As a professional hockey goaltender, David Littman had a pretty neat job. After retiring as an active player more than a decade ago, he has an even cooler one now as a senior producer for EA Sports and its line of NHL video games, which have grown by leaps and bounds in their game-play realism.
“We’re getting to the point where you not only watch the game, but you feel like you’re on the ice,” Littman says. “Our goal is to get as close as possible — and for people who want to play in the NHL, this is their chance.”
Littman himself had his own authentic experience, as an 11th round draft choice of the Buffalo Sabres in 1987. He made his NHL debut during the 1990-91 season, and played an NHL game in each of the next three years, for the Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning, respectively, while spending the bulk of his pro career in the American and International leagues.
Born in Queens, N.Y., Littman grew up on Long Island. He can still recall sitting 10 rows behind the goal at Nassau Coliseum in 1980 as Bob Nystrom deflected home a pass to win the New York Islanders their first of four straight Stanley Cups.
Littman’s own playing career came full circle after he turned pro.
“You set goals when you’re young, and I hoped to play for the Islanders one day,” he says. “My first start for the Sabres was on Long Island, and it was just an awesome experience.”
Littman’s family moved to Rhode Island when he was in his mid-teens. He later played four years at Boston College, where he still ranks among B.C.’s all-time leaders with 50 career victories. He also backstopped the Eagles to three Hockey East regular-season championships and three NCAA Tournament appearances.
“Playing at B.C. was awesome,” he recalls. “It’s one of the best hockey schools in the country, and I still have some of my best friends from there to this day.”
Littman also suited up at the 1994 IIHF World Championship in Italy, and helped Team USA to a fourth-place finish. He eventually wrapped things up with the IHL’s Orlando Solar Bears, posting 53 victories over two campaigns before an injury closed his career at age 33.
“I hurt my knee in 2000, and it was like graduating college again,” he remembers. “All of a sudden I was in the real world, and figuring out what I wanted to do was a challenge.”
He spent some time doing color commentary on Solar Bears broadcasts before discovering EA Sports operated a large studio in the Orlando area.
“I’ve loved video games since I was 8, and I played them almost every day,” Littman admits. “A light went on, and it was a perfect match.”
The beginning was less than auspicious, as he made practically minimum wage as an entry-level game tester on EA Sports Madden Football.
“It was seven dollars an hour, and definitely a challenge,” Littman says. “I was sitting next to 18- and 19-year-olds on summer jobs, just trying to get my foot in the door.”
After six months of testing games for eight hours a day, he asked what else EA Sports offered. The company’s NHL line was developed in Vancouver, and he flew from Florida to British Columbia in the fall of 2001 for an interview.
“I got the job with my hockey and video game knowledge, and I’ve been here ever since,” he recalls.
He relates that EA Sports NHL 2001 was perhaps 10 percent realistic of actual hockey action, whereas the latest model is about 70 percent lifelike.
“A lot of people think it’s the real thing when they see it,” Littman says.
Like a goaltender who watches a contest in front of him for defensive gaps, however, the former netminder doesn’t just play the games. He scans them for problems as new XBox, PlayStation and other versions hit the market, and says one can still spot animation and artificial intelligence issues.
The hardest thing to replicate has been the
EA Sports NHL 2001 was perhaps 10 percent realistic of actual hockey action, whereas the latest model is about 70 percent lifelike.
unpredictable nature of the sport.
“It’s what makes hockey great,” says Littman. “There’s changes on the fly, no out of bounds, full contact, goalies and posts, and we’re trying to get to that point.”
And with EA Sports real physical modeling, collisions can have any sort of outcome, which like many hockey plays couldn’t be realistically duplicated years ago.
“It was all about a TV in the living room,” Littman says. “Now you can have 12 players [online] on 12 consoles in 12 places. We’re getting hockey fans around the world together in one spot.”
There’s also the Live the Life feature, whereby gamers can experience what real NHL players do, including playing in the minors, getting traded, and even living off the ice.
Littman still skates occasionally these days, but as a forward. He and his wife, Michelle, who hails from Vancouver, have a son, Dawson, 1½, who will likely have dual citizenship. Dawson has already picked up his first hockey stick, and also plays rudimentary computer games.
Just like dad, a thought that takes Littman back to something his mother quipped when he was a boy.
“At age 7, [she said] I played hockey and video games, and now I’m 46 and doing the same thing,” he laughs. “Making a career out of hockey in any way, shape or form has been a blessing, and I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Roman J. Uschak is a freelance writer based out of Union, N.J.
Photos By Jeff Vinnick; Rochester Americans