NHL 21’s Be a Pro overhaul has no staying power

In NHL 21, EA Sports revamped its multiseason career mode, Be a Pro. But the long-awaited refresh of the fan-favorite mode ends up like the hotshot rookie I created: It’s impressive at first but falters down the stretch, and fizzles after the first season.

NHL 21 developer EA Vancouver hasn’t reimagined the basics of Be a Pro. It’s still about playing through the NHL career of a created player and improving their attributes over time. That’s fine, but this year’s changes — as significant as they appear to be — don’t go far enough in making the experience feel both new and improved. The studio has now grafted narrative components (of a sort) onto the mode, using flashy presentation elements like cutscenes and a radio show. Yet the story, such as it is, ends up being limited almost entirely to your player’s rookie season in the NHL. And the more time I spent with the mode beyond that, the more it felt like the first year was an opulent facade on a creaky building.

It’s baffling that teammate challenges (score goals, notch assists, block shots, etc.) come almost exclusively from fellow youngsters — No. 91 here is Vitali Kravtsov, and he has no more experience than my created player — rather than respected veterans. Also, having multiple conversations with little-known players like Kravtsov and Filip Chytil makes the poor accuracy of their NHL 21 face models stick out like a sore thumb.
Image: EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts via Polygon

Be a Pro’s introductory cutscene leads right into a familiar disappointment. The NHL series’ player creation suite remains essentially unchanged this year, which means that it’s still impossible for me to create a player who truly looks like my Indian self. The mode may look more like a traditional role-playing game in NHL 21, with its new dialogue choices, but it’s sorely missing a more robust character creator with basic options like the ability to tweak skin tones and facial features.

These new role-playing choices are designed to let you shape the kind of player you want to be and live the life of an NHL athlete off the ice, although the range of outcomes is limited. Dialogue options (albeit without voice acting) will pop up in your player’s conversations with their coach or teammates, or interviews with the press, and all of them tend to be split into the two main paths that EA Vancouver has set up. You can go the “team” route, choosing dialogue that follows your coach’s instructions to play within the system, or you can opt for the “star” path, putting your interests ahead of the team’s.

Your dialogue choices open up chances to boost your character’s skills and attributes. EA Vancouver has integrated this conversation structure into Be a Pro’s existing “Coach Challenge” system. Instead of just getting a pop-up saying that your coach wants you to defend a lead, you’ll see an in-game cutscene of the coach calling you over to the bench and actually giving you that instruction. It’s a smart way to liven up a long-running element of the Be a Pro experience and make it feel more immersive.

The choices work far better for the in-game challenges than the other conversations. The team/star framework makes sense in the context of hockey, which is so dominated by a team-first mentality that endless column inches have been dedicated to the idea that the sport would be more popular if the NHL could figure out how to market its stars better. And in Be a Pro games, that dichotomy fits with the ethos of the mode, where you define what kind of player you are through your performance and play style on the ice. I’d wager that most Be a Pro fans, like me, tend to play aggressively in an effort to rack up gaudy stats. The challenges now also present a more conservative option that still feels like you’re contributing to the team.

But using the same system for off-ice conversations falls flat because the choices don’t end up mattering all that much. And because they’re divorced from the NHL series’ existing in-game challenges, I quickly detected how tired the dialogue choices began to feel.

A common situation is a cutscene in which a teammate invites you to a group outing. The team responses might be to say that yes, you’d be happy to go, or that no, you need to rest up for the next game. But many of the star responses are worded in such a ridiculously selfish way — like, literally saying, “What is in it for me?” — that it’s hard to imagine an actual NHL athlete mouthing off like that. A binary system where one of the options is “actively be an asshole” makes for a poor role-playing setup; it’s also been done to death in sports series like MLB The Show, NBA 2K, and Madden NFL. I’d love to see somebody move past it.

Christ, what an asshole.
Image: EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts via Polygon

The star path is really viable only for challenges on the ice. It tends to be more risky, with tougher objectives that offer greater rewards. The team path is safer, with missions that are more easily achievable. For instance, my coach might ask me to maintain a lead (team), an objective I’d fail only if our opponents tied the game. I could also respond with a guarantee that I’ll personally score a goal to put the game out of reach (star).

