February 8, 2015

Breaking 50

Video gamers are reinventing golf, and a pro tour with big prize money might be next

Last October more than 40,000 people poured into Seoul's World Cup Stadium to watch teams of professionals compete in a battle-arena video game called League of Legends.

Millions more tuned in online through the live-streaming website Twitch, which Amazon had purchased two months earlier for $970 million.

It all marked a seminal moment in gaming—the moment it ascended from the fringe to the mainstream. South Korea was the first to fall, and soon, experts predict, will the United States. More than 1.2 billion people worldwide spend more than three billion hours a week playing video games. Colleges are establishing e-sports teams within their athletic departments, and last year, professional gamers competed for more than $34 million in prize money.

Could it be that golf's future grassroots movement rests not on the fairway of the local muny, but within the confines of a virtual reality?

Espen Pedersen had been waiting for this day for two years. It was 2012, and he'd practiced almost every evening. If he put too many hours in, he'd get sore. Behind his shoulder blades mostly, but sometimes he felt it in his wrists, too. His first hole started well, but not unusually: A deep drive down the middle and a cool pitch that checked up and dropped into the hole. Eagle.

The par-5 third required a little more imagination. Because Espen knew he couldn't carry the trees on the right, he entrusted a knockdown approach shot he'd taught himself a few months earlier. The ball scooted low and rolled onto the green, and a few moments later, he made the putt. Eagle.

Espen, 42, was born and raised in Trondheim, a large, coastal city in Norway. His older brother was one of the 17 million people in the 1980s to own a Commodore 64—one of those big, bulky machines that resembled a washing machine more than a computer. His brother taught himself how to program, and pretty soon he was building games that they could play together.

Espen's interest in golf came at about the same time. It wasn't a playing interest—"I'm still a beginner after 25 years," he says—but more as a fan. He was seduced by Greg Norman's flock of blond hair and long drives. He loved how Seve Ballesteros always managed to find a way to get the ball in the hole.

video games

"Golf never ceases to amaze me," Espen says, "like how your favorite golf hole can turn into a nightmare in a second." Espen was 13 under when he made the turn. If he played his next nine holes in 11 under, he'd shoot 24 under—then the lowest 18-hole score ever recorded on a Nintendo Wii.

Espen got his Wii in 2010, four years after the console first launched and captured the attention of the masses. A dad with three small children, he didn't have the desire to overcome the traditional time/money barriers surrounding the game, but he still needed his golf fix. Wii filled that void, and it gave him something to do when he wasn't busy with the kids.

He played a lot, and it took him only a couple months to set the world record for lowest 18-hole score on Nintendo Wii— the one he was now trying to beat. He shot 24 under, submitted it to Wii-Records.com, and promptly stopped playing. But as the game's audience grew, he watched others dilute his record. A few others joined him at 24 under, and with a number of others in pursuit, he came out of retirement.

Espen started analyzing his rounds by propping a video camera up on the back of his sofa. Swinging back and through on the same plane is vitally important in Wii, so that dominated his attention. For two years he memorized angles, studied wind direction and scrutinized green undulations. He practiced once his kids went to bed, restarting rounds each time he made a mistake. Sometimes, he'd play until the early rays of sunlight crept into his living room. Espen was almost shaking with nerves by the time he got to the tee of the 18th, the sixth par 5 of the round, and his practice swings had grown increasingly methodical. He knocked his drive into the fairway, his second onto the green, and his third into the hole. Eagle.

The world's most absurd round was in the record books: nine birdies, nine eagles, 14 one-putts, 45 strokes, 27 under par. After two years, Espen had done it. He took a deep breath and let it all sink in, and when the scorecard flashed onto the screen a few moments later, tears came to his eyes.

Look in the corner of your local dive bar, and you'll likely see the video game that began it all. Golden Tee quickly developed a cult following after it was brought to market in 1989. People would fly in to play official tournaments at a Golden Tee bar in Illinois. The prize money at its Chicago Open once eclipsed $30,000. "You don't understand," one Golden Tee addict told Golf World in 2003, "there's something about this game that grabs hold of you and won't let go." The games might have changed since then, but that kind of addictiveness has hardly diminished.

Buzz Swenson is 31 years old and a 9-handicap. When he switches to Xbox golf with friends, they play for dollar-a-hole skins with $1 bets on both nines to make it an even $20. Buzz came up with the system one day after he and friends were rained off the golf course, but it has since turned into a tradition.

"My friends and I are serious competitors," he says. "It doesn't matter if it's a bet about who will chug their beer the fastest, or who can hit the 100-yard sign on the range first, there will be money involved. Video games allow for skins, so it's a natural transition."

In 1998, EA Sports signed Tiger Woods to be the face of its PlayStation and Xbox golf games, a deal that lasted 15 years and brought Tiger as much as $20 million a year. Every detail of his swing was computerized through the use of a skin-tight, motion-capture suit, as was every slight undulation of the courses featured in the game.

