, we still have plenty of lackluster features and gameplay shortcomings to complain about, but the progress was encouraging. NHL 20 hopes to continue that forward trajectory with several big changes that enhance the gameplay, presentation, and popular game modes.
In a behind-closed-doors meeting at E3, we sat down with the EA Vancouver team to discuss their aspirations for NHL 20. We covered a lot of ground, so brace yourself for a long read. Here are the biggest changes the team is making for the next hockey season.
Contextual Shot Animations Unleash The Snipers
Outside of adding a few new trick shots, EA hasn’t done much to revolutionize shooting in the NHL franchise over the past several years. This neglected area of gameplay gets a fresh twig in NHL 20 with a renewed investment in adding more contextual shots from all over the ice.
We’ve all had that awkward moment where we think we’re perfectly positioned for a one-timer across the crease, only to see the player warp into an jarring shooting animation. Or have you ever frustratingly taken a forehand shot when it would be more natural to shoot with a backhand? These problems arose because EA didn’t have the appropriate animation coverage for every direction a pass could come from. To fix this, the new system looks at several different contexts such as your distance to the net, whether you are standing or moving, how much time you have to get off a shot, whether you are receiving a pass or already in possession before it assigns the shot animation.
“We’ve looked at dozens of these contexts and added literally hundreds of new animations that we did in our motion-capture studio, so you’re going to see a wide variety of shots,” says creative director William Ho.
During our hands-on time, this was the most immediately notable change. Shots taken by snipers had more snapping power, and the players reacted in a variety of new ways to get shots off. Sometimes they drop to their knee to get off a one-timer. Other times they adjust to get a soft redirect shot off when the puck is too close to their body to get their full power behind it.
“You’re not going to see awkward shovel shots from 40 feet out, you’re not going to see massive wheelhouse one-timers on short passes from three feet out,” Ho says. “You’re going to see the type of shot coverage and the shot selection that our game has now to make all the shots look better and feel better.”
The hope is this eliminates the warping or bad shot selection altogether. Ho also says the changes give you a greater variety of backhand attempts. You need more leverage and power to pull off lunging backhands the further you are away from the net, whereas up close you just need the room to get the wrist movement necessary to raise the roof for a top-shelf snipe.
Signature Shots For NHL Superstars
We’ve complained for years that the NHL series doesn’t do enough to differentiate their star players from the common third-liners. This applied to the ratings gap, lack of player likenesses, and even their animations. NHL 20 takes a small step in the right direction with the introduction of signature shots for a group of select NHL superstars.
Not every NHL player has a recognizable shot you could pick out of a lineup, but for those that do, expect to see some of these recognizable shots: P.K Subban’s booming slapshot, Alexander Ovechkin’s one-timer from the top of the left faceoff circle, NHL 20 cover athlete Auston Matthews’ half-drag release, Patrik Laine’s pinpoint shot, and Steven Stamkos’ sizzler.
In all, EA plans to have 10 to 15 signature shots in the game when the game launches and hopes to add more moving forward.
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Goalies Get Some Love
Like in real life, the goaltenders are a constant target for criticism and derision in the NHL games. The most vexing problems netminders have faced in recent years include letting low-percentage wafflers in from the half-wall and not being able to locate trickling pucks underneath them. EA has a few tricks up its sleeves to turn these sieves into steady shot savers.
NHL 20 introduces 400 new save animations for goalies to cover a wider range of shots. New glove saves should cut down on the number of soft shots and passes that slip past the netminders, and to prevent those cheap rebounds and secondary chances from ending up in the back of the net, EA introduces chest covers and more deliberate freezes.
Ho says goalies are also better at identifying secondary threats. If a shot is coming in from one side and another forward is moving into position for a rebound, the goalie will take note of the second attacker and deliberately redirect the puck into a corner and out of danger using their stick or blocker, where the defender has a better chance of gaining possession.
But what about all those annoying own goals A.I. defenders so frequently put in the back of the net? Ho says that while EA didn’t overhaul the defensive player A.I., the changes to the puck pickup system combined with the more aware goaltenders should cut down on these problems.
Puck Pickups Get Another Pass
Year in and year out, players curse the frustrating puck pickup logic in the NHL games. Some years it’s the lack of awareness that the puck is at a player’s feet. Other years they just don’t seem to reach out for a biscuit in their stick radius. Though the EA Vancouver team has made some tweaks to improve it over the years, it still has work to do.
NHL 20 tries to improve the situation leaning on the RPM technology EA used to rebuild the skating in NHL 19. The new InMotion tech takes the RPM skating system from last year and adds more contextual body animations for passing, shooting, and picking up the puck without having to break your stride or revert to a glide to perform these actions.
