James Cybulski’s voice can be heard in basements and bedrooms of hockey fans around the world, and he still can’t quite believe he’s in his third year of being the play-by-play guy of EA Sports’ “NHL” video game.
“It’s a total dream come true,” the Delta-based broadcaster said with the kind of enthusiasm he brings to the popular game.
The latest edition, “NHL 22,” was released in mid-October with Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews on the box cover – again, for the second time since 2020.
“I’d say you aren’t the only one saying, ‘What, AGAIN?! He was on the cover just two years ago!” Cybulski said with a laugh, in a phone call.
“My vote for Ryan Reaves was clearly ignored,” he deadpanned on Instagram back in August.
The video game offers “a huge leap forward in graphics” and the arrival of Superstar X-Factors, which “unlocks the unique skills of the league’s most elite players,” raves a post on the Burnaby-based game company’s website (ea.com). “This is breakthrough hockey.”
EA’s NHL title has been part of Cybulski’s life for more than a quarter-century, starting in his old Ottawa ‘hood.
“I played the game as a kid, in the early- to mid-’90s,” he recalled. “I played ‘NHL 94’ on my Sega Genesis (game system), then evolved to playing on the PC around ‘NHL 98,’ then converted myself to become a PlayStation guy. It’s funny, I’ve always been an NHL video game guy, whether it’s playing as a teenager, or you know, playing in the my 20s and then even into my 30s, coming home after having way too many with my buddies and than trash-talking. You know, ‘OK, let’s turn on the (game system) and let’s go, let’s settle this!’”
The game graphics have come a long way since those early days, of course – and so has Cybulski.
He stick-handled his way into sports broadcasting and show hosting for TV and radio outlets over the past couple of decades, both here and in Toronto, and recently landed a job calling games for the AHL’s Abbotsford Canucks.
Turns out, being a play-by-play broadcaster was Cybulski’s desire all along.
“The whole reason I wanted to get into the (broadcasting) business was to be a play-by-play guy, that was always the dream,” he explained. “Out of school, I had a chance to call Ottawa 67s games, on the radio for awhile. The whole time through high school, I volunteered at community television while going to school and working, for about six years there.
“I did it to get my reps, and any opportunity that presented itself, I would do,” Cybulski added. “I called ringette championships, university football games, basketball, karate tournaments, a pre-Olympic boxing tournament in 1992. I did minor hockey games, touch football, lacrosse games – a whole bunch of different sports, and I was young, all between the age of 17 and 23, in Ottawa, growing up.”
Three years ago, Cybulski auditioned for EA three times and ultimately got the gig as voice of the company’s “NHL” game.
“It was honestly the most amazing moment,” he said. “Tom, I’ve been honoured to do some pretty cool, amazing things in my career, experiences and opportunities in my life, but man, this opportunity to be the voice of a video game franchise I grew up playing, so iconic, it’s just amazing to me.”
He follows in the footsteps of some broadcasting “legends,” including Jim Hughson, Gary Thorne and Mike “Doc” Emrick.
“And then it’s like, ‘What the hell’s Cybulski doing here?” he said with a laugh. “But the feedback has been really good, very positive. It’s a lot of fun, but a lot of work, too.”
Cybulski’s voice work for the latest game was all done at his Tsawwassen home, due to the pandemic. Basically, he cleared out a bunch of kids’ toys and covered the office walls with foam.
“That’s where I scream and shout a lot,” he noted.
His contract with EA calls for up to 300 hours of voice work annually, which translates to a couple days a week, usually four-hour sessions, adding content where needed.
“One day it might be a ‘phone book,’ as they call it, which is essentially going through name after name. Not long ago there was a day where we added close to a thousand names to the game, and it’s making sure you have, A, the right pronunciation, and B, the consistency in energy level,” Cybulski explained.
“If you’re going, ‘Passes the puck to Singh, passes the puck to Jones, passes the puck to Zillich,’ you know, you want to make sure your energy level is the same all the way through, so that it doesn’t sound like a 1990s version of movie phone, that old automated voice – ‘Please press 1.’
“It’s maintaining the baseline of energy to be consistent,” he continued. “So we do those, and one day it might be rattling off names, another day might be all goal calls. All those situational plays in hockey that are so common that you don’t even think about, we do all those – entering the offensive zone, gaining the line, but saying that 10 different ways without sounding the exact same. You can be a little cheeky sometimes while also being mindful to stay consistent with the traditional broadcast. We can kind of pick our spots to have some fun, too.”
Cybulski’s game call isn’t for everyone, and he knows that. He brings an energy some find too over-the-top,
“I think broadcasting is subjective, right, and for a broadcaster, you’re providing that soundtrack for people,” he suggested. “You know, some people like something more subtle, but for me, personally, I’ve always been drawn to the energy. To me, from a broadcasting standpoint, I’m kind of a salesman, I’m selling an event.
“When I look at it from an NHL video game standpoint, I want it to be exciting because quite frankly, it’s the biggest thing in your life at that very moment, your focus. So I want people to feel like it’s the biggest game of their lives, in that world, in that moment. That’s the approach I go for, to have that feeling of it being the biggest game. It’s about being entertained.”