Its popularity exploded, and it didn't take long for other big-name professionals and courses to follow suit. It reached a crescendo when Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 sold more than 3.4 million copies.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2014 is EA Sports' last edition of the game featuring Tiger, a split driven by his sagging public image and a need to reinvent the game. In all, the series has featured more than 30 professionals (Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Arnold Palmer among them), boasted courses like Pinehurst No. 2, Pebble Beach and Augusta National, and generated almost $771 million in sales.

"As a golfer, I'm always dreaming of playing the best courses, and I think games like these kind of allow you to do that," says John Kim, a former employee of PGA.com and a confessed gamer. Kim once prepared for an important round at Pebble Beach by playing the course repeatedly on his Xbox. The first time he played the real course, the 8-handicap shot even par on the front nine.

"It was an incredible, weird feeling. I started correcting the caddies because I already knew the angles, because it's like I had seen it all before," he says. "Those games, they're just so realistic."

There's no clear map of where video games will go in the future, mostly because it's tough to peg any boundaries. Companies that live-stream video games foresee a future where mainstream audiences tune in to watch their favorite gamers as they would their favorite sports teams. EA Sports is preparing for its post-Tiger era by promising zero load times and plans to map more courses and players using its motion-capture sensors.

Even the idea of a fully immersive video game—in which users could essentially step in and play as if it were a reality—perhaps isn't that far away. Oculus Rift, a $2 billion project funded by Facebook, set the industry abuzz when it launched its prototype 3-D headset last year. Users place the headset over their eyes and can then look around the game as seamlessly as they would turn their head to see a person sitting next to them in real life. Instead of staring at a screen, you're in the screen and staring at the hole, hearing the gentle whisper of the make-believe wind as it skirts past your ear.

"It was such an immersive, amazing experience," Unity CEO David Helgason says of the headset. Adds Cliff Bleszinski, Epic Games' design director: "I'm a believer."

There are many critics who think the rise of video games is the latest fad from an adrenaline-fueled, short-attention-span generation. But there is strong evidence gamers aren't going away. More than 40 percent of millennials, according to a recent study, have heard of the Oculus headset and are eager to try it, and another study projects that revenue from virtual-reality devices will surpass $66 million by the end of 2015. The notion of a gamer elite is also being embraced at the college level. More than 10,000 students nationwide compete in sanctioned e-leagues, and a growing number of institutions have created teams, awarding scholarships to players as they would to football and basketball players—or golfers. Jordan Klodowski, a 19-year-old sophomore on the Carnegie Mellon golf team, designed a miniature-golf video game as his final project for a computer-science class. The gaming element was an encouraged part of the course's curriculum. He got an A.

Though golf is at least several years away from a league of professional e-gamers, the signs are there. Topgolf, a thriving, new-school driving range that embeds microchips within its golf balls and awards points for hitting targets around the range, embraces its part-video-game, part-driving-range identity. It's the video-game element, says Erik Anderson, Topgolf's executive chairman, that is helping to broaden golf's appeal to a new group of people. "An older generation defined golf one way, as 18 holes at a private country club," Anderson says. "What we're seeing now is a new generation of people redefining what it means to play golf."

Espen doesn't play Wii anymore. He misses it sometimes but feels like he has nothing left to accomplish. The record he set in 2012 stands, and because he posted the entire round to YouTube, people often reach out to him for advice and friendly taunts.

"I'm on a mission to break that record," one person wrote.

"You have to be patient and dead accurate," Espen responded. "Best of Luck!"

He doesn't have any prospects of coming out of retirement for a second time, mainly because he feels fulfilled in a way he didn't the first time. He achieved his peak—"It was the perfect round," he says—so now he can settle down. He joined his local golf club, and he and his son enjoy the extra time they spend there together. His new goal is to shrink his 36-handicap. He hasn't had much luck getting his skills to transfer. He's good at figuring out where to aim, but swinging a steel-shafted 3-iron is proving a lot more difficult than a five-ounce Wii controller.


7 GOLF VIDEO GAMES THAT WERE REALLY BIG DEALS

Golf (Philips VideoPac 10):

The earliest-known golf video game was launched on the Videopac system in 1979.

Golf (Nintendo Entertainment System):

Introduced in 1984, the video game featuring Mario was the first to receive widespread positive reviews.

Golden Tee:

The arcade-style golf game populated bars around the country and bred a group of competitive admirers.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 99:

The first EA Sports game to feature Tiger Woods helped popularize golf games and launched a franchise that generated almost $771 million in sales.

Wii Golf:

Nintendo's hugely popular Wii console sold more than 101 million units and introduced interactive gaming to a new audience.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09:

Regarded as one of the best sports games of all time, it sold more than 3.4 million copies.

World Golf Tour:

The top-rated golf game for the iPhone and iPad allows users to play Pebble Beach, St. Andrews and Bandon Dunes in 3-D.