Edmonton, AB - In case you needed any evidence that Edmonton is a pure hockey city, a highly anticipated midnight launch of EA Sports' NHL13 Monday night (or, Tuesday morning, I suppose) cemented it.
Just as Oil Country has embraced their team on the ice at Rexall Place, the same can be said for the virtual world as approximately 300 gamers showed up to EB Games at Kingsway Mall to get their hands on the game and mingle with a young Oilers star.
Jordan Eberle was on hand to sign autographs on any item customers brought, or on a special, limited-edition cover -- a complementary giveaway with the 22-year-old Oiler pictured as the featured player.
"It's pretty neat," he said of the event. "It's a game that I grew up playing and a lot of hockey players play. It's no surprise [to see the crowd]. Edmonton is unbelievable. They love their Oilers and these guys love video games. It's a winning combination."
Once all the autographs were signed and his wrist could take a breather, Eberle then gave NHL13 a proper test drive. As an avid gamer himself, he was beaming at the opportunity to play, see what his player rating would be and how his rugged good looks (his words, not mine) would match up to the real thing this year.
"Last year I don't think my guy looked anything like me," Eberle laughed. "This year they've got it pretty close, so it's neat to see that.
"Me and Taylor (Hall) play a little bit. He has an Xbox and I'm more of a PS3 guy. We have some pretty good matches. It's a good way to unwind and get your mind away from -- I guess not hockey altogether -- but parts of the hockey world."
"This is the second year we've done this midnight opening with Jordan and he's been great to work with," said EA Sports Marketing Director David Le. "We're building the game for fans across the world, and Jordan Eberle has been a big fan of EA Sports NHL for a few years now. It's fantastic to have him here."
Some customers arrived as early as 5:00pm to secure their spot in line, while others came later resulting in a much longer wait.
"At about 6:00pm, there were only about 30 people here," said Dustin Ouelette, who arrived in the early evening. "At 9:00pm, it grew to about 300."
Finally at 11:00pm, customers stopped arriving in droves and the anticipation started to build. Just as a 'Let's go Oilers!' chant was belted out in the otherwise empty mall, EB's doors opened and the anxious gamers began to civilly cram into the store.
Justin Janke wouldn't have missed it for the world.
"I came last year and it was pretty exciting," he said. "I've been playing for 14 years now, so this is the place to be.
"I'm into the 'Be a GM' (mode)," as opposed to online versus play, Justin added. "I get pretty into it. Me and my brother play online together and do pretty well -- I think we were 120-30 last year. This year I'm pretty excited about the online 'Be a GM' mode; me and a bunch of buddies already have one started."
Midnight launch parties were held across Canada in each city that has an NHL team. While the EA Sports headquarters are located in Burnaby, Edmonton-native Le opted to connect back with his hometown team. As he explains, it's most pivotal to hear the fans' feedback when working on a video game's evolution.
"It's a combination. They know what they want and we want to be able to provide that experience," he said. "At the same time, it's about looking at our development team and making sure they're building the game they want to build.
"This year the team went in and said, 'We think we can absolutely overhaul the skating engine' and they delivered something called True Performance Skating. It's a brand new skating engine, it's all physics-based now and there's some great stuff in there like experiencing top-end speed like we haven't been able to do in the past. They've completely re-written the code and there are over a 1000 new custom animations. It's stuff fans would love to see, but maybe can't articulate as well, so our dev team has the vision to deliver that."
Based on early reviews and the customers' insistence on waiting in line to get it as soon as possible on a chilly September night, EA has accomplished more than delivering an addicting video game. Its series has captured millions of memories and imaginations through a hobby that closely rivals the real thing.
"Well, it's the NHL. You have to get it every year," laughed longtime gamer Andrew Woodford, sporting his orange and royal blue Eberle crested sweater. "I started with NHL94 on Sega Genesis. It's a classic. The only year I haven't bought it was in 2007 and I don't even remember why."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick