For video game golf aficionados, Monday's news that EA Sports and Tiger Woods have parted company came as tragic news, compounding the pain from earlier this year when EA announced it would not be producing a golf game in 2014. Woods' name had graced the cover of the EA Sports golf game since 1998, and had become as synonymous with golf as John Madden's is with football.
The reasons for the split aren't yet public knowledge, but EA's decision to step out of the golf game biz while preparing for next-gen consoles (translation: there are new-fangled XBoxes and Playstations coming, and EA needs to create games for them) probably didn't help. Combine that with hints from Woods' agent Mark Steinberg that the Woods camp is investigating possible options for other video game franchises (Grand Theft Auto: Augusta? Assassin's Creed VI: St. Andrews? Please?), and you can see the roots behind the split.
So what does this mean for both Woods and EA? Well, Woods will be just fine, and if he does attach his name to a new video game series, he'd bring instant attention and cachet (as well as possible interest from EA's lawyers regarding market confusion). Although EA had refined its golf efforts into a difficult-to-emulate total package (console video games, PC games, online games, mobile apps), it's not like Woods' image would suffer much of a ding from being associated with a less-than-stellar product.
EA has to refocus its entire golf strategy now. No longer can it offer up Woods' name and a few in-game improvements and expect to sell truckloads of new games every March. The strategy has to shift either to other golfers or to marketing the courses, both of which are fraught with potential problems.
Let's look at the courses-first approach. There's precedent here; for the 2012 game, EA scored an amazing coup by getting Augusta National into the game for the first time. The course itself became the cover, with Woods reduced to a tiny figure in the corner. But EA both threw open the door and slammed it shut; there's no other course in golf that holds Augusta's mystique that isn't already in the game. Pebble Beach, St. Andrews, Pinehurst ... they're all already part of the game, as familiar to gamers as their own kitchens.
Still, there's the possibility that next-gen systems will be so sophisticated, with so much horsepower, that they'll be able to provide an even more immersive golf experience. Check out these comparative screenshots of the current game and a next-gen one, via Kotaku:
That's insane. We're one step away from having a beer cart pull up next to you in your own living room, which would definitely be a game-changer.
As for the player issue: it's no easier for EA to wrangle in the greased kittens that make up the PGA Tour's membership than it is for the Tour itself to do so. Whereas players in the NFL, NBA and so on are covered by overarching licenses, the players on Tour are essentially 200 mini-corporations.
Each year, EA licenses the likeness of about 20 players for the video game; this year's crop included Keegan Bradley, Bubba Watson and Hunter Mahan. Others, like Adam Scott, Jim Furyk and Matt Kuchar, appear in name only under the definition of "fair use." And EA can't pretend they're in the game when they're really not.
"They can't just put an avatar out on the course (a generic golfer who does not look like him) or even a shot arc (signifying 'Phil Mickelson hit this here') because EA's lawyers have determined even that would walk too close to the line of unauthorized use of likeness," says Kotaku's Owen Good. "And creating 176 ringer golfers with approximated names like 'Paul Michaelson' would be time-consuming and also call attention to the lack of verisimilitude."
Also, playing against the same 20 golfers would soon feel like playing Madden against only the NFC East. To extend that metaphor, though, the Tiger Woods games have always felt like playing Madden without the option to challenge the Patriots. That's because several of the sport's biggest names, including Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, and Vijay Singh, don't participate in the game. Given each player's history with Woods, you can probably guess why.
So could we be looking at Phil Mickelson PGA Tour 16 in a couple years? Could be. Phil would be the only player who could move the needle in anywhere close to the way Woods does.
At the moment, then, EA is looking at a buried lie in a pot bunker, and Woods is looking at playing without a caddie. Both of them have some real challenges ahead ... and unlike you and me, they can't accidentally kick the reset button if things start going south.