NHL 15 is out in a couple weeks, and there are a lot of reasons to to be excited about this year's hockey sim. The engine, presentation, and physics have all been completely revamped, bringing it into the top tier of sports games alongside NBA 2K and FIFA. Nevertheless, fans are already expressing disappointment over EA's handling of the transition.
Last week, Electronic Arts confirmed that GM Connected and the EA Sports Hockey League-both fixtures over the previous years-would not be present in the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions of NHL 15 this year. There reasoning was that there was enough to squeeze them into the new version of the game. Predictably, there has been an outcry among the series' core fans, with many of them opting to cancel their pre-orders.
Of the two, the decision to remove the EASHL was particularly surprising. The EASHL has long been one of NHL's most popular and visible modes among core fans, with many of them playing it pretty much exclusively. It was probably the best realized of the various team modes, enabling up to six players to form their own club and play against other groups in an online league setting. It has long served to give NHL an identity beyond merely being a hockey simulator, garnering much praise for its uniqueness.
According to EA producer Sean Ramjagsingh, its absence has much to do with their desire to rebuild the mode from the ground up, telling Operation Sports: "What they have to look forward to is leveraging that foundation we’ve built on the technical side to allow us to do bigger and better things. I’m committed to EASHL, the franchise is committed to EASHL. Our goal is not to just bring over the EASHL you knew from Gen-3, but to do it bigger and better. We want to engage the community and get their feedback, and have them help build that experience with us."
Based on Ramjagsingh's comments and the backlash over the mode's absence, it seems fair to say that EASHL will be back next year. The same cannot be said for GM Connected, which was introduced in NHL 13 as a platform for online leagues. When asked about it by Operation Sports, Ramjagsingh was blunt: "GM Connected was one of our lowest played modes. We'll be looking to see how we can bring a better online GM experience to the franchise in future iterations."
Fans might not want to hold their breath.
Online leagues, unfortunately, have proven to be something of a sticking point for sports game developers. While they enjoy a small, extremely dedicated fanbase, they require time, effort, and maintenance to properly maintain, making it tough to sell as a development priority. FIFA, which is also developed in Canada, does not have online leagues and will probably never have them. The cost benefit analysis simply isn't there.
Much as I can rationally explain EA's decision though, I still find myself deeply disappointed by the lack of online league play in NHL 15. GM Connected was not a great mode—the interface was both laggy and extremely confusing—but it got the job done. As one of the handful of people to make use of the mode, GM Connected has added hundreds of hours to my time with NHL 13 and NHL 14. It allowed me to continue enjoying video game hockey with my friends long after the novelty of the year's additions had worn off.
This year, I have no doubt that I will spend a lot of time with NHL 15; but without online league play, it will be much less than I was originally planning. I expect I will play a season or two of Be a GM, dabble in Be a Pro, and play a few rounds online before moving on to something else. At the end of the day, playing against the computer again and again is only so interesting. I like to have the added spice of human competition when I'm roleplaying as a Minnesota Wild GM.
Of course, EA would prefer that I play Hockey Ultimate Team—the microtransaction-driven online mode built around collecting players and creating a dream team. That's the unspoken subtext in all of this. GM Connected and even EASHL are being de-prioritized in favor of the all-important Ultimate Team. Admittedly, it's not a bad mode. I would even go so far as to say that it's my favorite Ultimate Team variation. But I also hate that it's come to dwarf the genre. From now on, sports game developers will always favor Ultimate Team over my preferred modes because it's the one that makes money. As someone who doesn't really care for the mode, it makes me kind of sad.
I guess I'll keep my fingers crossed for a rebirth of GM Connected, but it's hard to see the NHL team devoting resources to online league development when their track record has been so dismal to this point. It was fun while it lasted, I guess. Time to go open a pack of Ultimate Team cards.