It’s overtime in the ESHL Space Esports semifinals. Teams of six are competing against each other in NHL 19’s EA Sports Hockey League mode, displaying incredible chemistry and puck control skills, talents the majority of these players have been honing since the mode’s inception 10 years ago.
We’re in game five—the decider—in a series that will see the victors compete for a prize pool of $3500. The tension is high. The team play is outstanding, with players spraying the puck around the ice with pinpoint accuracy. But all the talk on Twitch relates to the goalies, with the two of them pulling off consistently incredible saves to keep their respective teams in the game.
“This deserves more views,” someone in chat says.
Their reactions are no coincidence. For a small, but dedicated community of virtual goalies, this niche feature has played a significant impact on their lives over the past decade.
The concept of a goalie mode was first introduced in NHL 08, allowing players to compete as virtual netminders with unique controls and bespoke camera angles. It wasn’t until a year later that it began to feature prominently, however, being included as a key component of the new Be a Pro and EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL) modes in NHL 09.
The latter mode featured the ability to create teams of up to six players and compete against others online. For Scheckel, who played in the aforementioned ESHL game and is currently recognized as one of the best goalies on the scene, it proved the perfect starting point.
“I was originally a forward but no one ever wanted to hop in net. So, in order to get a 6v6 game with no [CPU players], I usually volunteered to do so,” he told me. “I eventually landed on a top five team on the leaderboards, and I have been considered by the community a top goalie since.“
As Scheckel suggested, people have traditionally shied away from playing goalie over the years. Why? The reasons are seemingly based in reality. Just like in the NHL, virtual netminders possess little room for error. If a forward fans on a shot or takes a needless penalty, their teammates are there to bail them out. But fail to stop a simple attempt on goal, and the responsibility is all on you.
It’s not easy dealing with that kind of pressure. You need to be a leader, to have little fear, and to perform at a high level with unwavering accuracy. The select few who fit the requirements tend to be highly dedicated as a result, and many have joined together to form online communities over the years.
Between the Pipes is one notable example. After starting out as a YouTube channel with gameplay tips and player builds for virtual netminders in late 2014, it eventually expanded to a more inclusive Discord server in 2017. These days, it’s packed with hundreds of like-minded goalies, all eager to share their hints, tips, and stories surrounding this typically overlooked aspect of the NHL series.
“People seem to be very grateful that there is somewhere to come and learn about a niche position in a niche gamemode,” said Jonlol, who runs the YouTube channel with EA Game Changer TheCreasePolice. “They ask a ton of questions and we always do our best to answer them as we want to see the position and the game mode continue to grow.”
At its core, the actual gameplay available to goalies is fairly simple, with few button presses involved. The shoulder buttons are used for actions such as passing and hugging the posts, while the right stick allows for butterfly slides and poke checks. Playing goalie is primarily about reading the angles and covering your net accordingly—the game helps out with the rest. Mentally, however, it’s a very different role to that of a skater, requiring intense degrees of patience and ultra-precise movements of the analog stick. For those looking for a relaxing few games of virtual hockey, it simply doesn’t fit the bill.
“I believe there are a lot of commonalities in regards to the mentality of real-life and virtual goalies,” said Cameron McKenna, who has a decade of experience with both roles. “When things are going well, you go into games with a positive attitude, not overthinking your play, and you just feel locked in. Just like in real life, however, we all eventually go through those tough stretches. You go into games telling yourself that you have to play well, putting all this pressure on ourselves to perform, which only throws you further off your game.”
For many players, this mental battle only adds to the appeal. It’s one of the reasons why they’re so involved in their community, working as a unit to enhance each other’s consistency levels and simultaneously boost the reputation of the goalie scene. In particular, the key members of this group have left a significant imprint on the role over the years.
“Within [our] Discord there’s a private group chat for a tightly knit group of high level goalies.… We really enjoy talking amongst ourselves about how to play the position, how to improve it,” Jonlol explained. “I’d say this group of goalies has had more influence on the competitive EASHL scene, how the goalie position is played, and what needs to be made better within the game than anyone else in our community.”
These players find themselves attracted to the position for different reasons, but their underlying drive remains the same: the desire to compete at an elite level. And that’s important, as competitive EASHL leagues rely on these talents to thrive. In many respects, they’re the star attraction. It’s not unusual to see players scoring goals in the EASHL, but only at the highest level can you witness goalies pulling off miraculous saves from play to play.
For now, though, their talents largely remain a secret. The official NHL 19 Gaming World Championship focuses on the game’s Hockey Ultimate Team mode, which puts one player in control of an entire team. The best goalies instead resort to playing in various esports leagues across the web, including the likes of LeagueGaming.com and NHLGamer.com, both of which enjoy thriving communities.
The production values aren’t as high and the prize money isn’t as lucrative, but they’re growing in popularity. And when sponsors do get involved, the stakes are raised even further. The mental toughness required by each goalie quickly escalates. Just one slip-up could cost the team thousands of dollars. It undoubtedly makes for great viewing.
Indeed, the ESHL semifinal I witnessed remained engrossing to the last. The final was even better, with star teams Entourage and the ultimately victorious BBB weaving a game-seven narrative compelling enough to rival the best of traditional sports. You could sense the adrenaline pulsing through the goalies’ fingers throughout four(!) utterly engrossing overtime periods. “In a game like that, you know the goalies have to be playing at their best and there is all the pressure in the world on them to be perfect,” Jonlol said.
But these players’ motivations aren’t fueled by dollar signs. As top goalie Perrilyzer1 affirmed, “most of the community participates [purely] for the enjoyment of the competition.” They’d rather talk about developing their own community than highlighting moments of personal glory, and even when they do, it’s never about how much they’ve earned along the way.
They’re also keen to look to the future. Perri, for example, proved victorious in the NHL 09 EASHL Championships—an official tournament which EA Sports has only repeated once since. He cited it as the peak of his goalie career. Today’s goalies don’t get those kinds of opportunities, and some would like to see a return to a similar format in future years.
“I hope the NHL and EA is noticing these leagues. There are so many good storylines and rivalries,” Scheckel told me. “If [the] NHL is serious about esports, creating teams and leagues that have all players controlled by humans would be the most interesting to watch and follow in my opinion.”
Even despite their lack of visibility, these players have worked hard to establish a thriving goalie scene over the past decade. The popularity of EA Sports NHL’s most demanding feature could easily have fallen by the wayside without them, but has instead developed into a welcoming community of competitors, helpers, and friends.
It remains to be seen how it will evolve going forward. Perhaps the NHL Gaming World Championship will expand to include EASHL teams. Perhaps the community’s Discord will pass 1,000 members by the end of the year. But regardless of what happens, these loyal goalies will keep working tirelessly to make the NHL series a better place for anyone who steps between the pipes.
Header image: EA Sports
Fraser Gilbert has been covering video games for the past five years, and has written for a variety of books, magazines, and websites including Official Xbox Magazine, GamesMaster, FourFourTwo, Retro Gamer, Kotaku UK, Operation Sports, VICE, Red Bull Games, PCGamesN, and others. He’s a sports game fanatic, and has been playing EA Sports’ NHL series since the ’98 edition. Find him on Twitter @_Just1MoreGame.