I never realised before that Sports Interactive (SI) developed any game other than Football Manager (FM); I mean it is so popular so why would they need to? It’s a guaranteed best seller every single year. I recently learned though that once upon a time they also made a Hockey management simulation game, but due to its low popularity and the cost being too high compared to the revenue it brought in, the game was put on hold indefinitely back in 2007. That was until now, where it seems someone at the top of SI has belief that now is the time to bring this game back to life. What I want to know is; is this the right decision not just for SI but for the sport as well, or could it end up costing SI a pretty penny and putting people off Hockey?
Well there is no doubt that the sport world is growing rapidly thanks to new technologies which help sport to reach audiences even in the farthest regions of the earth. Just look at Liverpool’s last pre-season tour in Australia (where they will go again this summer), they were breaking attendance records and selling out 90,000 seater stadiums; then there was the time I was on holiday in Cape Verde over Christmas 2013 and managed to watch Liverpool unfortunately lose to Chelsea and Manchester City during that period, this is a country that barely has adequate street lighting on its roads. It is due to this global audience though why the money in sport is now worth is an unbelievable amount. As a consequence in the UK the competition between sports channels BT Sport and Sky Sports is seriously heating up, and we are seeing a whole host of new material broadcast in the UK to help attract new customers. We can now watch live football from all over the world including Australia, France, Italy, the Netherlands and the USA; but it isn’t just football, we can watch American Football (NFL), Aussie Rules, Baseball (MLB), Basketball (NBA) and UFC to name a few.
With this now global audience it does make sense for developers to help sports expand into the gaming industry to increase coverage and revenues even further. We are already seeing this with access to some American sports such as those based on the NBA and NFL and even the NHL, but not in the form of manager simulation games (not any big named ones anyway). So why out of all the sports available have SI picked Ice Hockey? Well having watched the odd game myself, as well as the Mighty Ducks (which is a cracking film) it is a fast paced contact sport which can be very enjoyable to watch. There is none of this diving to the ground and rolling over three times because you tripped over a blade of grass, instead players grab each other, slamming their opponents into walls and occasionally go as far as having a full on fight which resembles Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. Add to that the surprising fact that the UK in fact has quite a popular Ice Hockey scene which can draw bigger live crowds than more televised events like Cricket and Golf.
That’s enough waffling on though, I should probably get on to previewing the damn game. Those of you who are familiar with the older FM games will like me associate the Eastside Hockey Manager (EHM) menu style as similar to them in that it is very basic compared to the customizability that is available in the newer FM games. That said as it is essentially a newish game to the market, making it over complicated right now could put people off the game so this is a clever move by the developers in my opinion. However it isn’t the only thing that is quite basic which does leave the game feel empty at times. By this I mean the number of leagues available; now again you don’t want to overwhelm people with too much too early on and EHM does have the leagues in the big countries like Canada and the USA, as well as some of the top European countries in Germany, Russia and Sweden. However there was no UK league, which although understandable as it isn’t as big would’ve been nice to see, especially considering that the EHM doesn’t appear to have the full licences of any of the leagues with it not using real player or team names.
Again with it being a newish game it does make sense not splashing out on licences as it would no doubt add millions to the development costs which the developers would possibly see as unnecessary. I was surprised by this a little actually because the game offered two databases to play from, one continuing from 2007 where the game left off or from the latest season. This to me first suggested maybe they do have some licensing which at least covered previous games, however I was mistaken. The lack of real players though leaves you with some serious issues, with the main thing being that you have no idea who the better players in the game are or who the upcoming stars are. Now you get this issue eventually on FM if you play long enough as it begins to randomly generate custom players, but if you do your job right your scouts are there to pick out the top talents after the real stars begin to retire. When it comes to EHM it isn’t as simple as building a good squad and scouting for the future champions because you don’t know who the stars are at the beginning.
Licences aren’t the only cost cutting area though; because in another effort to reduce costs, and again it leaves me pointing out how basic the game is, EHM still uses the old style 2D match engine for showing your games. This will be a gift to those with less powerful laptops like my good friend Irish because it means even a crappy machine can run it without issues. But it would’ve been nice to be offered to see games in a 3D match engine even if it wasn’t as detailed as the FM one is, because it just would have looked a little better than watching what can essentially be described as a bird’s eye view of a manic game of air hockey down the local arcade. You are also limited in controlling what happens during the game as your tactics are pretty much predefined from the beginning with changing up formations and subbing players being the only real things to alter during play. You don’t get the extensive list of side line commands you get on FM telling your players to exploit the flanks, pass more direct, shoot on sight or to whack the living daylights out of your opponents (known as being more aggressive).
However the game isn’t as dull as I probably make it sound, it has tonnes of promise and if developed in the right ways further down the line it can be a surefire hit. For now though it does seem like a work in progress, although quite a fun one. But the lack of real names and teams as well as the very basic controls of the game mean it could cause some upset for real fans due to not being able to buy their favourite players or their favourite UK teams. However for an introduction to new fans of hockey this is ideal because it requires no prior knowledge of ice hockey or the rules of the game for you to be able to get stuck in and enjoy. Definitely worth trying out.
To finish I will answer my earlier questions; Is this the right decision not just for SI but for the sport as well? Well SI have a hugely successful game in FM, one which will be guaranteeing them a big income each year. The problem is when throwing all your eggs into one basket there can often be consequences if that first plan fails for some reason. Therefore for SI it is a clever move to branch out into new fields, and Hockey makes sense as globally it has millions who watch the sport and with it being one of the lesser popular ones compared to the likes of football and UFC then licences will probably be significantly cheaper. As for the sport, it could do with the licences having been included to give exposure to some of the players and teams but I guess we all have to start somewhere. Could it end up costing SI a pretty penny and putting people off Hockey? Well it seems there has been a few cost reducing measures put in place which would suggest to me the idea that SI are just testing the water again to see what the reception to the game is like this time before they decide whether to continue with development, put it on hold again or scrap it all together. I don’t think the game will damage the sport in anyway as fans who already enjoy it will no doubt continue watching it. As for new fans it may drum up interest for a few but again having the licences would probably help that little bit more.
UPDATE (26.04.2015): I’ve been made aware that there is a user-made roster available to give you the real teams and players. You can get it here: http://www.ehmtheblueline.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=77&t=13590