As PGA Tour 2K returns for a second outing on the greens, Vince Pavey checks in with Josh Muise, creative director for HB Studios and Alfie Brody, vice president of global marketing strategy for 2K Games to learn all about it. Hopefully, this article is up to par.
The story of the PGA Tour games of the last ten years is a complicated one that requires knowledge of actual sports, so excuse us if we pass over some of the more complex details: EA Sports had developed PGA Tour games regularly since 1990, but a personal scandal had ousted longtime cover star golfer Tiger Woods, and its 2015 attempt to rebrand with Rory McIlroy PGA Tour had underperformed. The company had then let the series go quiet, and it is no surprise that another studio and publisher would soon attempt to try and take over where EA had left off.
Enter HB Studios, which managed to secure a small licence from the PGA Tour to feature six golf courses and a PGA Tour career mode in its third The Golf Club game in 2018. While EA Sports continued to insist that it hadn’t broken up with the PGA Tour and that the pair still had an “ongoing relationship”, 2K Sports swiftly took over publishing rights for The Golf Club 2019 featuring PGA Tour. 2K then worked to secure a longer, more extensive PGA Tour licence, and would soon acquire developer HB Studios as well.
THE GAME IS FLUID
A few years on, a larger HB Studios is now on its fifth golf video game title with PGA Tour 2K23, and the team is well practised at refining its previous work and iterating on what has come before in meaningful ways. But how does the studio pick and choose exactly where to improve on the last entry without it being overwhelming? It listens to the people who have been playing the previous one, as Josh Muise explains.
“We listen to community feedback and have a pretty good idea of what works well and what could use some improvement. For example, fans wanted playable pros, as well as female pros, so we gave them just that. We recognized that some players might not like using the analog sticks to swing, so we introduced an optional 3-click feature. Even the parts that work well can be adjusted or expanded upon, such as our Course Designer. We added a new spline tool and some new greenery, but otherwise, we didn’t want to stray too far from what people expected, as that tool set had already been utilised by thousands of players to unlock their creativity.”
Time for the sports apparel wearing elephant in the room to come up then: When a developer is iterating so rapidly and so regularly in a world of live service games and downloadable content, how does it make sure each new 2K Sports game feels like a full on sequel and not just a regular expansion pack sold at full price?
“This is only the second iteration of the PGA Tour 2K franchise under that name, and we’ve already introduced a slew of new features to set it apart from its predecessor. We’ve included playable pros, female pros, Topgolf mode, the 3-click swing option, more collaboration with gear and apparel brands, more courses, celebrity guests, archetypes and skill trees, club fitting, and much more!” rattles off Muise, evidently proud of the team’s work, but not really answering my question.
It does sound like a lot, so perhaps it just comes down to the quantity and quality of the added content, and the fact that golf fans are willing to buy it at full price. Or perhaps it’s just that this is the way it’s always been for sports games, and I should stop asking so many pesky questions that threaten to disrupt entire sports game business models.
PRACTICE AND CONCENTRATION
Games don’t exist in a vacuum, and HB Studios has undoubtedly had other sports games releases influence its work over the years. We’re almost certain that someone on the team will have taken a look at Mario Golf, or its older cousin that lives outside of the Mushroom Kingdom, Everybody’s Golf (as not doing so would be irresponsible, frankly) while other features and hallmarks have been added in order to create brand familiarity and connective tissue to other 2K Sports titles.
“At HB Studios, we’re both gamers and sports fans, so I’d say all popular sports games might have had some influence on us.” said Muise. “We’ve obviously been especially influenced by other 2K titles, such as NBA 2K, and you’ll see we’ve adopted some of the ‘2K trademarks’ such as the MyPLAYER and MyCAREER naming conventions, lifestyle partnerships and apparel deals.”
With PGA Tour 2K23, the series once again allows players to compete as real pros. That meant it was important to the developer to get the most prolific golfers back on board, including 15-time major winner Tiger Woods, who has signed a name and likeness deal to appear exclusively in 2K Sports golf games for the foreseeable future. Muise was tight lipped on how exactly the deal came about, but seemed understandably excited about both the golfer and his involvement.
“When we made the decision to include playable pros in the game, the first name that came to mind was Tiger Woods.” espoused Muise. “He’s arguably the most iconic golfer of all time and has meant so much to the culture and evolution of the sport. Who better to put on our cover and partner with?”