“In NHL 19 skaters had to stop skating and enter a glide before executing moves like passing, puck pick-ups, and one-timers,” says producer Sean Ramjagsingh “This slowed down the overall play and allows defenders to catch up. In NHL 20, RPM tech is used to blend precise upper body moves with explosive lower-body skating resulting in playmaking and executing at full speed just like NHL superstars.”
We’ve only played a few games of NHL 20, so it’s too early to comment on whether or not this change fixes the pickup problem, but the preservation of speed when receiving the puck was noticeable in certain circumstances. Players charged into headman passes without losing momentum similar to wingers catching up to through balls in FIFA. If this change carries through, we may see a lot more breakaway opportunities when players get a leg on defenders coming through the neutral zone.
New Team Celebrations
Team celebrations became the rage last year with the Carolina Hurricanes’ Storm Surge post-game antics, which most people enjoyed despite Don Cherry calling them a “bunch of jerks” for having a good time. EA follows suit by adding a handful of team celebrations to NHL 20. Carolina will use them if you’re playing in Play Now or franchise mode, but your EASHL club can also unlock and activate them.
New Faces In The Broadcasting Booth
As much as we love the legendary commentary team of Doc Emrick and Eddie Olzyck in real life, the duo never found their stride in the EA Sports games. The commentary was often stilted and lacked contextual awareness. EA heard the fan frustration, so it completely rebuilt its broadcasting package for NHL 20.
“One problem we had before working with Doc and Eddie was that we had to fly to Chicago, and we’d maybe get about 30 hours of recording to try to update thousands of lines of commentary,” Ho says. ”We’re taking a page out of the Madden book and NBA book where they have gone with crews that are actually local.”
The new duo is local Vancouver radio personality James Cybulski as the play-by-play guy and color commentator Ray Ferraro, who moves from the Pierre McGuire role between the benches into the booth. The new team comes into the EA Vancouver office a couple of times a week, which allows them to develop a rapport, hear their commentary in the game, and constantly revise it. EA also plans to have them in during the season to add more contextual commentary on NHL and EASHL trends.
The presentation revamp doesn’t stop with new commentators. EA also completely redesigned the broadcast packaging, ditching the NBC license altogether in favor of a new approach.
“We found it’s very limiting when we have to be authentic to a third-party like NBC,” Ho says. “So we’ve developed our own broadcast package where we have a lot more creative latitude. We’re able to speak to new audiences and tailor this presentation to this new generation of YouTubers, streamers, and influencers who want something that is punchier, something that really speaks to their audiences.”
Terms like “YouTuber, streamer, and influencers” may elicit eye rolls over trend-chasing, but the new approach is not without merit. The score clock moves from the top left corner of the screen to the bottom like an ESPN ticker, freeing up more of your screen to keep your eye on the action. The dynamic scoreboard uses motion graphics to catch your eye when a penalty is called or a powerplay is counting down, and EA is also using it to update box score information.
EA also recorded new goal presentation packages. These huge, full-color takeovers use your team colors and feature a player headshot. The game currently doesn’t support headshots for created players or draft-generated rookies, but Ho says the system will accommodate this in the future.
EA also looked at highlight packages like Overwatch’s “Play of the Game” for inspiration with its broadcast package. At the end of every period and game, the summary celebrates one player’s accomplishments with a highlight reel and a graphic calling out their gamertag. In HUT, this will also show which card you used to score that goal or make that game-changing play.
Guest Commentators Also Make Appearances
James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro aren’t the only commentators in NHL 20. Taking a page out of the NBA 2K playbook, some games will feature guest commentators to weigh in on the action. The infographic EA showed us included portraits of hockey personalities like Don Cherry and Wayne Gretzky as well as celebrities like Chance the Rapper and Drake.
More World Of Chel Customization
Though most of us were sick of being inundated with goalie equipment we never planned to use, overall we liked the player customization items you could earn via hockey bags when leveling up your created player. EA knows this approach resonated, which is why it’s adding 1,100 new customization items to the World of Chel this year. The changes include two new categories – baseball caps and face masks. No, we’re not talking Halloween masks, but the kind of face masks you see people wear at snow parks and ski resorts. EA says there are licensed and original designs for both.
To keep players coming back for more, NHL 20 also introduces Chel Challenges. These 15 objectives refresh every week and bestow a variety of rewards. Should you complete all 15 over the course of the week, you can earn a rare vanity item.
HUT Gets Squad Battles
The popular FIFA Ultimate Team mode Squad Battles is coming to NHL this year. Here, you can pit your squad against a weekly featured team designed by influencers, celebrities, or professional athletes. One example we saw was a team created by Los Angeles Kings fan/legendary rapper Snoop Dogg. Some of the players on those rosters may be new faces, as EA added several new legendary NHL players.
