Unlike EA Sports juggernaut, Madden NFL 08, which sells the majority of its annual millions of copies in North America, the NHL 08 game and franchise is a hit around the globe, thanks in part to the international flavor of the sport of hockey.
As a result, when EA Sports chose rising star Eric Staal to be on the cover of NHL 08, that new Carolina Hurricanes jersey is selling the team to hockey fans around the world.
"Carolina isn’t one of those hockey markets where it’s really well known across the United States and Canada," said Staal, a towering 6-foot-4 center. "Obviously, winning the Stanley Cup has helped this area. Something like the videogame cover is an opportunity for this area, the team and for myself, so it’s pretty neat that way."
EA Sports first approached Staal about working with the game after he helped guide the Canes to their first Stanley Cup Championship in 2006. Although they selected Alexander Ovechkin to be on the cover of NHL 07, Staal did do some voice-over work for the game’s TV spots. His relationship with EA blossomed this summer when EA Sports selected Staal, who turns 23 on Oct. 29, to be the cover athlete for the new PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 2 game.
One of the reasons the world’s largest independent game publisher went with Staal this year, besides his Stanley Cup run and growing visibility in the NHL, was the fact that he has two younger brothers in the league who are also gaining attention – Jordan on the Pittsburgh Penguins and Marc on the New York Rangers. The thought was that a solid relationship with one brother could lead to future cover-athlete opportunities down the road.
One such opportunity occurred in Toronto before the NHL season kicked off. Eric and Jordan Staal played against the Hanson brothers from the classic hockey flick, “Slap Shot” to generate some attention for the new game, which introduces revolutionary control of the virtual players.
The Hanson brothers took control of the Penguins – the team EA Sports predicted would advance to this season’s Stanley Cup but lose to the San Jose Sharks – and the Staals took the Hurricanes, the team NHL 08’s season simulation predicted would win their division.
"That was a lot of fun, except for the fact that we lost," said Eric about playing the Hansons. "The whole experience of that day … being able to play NHL 08 against my brother and then us teaming up against the Hanson brothers. It was pretty cool and a very good day."
Asked how two veteran gamers – both Eric and Jordan grew up gaming and continue to log hours playing PlayStation 3 and PSP throughout the year – could lose to some old guys, the brothers had different responses.
"I have no idea," said Eric. "I don’t know what happened. They ended up getting a breakaway with nine seconds left in the game. I don’t know how he knew how to shoot it, but it ended up going through old Cam’s legs and into the net. But it was pretty funny, though."
"We were on a power play in the last minute of the game and they had a breakaway and if we had (Penguin goalie Marc-Andre) Fleury in net that wouldn’t have happened, but we had Cam Ward and they ended up scoring," said Jordan, who has quite the sense of humor. "Lucky bounce, short side and that was the game. We didn’t have enough time to do anything."
Jordan is proud that his brother is on the cover of the new game.
"It’s pretty amazing to see my brother on the cover and playing the game first-hand," said Jordan. "Obviously, playing against those three meatheads (the Hansons) was a lot of fun. Those guys are definitely one of a kind."
The Staal brothers played a couple of games of NHL 08 recently before meeting each other on the real ice at the RBC Center. Eric won both kinds of games.
"The guy’s been playing that game non-stop for the last few months," said Jordan. "That was the first time I’d played the new game. I was always known as the gamer in the family, but I guess I’m slipping."
One of the reasons Eric is logging a lot of virtual ice time on NHL 08 is because of the improvements over last year’s game.
"I like the fact that it’s actually like hockey," said Eric. "When you’re down on the power play, you can set it up to have guys go where they go in the real game. You have to be able to get it done. I think the fact that the players you’re controlling can pick off passes and can read plays is pretty cool."
The new game, which supports online play, allows the Staal brothers to keep competitive even when they’re in different cities.
"It was the same thing, whether we were on the outdoor rink or we were just inside playing NHL hockey, it was really competitive," said Jordan. "We had lots of gaming tournaments, and we even had our cousins come over and play. It was always a lot of fun."
Note: John Gaudiosi writes the Gaming Guru blog for WRAL.com and covers the game industry for WRAL’s Local Tech Wire.