IF YOU WORK AT IT, IT’S GOLF
Having become a part of the 2K Sports roster has also provided HB Studios with some exclusive development perks that have allowed them to more easily capture likenesses and sporting performance outputs from the stars of the real life game, adding extra authenticity to the entire experience. “We used the proprietary 2KGo face scanning tech. You might know it from NBA 2K and WWE 2K. We also did mocap for swings to incorporate the pros into the game accurately.” said Muise.
HB Studios also had to develop PGA Tour 2K23 during the covid-19 outbreak, and all of the lockdowns and restrictions that were put in place, which meant that it was particularly difficult at times to get out to courses for reference material, or to meet with sports personalities and other professionals directly.
“We developed this game during the pandemic, so we faced many of the same challenges the rest of the world faced during that time period.” explains Muise. “It takes a lot of hard work, time and stress management to create a video game, especially one that is highly detailed and needs to accurately represent beloved courses and athletes.”
The marketing department at 2K has also been faced with some tough logistics to work around, although this is more of a usual complication of the job, thanks to the busy lives of the PGA Tour’s men and women. “The life of a PGA Tour pro golfer is ‘always on’, so access to pros and personalities can be challenging!” said Brody. “Securing free time and travel can be really tough for any pro athlete during their season. We work closely with our partners at PGA Tour, as well as our brand partners and athletes’ teams to activate the brand in ways and at times that work for everyone.”
TRUSTING YOUR SWING
Contagions and calendar conflicts didn’t slow the PGA Tour 2K marketing machine down one bit, however, and Brody was keen to share some of his own personal highlights of their recent marketing campaign, including working with the actor that played Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore.
“We had the Tiger Woods and Christopher McDonald interview, which placed two very different golf icons in a room together and resulted in a very entertaining video.” said Brody. “I also liked when we got the initial feedback from our first hands-on gameplay opportunity, which took place the same week as our game announcement. It was rewarding to see press and content creators enjoying our game and saying very positive things about it.”
While you might assume that golfers and gamers don’t have much in common, the vice president of global marketing strategy points out that their research shows the opposite. This is likely not only due to the fact that golf games have been around since 1979, but the fact that golf naturally lends itself quite well to a video game adaptation in a way that something another sport (like synchronised swimming, for example) may not.
“Our market research actually shows that there’s plenty of cross-over between golfers and gamers. Also, while the crossover group of gamers who golf also love PGA Tour 2K23, there’s also a percentage of gamers who might never pick up a club in real life, but still enjoy golf video games.” explains Brody.
It also helps that they’re the most accurate real-world golf game in town. “We present the most realistic and complete golf simulation game to-date.” continues Brody. ”It is easy to learn but difficult to master, so a potential golfer turned gamer can jump right in and immediately see some of their favourite features of the sport reflected in the game.”
Keen to also reach out to non-gamer golfers that may turn into PGA Tour 2K players, the 2K Sports marketing teams understand that the key to that sort of appeal lies in simply being true to the sport. After years and years of PGA Tour branded games, simply demonstrating that the team wants to understand golf culture and put a spotlight on it at every opportunity it can is one of the key ways that they intend to keep their advertising and overall appeal fresh.
“We try to target a wide variety of consumers, in different ways. We’re not just targeting fans of golf or gamers, but also fans of sports, music, entertainment, and personalities who touch golf culture in any way. We made a point of partnering with personalities and brands that have an authentic tie to the evolving golf culture, because we know players are smart and recognise a tacked-on celebrity endorsement. That’s not what they want, and not what we want either. We leaned into working with golf content creators, golf fashion brands, musicians, athletes and actors who are golfers, etc.”
YOU CAN ALWAYS GET BETTER
Now that PGA Tour 2K23 has reached the end of its development, rather than look too closely at the past, it seems Muise would rather focus on the future and how he and HB Studios can move things forward even further for the PGA Tour 2K brand. That involves more listening to the fans in the short term, and undoubtedly will lead to more iteration and expansion when it comes to their next release. Much like hearing from a professional sports person at the end of a season, it feels a bit like the studio is already preparing for what will be its next go at it.
“We’re always learning from our experiences and from players’ feedback.” explains Muise. “I think we’ve learned what we’re capable of and now we’ll push to do more. There will always be more pros, courses, brands, features and adjustments to incorporate and we look forward to those challenges.”