A day with Tiger: Behind the scenes at EA Sports
Sunday, September 11, 2011
A day with Tiger Woods at EA Sports
Golfweek was granted exclusive access to trail Tiger Woods as he worked with EA Sports in the development of the 2013 version of the Tiger Woods PGA Tour franchise.
The studio has been ready to go for a while now, but nonetheless, members of EA Sports' "Tiger Woods PGA Tour" division are double- and triple-checking the details. There isn't much speaking as everyone inside waits for their boss to make his once-a-year appearance.
Today, for the first time in five years, Tiger Woods will be going through the motion capture process, giving EA a chance to digitally harness his new Sean Foley swing, which will be visible in the 2013 edition of the wildly popular video game. Setting six hours out of his schedule is a testament to the far-reaching effects something as seemingly small as a swing change has had on his life.
The opportunity to see the normally guarded and calculated Woods in the skin-tight black spandex motion-capture suit, complete with 64 reflective orbs and a helmet that closely resembles that of an old-time football player, lures far more employees to volunteer than are necessary, but the gathering is still intimate. It's only 25 or so people inside the studio.
Woods arrives promptly at 11 a.m., wearing a gray T-Shirt, basketball shorts and a black baseball hat with his signature "TW" logo, swooshes of different sizes and colors all over his body. At first, he seems all business. It's the short-and-punchy-answer-giving Woods we've been accustomed to seeing just off the 18th green over the past two years.
But he quickly lightens up to a personable, "Caddyshack"-quoting everyman, partially due to his laughable inability to make a "sad face" during his high-detail headshots for the EA artists.
For the rest of the day, he's just another EA employee, trying to help improve the best golf video game ever made.
After headshots, Woods is escorted to an audio booth to record voice-overs for next year's video game - he is the only golfer that has a voice in the game. Once inside, an EA developer begins asking a series of questions and Woods opens up far more than he's known to do inside the media room, beginning by telling stories from his childhood - explaining that kids under 10 were not allowed to play his home course so he would have to hide in a ditch and pick up balls until he could join his dad on the third tee. He remembers receiving his first trophy, but he doesn't recall much about his appearance on "The Mike Douglas Show." ("I remember seeing more food in the green room than I thought there was in the whole world," he said.)
He moves on to the famed 1994 U.S. Amateur, where he battled back to beat Trip Kuehne at TPC Sawgrass and win his fourth consecutive USGA title and first U.S. Amateur ("That was a pretty sweet hat, wasn't it?" is his initial reaction to the question). Eventually the conversation comes to his first major victory, his romp at the 1997 Masters, and Woods is quick to explain why the win meant so much.
"It was important for so many different reasons, but I think primarily because my dad was there to experience it with me. In 1996, at the Tour Championship in Tulsa, my dad had a heart attack and he was rushed to the hospital and I didn't do very well for the rest of the tournament. He ended up having open-heart surgery and had complications and he was actually dead on the table for just about a minute. He came back and the doctors basically said 'There's no way you're ever going to fly for the Masters.' He basically told them to go stuff it; he was going to go support his son.
"I was striping it the week before at Isleworth - I shot 59 the week before at home. I played really well in my practice rounds, but I hadn't found my putting touch.
"So I get off to a poor start ballstriking and I shoot 40 on the first nine holes. I made some putts, but they were all for bogeys. I thought, 'Well, OK, at least my putter's working. I just need to hit one good shot to get back in it.'
"I hit a great 2-iron down 10 and said, OK, that's my swing. That's the swing I had at home. I ended up shooting 30 and got hot the rest of the tournament. I guess the rest became history."
There's no doubt that Woods has been under a different kind pressure on the golf course this year, trying to regain or even top the form that made him one of the most dominant athletes in sports history. The development team at EA can relate, coming off a year that saw them produce the best-selling golf video game of all time, "Tiger Woods PGA Tour '12: The Masters," which, for the first time, included an immaculate virtual construction of Augusta National. Almost overnight, the game took the club's membership from 300 businessmen to millions of gamers across the world.
The way that they will attempt to top the 2012 version is by including all of last year's features, but giving players a completely new way to hit virtual golf shots.
Gone are the days of the back-and-through, hit-it-on-a-string virtual golf swing (well, not gone, they will still be available under the game's easier settings). For those ready for the challenge, developers are working on tools that will make hitting the ball as realistic as ever, factoring in many more aspects of the golf swing. In other words, it will pay to have golf knowledge and teach those who don't.
"We're trying to make it as realistic as possible, because we as players when we're out there, these are all things that we do without even thinking about it," Woods said. "You have a certain lie, so you have to think, what's my stance, what's my angle of attack, where am I going to hit the golf ball? All these different things run through our heads very quickly, but not every gamer understands that and this is a way to introduce them to that. Each shot is its own, but it also has an infinite number of options as well."
During his two-hour testing session, Tiger is briefed on some of the game's changes - one of the biggest of which will be the support of the Kinect, a Microsoft system that requires no controllers, instead using motion-sensing cameras to track body movement and verbal commands. While he may only visit once a year, Woods offers no shortage of opinions on the game's future, playing a few holes and explaining the bugs he sees and offering suggestions for future additions, including the effect of grain in bermudagrass and the problem of spike marks that the day's later groups have to deal with. One developer mentions that they have begun implementing hybrids into the game, but Woods laughs it off.
"You guys do whatever you want with those," he says. "I don't know anything about those things."
The development session ends with Woods taking on contest winner Kevin O'Connor in a four-hole match at TPC Sawgrass. Woods plays as himself and O'Connor chooses Rickie Fowler. O'Connor, a 19-year-old Indiana University student, wins easily and offers consolation, saying "I think I have more free time than you."
"Probably not after this weekend," Woods jokes, alluding to the fact that he missed the cut at the PGA Championship.
The day ends with Woods slipping into the motion capture suit, a skin-tight catsuit with velcro patches that are used to attach white orbs that are picked up by special cameras, giving a skeleton of Woods' authentic swing for the developers to use. Woods runs through about 100 different swing and putt types - fades, draws, punches, chips and putts of all length. At the end of each series, the developers ask Woods to do four different emotional reactions to the shots. The first that he chooses with the driver in his hand is to simply put his head down and hold his right arm straight out, signaling a block-slice to the virtual marshals.
"I've gotten really good at that one lately," Woods mumbles.
It's true that his golf game has shown deterioration since his last win in 2009. But as swing thoughts and major records take up space in his mind, Woods can take some solace in the fact that his video game once again shows no signs of slowing down.