Did you know that the first video game ever created was a sports simulator? It was called “Tennis for Two”, and it was designed by American physicist William Higinbotham in 1958. Of course, it looked nothing like today’s flashy games: it used an oscilloscope for a screen. But it created history.
Sports and video games have gone hand in hand ever since. Ice hockey, one of the most popular sports in the Northern Hemisphere, was always among the sports game developers tried to simulate. Let’s take a look at the history of ice hockey games from coin-op arcades to eSports.
“Hat Trick” and The Golden Age of Arcade
The 1970s and the 1980s were an amazing time for the emerging gamer generation. These were the years when arcade games evolved from backlit mechanical contraptions to solid-state computers with actual screens. The “Golden Age” was triggered by Space Invaders, arguably one of the most famous video games ever created, but many other classics, from Asteroids to Spy Hunter, were born in the same time period.
Ice hockey found its way into the coin-op world. It was released in 1984 by Sente Technologies, a company founded by a bunch of former Atari employees. The studio launched a bunch of classics, covering everything from sports to first-person shooters with light guns.
One of their most famous releases was “Hat Trick”, a two-player ice hockey simulator. Its simple gameplay and attractive graphics made it a fan favorite – so much so that it was ported to DOS, C64, and Atari.
“Blades of Steel” was another ice hockey game released in 1987 by Konami. The game had more realistic graphics and was later released on various home consoles. It even had two sequels released, both of them with NHL branding.
“NHL 2K” and The Age of Realism
The new millennium brought forth a new age of realism in gaming. The consoles have become more and more powerful, and the PCs of the time were also becoming the gaming devices of choice for a new generation of players.
In these years, the arcade-style visuals and gameplay were replaced by increasingly realistic simulations. And it was the time when some of the franchises we love to play to this day were born.
One of the first was the 2K Sports’ NHL 2K Series. Their initial Dreamcast game was an instant success thanks to its realistic gameplay. It was also the first to feature commentary by actual NHL broadcasters. The series was alive for a decade, ending in 2010.
The EA Sports “NHL” series was also born in the mid-2000s. Later, it has become the gold standard for ice hockey video games. The game has introduced lifelike player models, more sophisticated AI, and deeper gameplay mechanics.
EA has continuously improved its game, adding more detailed arenas and more advanced physics engines with each iteration. Ultimately, EA’s NHL became the most immersive ice hockey simulator on the market.
The 2000s were a great time period for video games, in general, and for ice hockey games in special. Computers were evolving fast, and with them, the level of detail and realism of the games. Each new iteration of the ice hockey simulators released added more detail not just to player models but to their profiles as well.
Everything from the surface of the ice to the movement of the puck became more lifelike. Another major innovation added to hockey games in this decade was online multiplayer. EA Sports NHL broke the ice (pun intended) with its online league system, preparing the world for what was yet to come.
Modern ice hockey simulators have reached new heights in terms of realism and immersion. Today, we have incredibly detailed graphics, realistic physics, and AI that closely mimics the strategies and behaviors of players and teams. To add another layer of realism, today’s games feature commentary that reflects the current state of the game.
But high-profile simulations are not the only games released around this time. Isle of Man-based game studio Microgaming released its first “Sports Star” slot machine in 2012, called “Break Away” – and it was an ice hockey game. It doesn’t have too much to do with actual ice hockey aside from its look and feel – but as a tribute to the game, it’s an excellent release. You can try it yourself at Black Lotus online casino.
As you might expect, EA Sports’ NHL games found their way into the esports scene as well. The EA SPORTS NHL World Championship is held yearly – and with the official support of the NHL itself. With eSports becoming the next big thing in gaming, we expect more players to turn to this form of virtual ice hockey entertainment.
As technology continues to advance, we expect ice hockey games to become indistinguishable from the real thing. Ice hockey games are already embracing virtual reality, with games like Pick Up League Hockey on the Meta Quest platform and VR Hockey League on Steam. This is the next level in ice hockey simulation – luckily, without the pain of a puck hitting your body. But who knows, this part may be done in the coming years.
Sports games have come a long way since the release of the first true video game, Tennis for Two. And ice hockey has always been part of the gaming ecosystem.
Hockey simulators have been successful since Hat Trick and Blades of Steel in coin-op arcades. Today’s top ice hockey games are played not only for fun but also in a fierce competitive setting – almost as fierce as the action actually happening on the ice.
The future of sports simulators, in general, is looking bright, especially in the context of the ever-increasing popularity of esports. Not only that: players are getting the chance to play these games from the perspective of real athletes thanks to virtual reality.
While the realism of VR ice hockey still has a lot to evolve, we can look forward to a fully immersive and realistic ice hockey simulator to hit the market sooner rather than later.