Puck Daddy - NHL

This is part one of our interview with David Littman, producer for EA Sports' upcoming NHL 09. The second half, running Tuesday, will cover other facets of the game: Winter Classic and fantasy draft modes, as well as beer and Brent Gretzky. Enjoy.

EA Sports can never be accused of having a lack of ambition. Take the EA Sports Hockey League, the just-announced online component for the upcoming NHL 09 (due in stores Sept. 9), in which you create a player with your name, join a team with up to 50 other users and compete in 12-player (six-on-six) hockey over the Web.

What I didn't realize before speaking with David Littman, a former NHL player who helped produce NHL 09 for EA Sports, were the scope and the intentions of the EASHL. They aren't content with simply creating the first console sports "massively multiplayer online" (MMO) experience. EA wants nothing less than to create an alternative hockey universe that turns a guy on his couch into a household name. Where blogs and Web sites are dedicated to teams that exist only in a virtual world. Where a collection of 50 players can come together in a flesh-and-blood, end of the season celebration to hoist EA's version of the Stanley Cup.

"We're inventing a new genre here," said Littman.

The potential for this experiment is dizzying and dazzling. Teams raiding lesser foes for top talent, and that top talent making backroom demands before jumping ship. Standings that reflect not only how often you play but how well you play as a team: If your defensemen aren't playing their assignments, that's hurts the overall score.

How far-fetched is it to think that in a sports world where Madden competitions get on ESPN, that the EASHL Playoffs could be discussed on NHL hockey blogs; their champions turned into quasi-celebrities? Because that's what EA Sports has in mind.

Having conceded that the definitive interview about the "nuts and bolts" of the EA Sports Hockey League has already been written by Gamespot, I encourage you to read that piece as a companion to this interview.

Now, here's Part One of our chat with David Littman about the EASHL and what it means for hockey fans:

Q. So 2K Sports comes out with the new game for the Wii, and everybody goes crazy. And then you guys come out with this online league thing, and everybody goes really, really crazy. You must have quite the strong pimp-hand right now.

LITTMAN: We're just trying to be authentic to the sport. We know there's millions of hockey fans not only in North America, but around the world. And they all want to play real hockey. When they're not on the ice in real life, we want to give them the closest thing to that.

We've always done a great job putting people in the skates of superstars. But a big focus for us this year is making you the star. Making people sitting at home the next great sports stars, getting their name out there and becoming famous themselves. That's what the EA Sports Hockey League can do.

Is this at all a reaction to fantasy sports, where the individual becomes the champion?

I don't think that's where the idea came about. I think [the EASHL] is the opposite of fantasy -- it's reality. When you look at the leader boards of the EA Sports Hockey League, you're seeing real names. Not their Xbox names or their PS3 names. By having real names on the backs of the jerseys and on the leader boards, that becomes reality.

Let's say my Xbox name is "Litt2525"; I don't want to be known as my Xbox name. What I really want to be known as is David Littman, a great superstar. You know, Joe Murphy sitting at home, he wants his name out there and wants to be known as a great center ...

I think that sounds great, because Joe Murphy never really reached his potential with the St. Louis Blues.

(Laughs) Exactly! And now he has a second chance to become the best. Wasn't he drafted first overall?

He was an extraordinarily high draft pick, that's all I remember.

I really didn't mean to use his name. But in the end, yes, Joe can sit on his couch and get his name back out there as a great center.

Reading the Gamespot interview, I was a little fuzzy on how NHL 09 ties into the EASHL. I know the "Be a Pro" mode is a big part of the game; do those levels of experience and stats translate to the online game, or is the progress for your player online a totally different thing?

They're separate modes, but you can use the same characters. Let me explain what that means.

The first time you turn the game on, you will create your character: your name, your number, the position he likes, what kind of player you want him to be. When you go to the performance tracking screen, that's the hub for your character:

You can take this player into two different modes: The offline "Be a Pro" mode, or you can take him online. You can't level your character online up to 99; it's a separate leveling up than the offline.

The offline is more fantasy-based: The more trophies you win, the better your do, you can play over 15 seasons. In the online, everyone will start out equal (78-80 overall). In each character type, you'll be good at some things and not at others. As you grow the player online, you grow by playing games and getting good grades. Even the guys just starting the league for the first time can compete against people who've been playing for a long time as long as they have skill in playing.

So it's almost two different games, but with the same player.

Exactly. Your goal is to get this character to "legend" status both online and offline. And you're going to get hockey cards on the way to show your status.

We're tracking these players with the performance tracker. Someone that has 100 goals and doesn't play defense will not be the best player in the world; the best player on the leader boards will be someone who plays a full, rounded game of hockey. He won't be someone who goes off-sides all the time. Because nobody wants to play with the guy who goes offsides all the time.

Since you have your own guild, you can just trade a guy.

If some dude halfway across the country isn't holding up his end of the bargain, you can actually trade him? Seriously?

Well, what you can do is go offline and make a trade. Not through the game, yet. You'll have to do this on our Web site and agree that your guy is going to their guild and their guy is going to your guild.

Since it's a guild, [the GM] can remove guys that you don't like.

From what you've seen in your tests, what are some of the pitfalls in having 12 players in different parts of the world playing hockey together?

In our office, it started like pee-wee hockey. Everyone was pretty much chasing the puck. After a couple of games, we stopped doing that and we won a few games. We realized that it really pays off if you play real hockey and play your positions.

No. 1 is that you won't win in this league if you chase the puck all the time, or if you go offsides and ruin your scoring chances. And you'll go offsides a lot, because people won't headman the puck enough.

No. 2 is the goalie. Better practice offline a lot.

No. 3 is bad penalties. We found it's really fun to hit people and trip people away from the puck. All that does is cause your team to get a penalty.

Describe some of the ways players will be able to interact with one another while playing online.

There's going to be a really cool hub for your team, where people can go into the dressing room and hang out and chat there -- both text-based and voice.

So what's the button combination for towel-snapping or cutting skate laces?

(Laughs) We'll add that next year, when we expand the mode a bit.

And during the game, there's voice chat with the team. You asked before about pitfalls in playing the game: Not communicating is the biggest one. Saying "I'm open" or "at the point, at the point!" is important.

We're hoping that there's going to be a lot of forums set up, and teams creating Web sites for their guild.

You know, you can see everyone on the leader board; if you see a defenseman that has "A's" across the board, you can immediately talk to that person and invite them to your team. Tell him, "Hey, we need a defenseman and we're making a run for the Cup."

Now, when is the EASHL Collective Bargaining Agreement up, and this kind of movement is restricted?

(Laughs) Yeah, well, once they elect a PA leader, we're going to have to have talks with him.

Finally: Exactly what does the EA Sports Hockey League Cup look like?

It's not a Stanley Cup, because there's only one of those. OK, two, actually.

Hopefully three, now after Draper's kid pooped in the last one.

(Laughs) Hopefully there'll be some good stories for our Cup over the years, too.

Our plan is to reward the winning team with the Cup, and we want to do that in person. I can't tell you what the Cup looks like yet, but it'll be something you want to win. And each year we'll award it to the new champion.

Remember, Part Two runs on Tuesday. Tell a friend.

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