The outcomes of these challenges don’t impact your player’s hockey skills. Instead, they affect three different “likability” ratings. The brand likability rating — which rises when you complete star goals — is the one that matters most, since it controls your number of social media followers and provides endorsement opportunities. It behooves you to focus on brand likability because you’ll unlock perks you can buy with your salary, which can help improve your attributes on the ice.

So yes, there is a tangible benefit if you want to be a jerk to your coach and teammates, and act like a prima donna with the press. But there are other ways to get that same benefit. The likability ratings top out at 1,000 points in the positive and negative directions, and I was able to hit that cap — for all three ratings — by the end of my first NHL season without any trouble, even though I simulated the latter three-fourths of the year. Once I maxed everything out, I became much less invested in any of the conversations or in-game challenges.

There’s a lot of Calder Trophy-specific content in NHL 21’s Be a Pro, which is good for motivating you to get through the rookie season. But after that, the cutscenes are limited to coach challenges and invitations to group outings.
Image: EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts via Polygon

Again, NHL 21’s Be a Pro mode is built to focus on your player’s first season, and pretty much that year alone. Everything in the mode centers on the chase for the Calder Trophy, the NHL’s rookie of the year award. In the menus and during conversations — whether on or off the ice — there are radio clips outlining the decisions from commentators James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro, who are also the in-game play-by-play man and rinkside analyst, respectively. They clearly recorded a lot of new audio for NHL 21, because I’ve heard a wide variety of conversations in my time with Be a Pro. Much of it is centered on how the player character performs relative to other top rookies, which, again, applies only to the first season. While I love hearing a replay of Cybulski’s commentary for a goal I’ve scored, it’s inexcusable that he continues to refer to me as “the rookie” now, in my fourth season. And that’s not the only continuity issue that arises in the seasons after the first one.

By the start of my second year, I was somehow named the New York Rangers’ captain, a rare honor traditionally reserved for a respected veteran and locker-room leader. I had managed to reach a 76 overall rating — appropriate for a sophomore season, though by no means impressive — but apparently hadn’t raised my profile enough with the fans to unlock worthwhile perks. (Some are gated only by funds, but others are gated by social media followers; maddeningly, the game doesn’t say how many followers you need.) This disconnect makes these ostensible milestones feel arbitrary and meaningless — what’s the point of the brand likability rating if these other obstacles exist? — and saps any desire I might’ve had to bother pursuing impactful perks or the salary necessary to afford them.

Before my fourth season, I signed a new contract, a process that is one of the more anti-climactic elements of Be a Pro. Cybulski and the mode’s text overlays use the NHL’s terminology for a young player’s first contract, the “entry-level contract” (ELC), so I was hoping to see a deeper implementation of it here. Instead, I was merely handed a contract to sign. The player’s agent is a named character in NHL 21’s Be a Pro, but I’m not sure why — Taylor Mackay exists mostly to recommend that you attend charity events.

This is how the vast majority of my conversations with my agent played out.
Image: EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts via Polygon

When my ELC was up after my third season, I was presented with two options: I could sign a new two-year contract with the Rangers, or leave for a more lucrative one-year deal with the San Jose Sharks. I had no opportunity to negotiate for better terms, or pitch my services to a team of my choosing. Why do I even keep you around, Taylor?! While the Franchise mode distinguishes between restricted and unrestricted free agents, letting you get in the weeds, that distinction is sadly lost in Be a Pro. And I haven’t yet seen the “request trade” option that previously existed in the mode.

The role-playing choices that are new to NHL 21’s Be a Pro mode were presumably designed to impart a greater impression of player freedom. The irony is that the choices end up feeling hollow, hamstringing the development of a sense of agency. The illusion may fool players who don’t go past the rookie year, but once I was multiple seasons in, the cutscenes, likability ratings, and perks all felt inconsequential to me.

EA Vancouver had to start somewhere in its effort to make Be a Pro more dynamic and immersive, and this update indeed feels like a first effort. When the studio introduced Be a Pro in 2008’s NHL 09, it set a high bar for sports career modes. But others have eclipsed it in the years since, making this attempt feel dated rather than new.

NHL 21 was released Oct. 16 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on Xbox One using a download code provided by Electronic Arts. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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