As I mentioned in last week’s dispatch, when Tiger Woods came to New York City recently, I was able to pick his brain a bit about Twitter, Facebook and the changing landscape of sports marketing. Today, the topic is video games. After all, that’s what brought him to Niketown, following the U.S. Open. EA Sports just released Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10, the latest version. (You can sign up for the beta of the upcoming online version here).
Unlike those endorsements where it’s hard to imagine the celebrity using the product, much less contributing to its formation, Woods is an eager collaborator and pointed critic of the video game that bears his name. Growing up, he was a gamer. “From the Atari 2600 [game console] days,” he told me, “to the 5200 and on from there.”
Like a lot of gamers in their 30s and beyond, Woods struggles to find the time to play regularly. The best-known athlete on the planet puts in some long hours, travels constantly, and now has two children under the age of three. Last year’s knee injury may have prevented him from winning more tournaments, but it did wonders for his video game skills. “When I had surgery, I couldn’t move for three weeks,” he says. “I was immobile, sitting on the couch, so I played all the time.”
Woods wants his digital golf game to be fun, of course, but what drives him is a desire to make it as true as possible to the experience of being “inside the ropes”–the ropes separating fans and players in a tournament. “In terms of innovation, our specific area is realism,” he says. “Having spectators moving and talking, the roar of the gallery from another green, the changing leader board. They’re all distractions, which we see and hear, and you have to focus quickly and try and execute. We’ve incorporated these things into the game.”
The newest feature, dynamic weather, is especially appropriate given the U.S. Open’s wet conditions at Bethpage State Park. Using information from weather.com, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 recreates the actual conditions at whichever course you opt to play (except for lightning, which would suspend play, perhaps forcing players to hang out in a virtual lockerroom playing video games within a video game. Very meta).
The digital courses have gotten so accurate that Woods says he and other pro players will familiarize themselves with sightlines in the video game before they play the course for real. “It’s nice to get some reference in your head before you go,” he says. “The blind tee shots at Bethpage look the same in the game. It has the same tree I was aiming at every day.”
When the Wii version of the game came out, Woods welcomed a controller that players swing like a golf club, but he saw room for improvement. “It was too easy,” he says. “If you rotated the [club] face, nothing happened. Now if you rotate your wrists, it changes your shot. The ball goes to the right if you under-rotate, which is what happens in a golf swing.”
Even so, it’s still video golf. The Wii doesn’t require you to control your whole body while performing a smooth yet powerful twisting motion, the way you make an actual golf swing. And the PlayStation and Xbox controllers involve little more than a serious thumb workout.
What appears on the screen, however, is an impressive simulation of Woods in action. At Niketown, he sat beneath a large screen showing highlights from the game, and both versions wore his Sunday uniform–red shirt, black slacks, black Nike hat. The digital Woods has even changed his swing along with the real Woods.
“Every time I change my swing–I’ve made two evolutionary swing changes while working with EA–I have them mo-cap me again,” Woods says of the motion-capture sessions that translate his movements into digital form. “I want to make sure the gamers are getting my golf swing. That’s something I believe in.”
It’s a subtle change, one that casual players might not even notice, but it reveals rather wise instincts. Woods, the consummate gamer, knows his audience. And in video games, as in golf, the details matter.