This week, Executive Director of College Hockey Inc. Paul Kelly told The Pipeline show that he is currently in talks with Electronic Arts to add NCAA hockey to the video game company's NHL series. This announcement comes on the heels of confirmation that the CHL, comprised of Canada's Major Junior Leagues, will be featured in NHL 11 and that every player name/likeness will be available in the video game.
If I can hold back my tears of joy successfully, I'd like to talk about two problems with EA digitizing NCAA hockey in this manner and bring in some of my experience from working for a sports video game developer. The first issue I see as a non-problem, and the second is an actual problem.
No Player Names and Likenesses
As is the norm with NCAA games, these are amateurs, and you won't be seeing much in the way of realistic player names and likenesses. Within the context of the NHL series, this would seem to put the NCAA at a disadvantage, as its Canadian counterpart, the CHL, will indeed have names and likenesses. But I seriously doubt this is a problem.
First, in regards to likenesses, one look at NHL 10's player faces, and you'll see that many players with player photos in the game actually have stock player faces on the ice. Maybe that's because EA prefers to face scan players rather than map a face through a roster photo, or maybe it's just too time consuming to do. Regardless, if a majority of the NHL and AHL players in the game are using a pre-fabricated face, then a majority of the lower leagues will as well. So we're talking about maybe one star player per team who would've had something in the way of a realistically mapped polygonal doppelganger, which you would have to observe through a caged mask. No big loss.
Second, with respect to names, I honestly don't see this as a problem. EA will no doubt create every player to comparable height and weight specifications and leave a placeholder name that you can conveniently edit later And some NCAA fan with too much time on his hands will do just that, creating a completely accurate roster file that you can download on the Interwebs. And the die hard NCAA fans (who aren't quite as die hard as that guy) will change the names of the major talent on every team or maybe even just the names on their favorite team. Some of you will simply change the name of the prospects for your NHL team. No big loss.
In the interest of full disclosure, my name was used as a placeholder in MLB2K5, so I'm probably a little biased here. I was washed up pitcher Mike Porzio, if you're wondering.
Actual NCAA Hockey
If you've played EA's NHL series since they implemented AHL teams, then you know that gameplay and rules are very similar in the two leagues. EA insists that if you play in the AHL, you'll experience a different kind of hockey game, with more awkward passes, crunching hits and slower players, but it's really the same game. And that's fine, because it makes no sense to build a completely new engine for what ends up being a secondary aspect of their NHL series.
With the addition of the CHL and NCAA, you have to ask yourself if they can get away with the same thing. For the CHL, I guess it's no big deal. Conceivably, playing with the gameplay sliders, you can find something you would call CHL hockey. To address differences in the rules, you could simply end up fighting with your helmet on when you play an OHL game, and they don't need to institute a headshot penalty, because there aren't really headshots in EA's NHL games.
But for the NCAA, I don't know if adjusting the sliders is going to cut it. The reason that NCAA video games are successful is that they are actually different from their pro counterparts. The engine and the playbooks in EA's NCAA football series differ greatly from Madden. Similarly, 2K Sports' now-defunct College Hoops series had a fluid feel, give-and-go controls and a pace of action that was just completely separate from the NBA series. I doubt EA will be making that effort if it adds NCAA. You won't feel the time and space on the powerplay, or even just the space of the rink itself. It'll just be an NHL game with caged masks.
So even though I can barely contain my excitement at the prospect of NCAA teams in NHL 11 or 12, I'm very realistic about what that does and doesn't mean. It'll be a licensing deal, and one that will still require me to go in and change a few names, but it won't do anything to recreate the NCAA game the way other college games have. And that's fine, because in video game terms, how much you can fit onto a Blu-ray disc is really starting to bump up against how much you can spend developing a $60 game. If nothing else, the game will provide some exposure to NCAA hockey, and maybe even exposure to the NCAA schedule beyond the Frozen Four. Beanpot anyone?