Hands-On With NHL 21’s Retooled Be A Pro Mode

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Season after season of just making do, Be A Pro has needed some new lifeblood for years. EA Vancouver finally made the investment in NHL 21 by bringing in new mechanics and upgrading several elements. Expect a more immersive experience that provides more choices in how to evolve your player from inexperienced rookie to top-tier talent. This year, you will be charting your own path to legend status by gunning for the Calder Memorial Trophy and Stanley Cup. I recently got a chance to create my own player, taking her from the CHL to getting drafted by the LA Kings as the overall number two pick. I then proved myself to be top-line quality after a few pre-season games. Based on my journey, here’s how the mode is shaping up.

For this year, you can choose where to begin your career, either in the CHL, Europe, or NHL. I picked the CHL in hopes of becoming a key player in my team’s quest for the Memorial Cup. The tournament quickly becomes about raising my draft stock; my agent chimes in after my performances about where I’m projected to be taken in the draft. After having 26 points in four games (yeah, maybe I should have bumped the difficulty), I feel like I’m a lock to be drafted overall at number one. However, then I do interviews with various teams that are eyeing me, like the New York Rangers and LA Kings, and I can’t tell if I’m saying what they want to hear. 

In Be A Pro, you have two big paths you can take in conversations: “team” or “star.” Picking the team option gets you brownie points with your coach and betters your line chemistry, while selecting the star option unlocks more endorsement opportunities and increases your popularity with fans. “We look at the ethos of hockey players, and there are players who are, you know, team first, right? They’re always about the program, they’re always [about] whatever the coach says and they’re happily going on board with that strategy,” explains creative director William Ho. “Then, there are other people who have a different hockey ethos. They have a different play style, or they want to stand out. They want to build their own personal brands, while still helping their hockey team win. So, we really want to give our Be A Pro players those same sorts of choices.” 

This is where the decisions got a little tricky for me. Sometimes the star options are just so arrogant; I hated picking them. I decided to be a team player who lets my game speak for itself, so I often picked that response. You can see what the impact will be of each dialogue choice before you settle on it, which is nice when you’re trying to balance your player’s wants and needs. The draft comes and I’m selected at number two, which makes me wonder if The Rangers were just looking for a showboat over my teammate approach. Maybe my player just isn’t aggressive enough for them. Who knows? It will forever haunt me. 

Ho later clarifies that it’s not about going down one path, and you should mix it up and choose from both paths as you see fit. “There isn’t just a single way to play it,” he says. “Throughout your career in Be A Pro, there are certain times when you may be team-first to make sure that you’re getting promotions to higher lines, you gain more ice time, but then you’re going to want to be able to perhaps earn more salary perks or get more endorsement opportunities, at which point, you should actually change your responses to more star. But also, it’s not 100 percent of the time true that it’s always black and white like that. We really want people to look at the responses and look at the ratings impacts. And really, we’ve tried to make those ratings impacts with the fiction of each conversation, each promise, so keep your eyes peeled and don’t just button through the conversations.”

What it comes down to is balance. You have three likeability meters, teammate, management, and brand, that will dictate where you stand in the organization and offer different perks. You want to invest in all of them to some degree. For instance, taking opportunities to hang out with teammates means they’re more likely to pass to you, and more accurately to boot. In one instance, I went out with the guys, but overdid it with eating too many hot dogs, so I lost a little of my fitness for the next match, but my chemistry improved. Management likeability influences earning more ice time and making your way onto special teams. Look, you also need the coach to give you minutes so you can make an impact and win that Calder trophy, so it’s in your favor to listen to him every so often. Getting your brand likeability up gives you more endorsement opportunities and salary bumps. 

Salary bumps are important as they allow you to purchase perks to enhance abilities and other things that will influence likeability meters, like a house party to impress your teammates. The things you can purchase with your salary could be the biggest game-changer, as you can spend to improve your player in various areas, like their stats or social media following. This also seems to be the place where you can flash your luxurious life and buy fancy cars and condos. If you’re a pro, you need to act the part, after all. 

What I enjoyed the most during my playtime was how natural everything felt. While you’re on the ice, the coach will call you over during certain moments in the game and give you a directive, like focus on protecting the lead. You can agree to his gameplan or, if you choose the star option, deviate from it. For example, you may say you’re going to get the team another goal to really put the game away. Making promises and following through will help with your likeability ratings. I liked when I came up big with a goal and he called me over to congratulate me. It feels like what you’re doing on the ice matters and mimics those moments you see between coach and player when watching a real game.

After matches, you’ll even hear more feedback on how you’re progressing as commentator James Cybulski talks about you on his radio show. Press will also come up to you, bombarding you with questions about your abilities and role. You will have more options beyond the “star” and “team” ones, if you invest points into the dialogue part of your player’s skill tree. This has a “charm” and “diplomat” path, allowing you to respond in different ways that usually move different likeability meters in more pleasing directions. The revamped hub shows you everything you need to know about upcoming events and where your player stands. I like how easy it is to see how far away you are from a line promotion; it feels like nothing is hidden from you about your progress and your position in the league. 

So far, these upgrades to Be A Pro feel like the start of something special. I think it will take a few years before this mode really hits its stride, but these are steps in the right direction. I won’t be able to see how satisfying this whole process is until I get deeper into the game, but interactions both on and off the ice felt true to the NHL lifestyle. My biggest question remains how satisfying this will all be in terms of your choices having an impact and if there’s enough here to dull some of the repetition that goes hand in hand with a long season. Time will tell, but if you’ve been a fan or wanting to check out this mode, NHL 21 is looking to be the best time to invest in it. 

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