The end of Tiger Woods as the face of video game golf was set in motion years ago, and it had nothing to do with Perkins waitresses or a nine-iron through the rear windshield. It had nothing to do with a two-year winless streak or a drought, now spanning five years, without a major championship.
Personal scandal and performance anxiety may be convenient explanations for why EA Sports, yesterday, parted company with Tiger Woods, but these are old and irrelevant excuses. Electronic Arts, after all, stood by Woods through the worst of his marital crisis, becoming a punchline along with him as their game came to market in the summer of 2010.
Intentionally or otherwise, though, EA Sports then started building the kind of game that could survive Woods’ departure — or his dismissal. The cover of the next edition didn’t feature Woods’ image at all. That’s because the game added Augusta National Golf Course, which to that point had been a Salinger-esque figure to video gaming, appearing only in an obscure Japan-only title from 1997.
With The Masters aboard, thousands of armchair golfers would get to live a fantasy much greater than simply saying “I’m Tiger Woods.” They could play Augusta and win that event as themselves.
The truth is that, for a very long time, Woods’ appearance in the game was not as necessary as his appearance on the game. At his zenith, Woods’ endorsement communicated this was an A-list, top carnivore product. His formidable presence on the cover of EA Sports’ game assuredly kept others out of the lucrative console market. (After a long run on PC, the Links series tried to break in on Xbox 10 years ago, and was just crushed. We haven’t seen anything close to a competitor since.)
Even if EA had locked up the only mainstream market for video game golf, sales were plateauing by 2010. The introduction of the Wii and its motion controls helped to disguise a series that still badly needed a shakeup, and wasn’t getting it with things like Hank Haney coaching your swing, or the Ryder Cup.
In gameplay, Woods had always been largely inessential. A few times you’ll slap the ball around with him, especially if you’re playing a friend online and your created golfer is low-level. But over the past two console generations, individual sports, from boxing to tennis to golf, have rarely been the kind of video games that created compelling experiences by living through someone else’s performance.
In fact, I’d argue that even in the team sports, where total fidelity to real-world rosters is essential, you’re not really living vicariously through other athletes. You’re directing them in a drama of your own creation — typically the management of the game and the personnel moves you make in a season. It’s why NBA 2K14‘s new mode celebrating an idealised vision of LeBron James’ future career falls so flat for me. Controlling the Heat with James as a superstar is intriguing to me; validating his legacy, when I can have my own under my own name in another mode, is not.
When Augusta National debuted in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12, it practically pushed Tiger Woods off the cover of his own game. He does appear but barely, with his back to you on the tee of No. 12, overwhelmed by an enormous flagstick and a Masters logo larger than the name of the game itself. Woods shared the cover of the next two editions though this year’s “Masters Historic Edition,” which is essentially the game’s definitive version, bears no trace of him.
It’s not as though EA Sports was fully ignoring Woods. Each of the past three games featured modes that invited you to participate in Woods’ past achievements (including a tour of his childhood that, oddly, worked for me) or attempt to set new records with him. But still these were novelties, a part of the game where you could earn some experience to apply to your created golfer or the online “country club” you started with friends.
With Woods out as the titular figure of the game, the question now becomes whether he will leave it altogether, or remain in a lesser role, equal to the 25 other golfers who licence their appearances to EA Sports. (Reports suggest he is in talks with some other games maker, but that could mean anything, from a mobile title to Golden Tee.) Woods stepping out as EA Sports’ golf figurehead may also open the series, which will proceed under PGA Tour branding alone, to more real-world golfers. The reason guys like Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia or Vijay Singh never wanted to appear in a Tiger Woods game — or weren’t even invited — should be obvious.
But even there, they would be what Woods was all along — a supporting cast member, albeit one very richly compensated. They’re someone to spy on the leaderboard in the final round at St. Andrews or Pebble Beach, but ultimately to fall short, giving you a neat little wrinkle in the emergent narrative of your own transcendent career. The real head-to-head challenge, the real reasons you bought these games, were to be found at the Road Hole, or on the Island Green or, at long last, in Amen Corner.
A fundamental truth of golf is that your opponent isn’t the other guy on the course; it is the course. Tiger Woods may have won The Masters four times, but in the end, he was beaten by it. In his own game.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku’s column on sports video games.