BURNABY, B.C. - Seth Jones' virtual image will skate in the NHL before he does.
Jones had high-resolution photo images of his face scanned Monday for NHL '14 at the headquarters of the video game's maker, EA Sports, in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby. The video game comes out in September before Jones, taken fourth overall in this year's NHL draft, secures employment with the Nashville Predators.
Jones, an avid video game player, approached the company about the chance to get his likeness on screen.
"It's cool to see what goes on behind the scenes," said Jones after the brief photo shoot.
Sitting under bright lights in a small studio on what is known as the "hot seat," Jones puckered up, smiled, grimaced and delivered other facial expressions upon instruction while EA employees stood by and cameras recorded his moves.
"The expressions are actually kind of funny, but you've got to do them," said Jones, an 18-year-old Plano, Tex., native,. "It's cool to have them be able to make you talk in a game and all sorts of things."
The entire session lasted just a few minutes. Jones, whose father Popeye Jones played in the NBA, spent about two hours playing a prototype of NHL '14.
Sean Ramjagsingh, the lead producer of NHL '14, said the firm wanted to put Jones' facial images in the game to provide more authenticity to the virtual representation of the on-ice version.
"He's a huge fan of the EA NHL '14 series," said Ramjagsingh. "He plays the game all the time with his (two) brothers. We knew that and (thought) we'd love to have a fourth overall NHL pick come over here and check out (EA) and get scanned and just walk him through the process of how we actually make the video game.
"And, just to give him a first-hand look at NHL '14 before all the public actually gets its hands on it, too, was a big thing for us. It's great to have NHL players join in whenever we can, just to add that level of authenticity to everything that we do."
Shots of the defenceman's facial images were also designed to provide a more realistic version of the video game.
"In the past, what we would have had was just the face of (the player) and they wouldn't actually animate or have much facial animation," said Ramjagsingh. "As the years progressed, we wanted to get more and more realistic. So when a guy takes a hit, you can actually ... show the hurt look on his face. When he scores a goal, you can see him celebrate. You can show happiness.
"You bring out the emotions of the player. That's why you capture all those different expressions."
Jones, an offensive defenceman known for his strong skating ability, recorded 14 goals and 52 assists in his first and, potentially only, season with Portland as he helped the Winterhawks win the WHL title and reach the Memorial Cup final.
He will be part of an NHL '14 game that, through the use of what the company calls a new Enforcer Engine, will present more refined images of fights and tell the story of fighting's role in the game.
"Fighting is an important part of the sport," said Ramjagsingh. "It's part of hockey. For us, this year, we'll tell the story of why fighting is an important part of the sport, why fights happen in the real NHL, and try to bring that in."
Previous versions of the NHL's video game version have depicted fighting. But the company is using technology from its other games to enhance the fighting in NHL '14.
"In our game, you'll see the authenticity of the sport. ... You'll have a tough guy come in and defend his teammate," said Ramjagsingh. "That's what we're trying to tell, why that fighting element is so important to the sport of hockey. It's really about (understanding) why tough guys and grinders are an important part of the sport, what they do for their team to protect their skill guys around them — and show off their skills as well.
"The big thing though is getting the proper balance of speed, skill and aggression. It's the three of those things in perfect balance that make an authentic playing-hockey game in the virtual world and also an authentic hockey experience in real life."
According to the company, the most recent version of the video game, NHL '13, sold about two million copies. So Jones is likely to get plenty of exposure in the virtual world if not in the real NHL.
While NHL '14 is coming on screen in the fall, Jones will try to show Nashville coach Barry Trotz that he has the right balance of speed, skill and aggression on the ice. Jones is attempting to join a Predators organization known for developing top-flight defencemen like Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, who has since moved to the Minnesota Wild.
"I'm going to go and do my best to prepare myself physically and mentally for training camp and prove to the (coaching) staff and the organization that I can make the team," said Jones, who recently attended a Predators prospects came and spent two weeks getting to know other players and the city.
"Hopefully, I can come in and try to make an impact as much as I can. It's up to the coaching staff at the end of the day how much ice time I get and how they want to develop me in the league. I'll respect the decision that they make, whatever that may be, whether it's 20 minutes or 12, or maybe even going back to Portland to develop for another year."
If he does have to go back to Portland, a seemingly unlikely scenario, he will try to be the best player that he can. But if NHL '14 is any indication, he will be playing for Nashville instead.