New Legendary Card Animations
Way too many people watch streamers open pack after pack of Ultimate Team cards filled with hard-to-get NHL superstars, presumably just so they can feel worse about themselves when they pull a pack with fourth-liners and junior players. To make the act of drawing a legendary card feel that much more exciting (and perhaps compel you to spend more of your hard-earned cash on this game of chance), this year EA redesigned the pack opening to make it more of a spectacle. If you have a legendary card in your pack, before it’s revealed the presentation starts listing stats like how many goals they’ve scored or NHL award trophies they’ve won, so you have a chance to guess which stud is going to take a spot on your top line.
Four New Outdoor Venues
Outdoor rinks introduced in World of Chel last year were a hit with players. For NHL 20, EA expands the lineup with four new ones. The first is called The Farm, which could be inspired by anywhere in the Midwest (when you see it take note of the old washing machine dinged up by practice pucks). The second new rink, dubbed The Park, is an urban location inspired by Vancouver’s Trout Lake Rink. The Canal is a riff on the world’s largest skating rink in Ottawa, and The Peak is set on a mountaintop glacier. All of these rinks are available for play in Ones, Threes, and EASHL pickup games.
The Coaching Carousel Comes To NHL
NHL general managers have legendarily itchy trigger fingers when it comes to canning coaches. Hell, after a slow start this year the Blues fired Mike Yeo and went on to win the Stanley Cup, so who can argue with the results? This dynamic comes to franchise mode for the first time with the introduction of coach carousels. As a GM, you control the fate of eight different coaches in your organization – four in the NHL and four in the AHL. Sadly, none of them are licensed, so don’t expect to see red-faced Bruce Boudreau screaming at players or the Q Stache patrolling the Panthers bench. Instead, EA created 300 different fictitious coaches, all with unique attributes, specialties, and schemes. The coaches affect the morale and performance of your players, and you can have conversations with them over the course of the season to promise or deny them that coveted upgrade they seek for the roster. Like with the scouting system last year (which returns), former players can transition into coaching over time.
A New Line Chemistry System
After years of experimenting with line chemistry in the early aughts, a while back EA pulled the feature altogether. This year it returns with the inclusion of coaches. In NHL 20, every line is rated on how well it fits your coach’s scheme. Have too many poor fits? Perhaps it’s time to exercise that trigger finger and fire the coach rather than make a flurry of trades.
NHL 20 Finally Adds A Trade Finder!
If you do decide to trade some players with low chemistry, you’ve got an exciting new tool in NHL 20 that we’ve been requesting for years. Taking another page out of NBA 2K (do you sense the trend here? It’s a good one), NHL 20 features a trade finder. Instead of fighting repeatedly with finicky general managers, now you can put players on the trade block and immediately see a selection of counterproposals. You can accept, decline, or modify these trades right from the menu, which should help lower the friction to midseason roster improvement.
Ones Gets Couch Play
Last year NHL 19 missed the biggest no-brainer of all – letting us play the Ones mode with our friends offline. Thankfully, NHL 20 makes this course correction, and you can finally set up a local session to see who has the best skills. Unlike the other World of Chel modes, you don’t use your own created characters in Ones Now, which is a bit of a bummer. Instead, you choose from a roster of 16 NHL stars and a few NHL mascots. EA tracks stats over the lifetime of the mode as well as for individual sessions, so you can break down who reigns supreme.
Battle Royale Comes To NHL – Kind Of
EASHL is still one of the most popular modes in NHL, but EA discovered a lot of these club players also spent significant time in both Ones and Threes last year. After all, these are the perfect modes for killing time when you’re waiting for the rest of your roster to appear online.
This year, EA doubles down on these modes by taking inspiration from the most popular games on the planet right now for a new spin-off called Eliminator. This pseudo battle royale mode can be played in either Ones or Threes. Solo players can log on to compete in Ones matches at the same time as 81 other players. The first player to win four matches is crowned champion. Each time you are eliminated, you can drop right back into another match in the first of four rinks.
What’s Not In NHL 20?
During our conversation with EA, we learned that a few changes we hoped to see in NHL 20 won’t be in this year’s game. Those pining for a practice mode in EASHL will have to wait at least another year, maybe more. EA is aware of the awful online toxicity that pervades the EASHL, but hasn’t built the reporting tools necessary to help the community fight against it just yet. The team isn’t making any structural changes to player ratings this year and didn’t work on any major overhauls for teammate A.I. or the strategy system. The game should have a few more player likenesses, including a few refreshes for star players, but they weren’t able to address the shortcomings there in any major way. Last but not least, we noticed some gameplay systems that operate largely the same, such as faceoffs and board play. The team is still working on fine-tuning the checking, particularly balancing what should happen when a puck carrier gets pushed from behind. Stay tuned for a lot more info about NHL 20 in the coming weeks. We’ll have a much deeper dive on the franchise mode changes soon.
NHL 20 comes to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One this September. The Play First trial for EA Access members begins September 5. Those who pre-order the Deluxe or Ultimate editions can jump on the ice September 10, and the worldwide launch happens on September 13.