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How Tony Hawk Accidentally Became an Esports Icon

Some sports are synonymous with the athletes who changed those games forever. Even if you are unfamiliar with the sport, when you hear “basketball,” you think Michael Jordan, “baseball” maybe Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson, and of course, “skateboarding:” Tony Hawk. However, Hawk’s ingratiation into skateboarding fame happened in an almost-backwards way. Before Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater came out, not many people outside of skateboarding knew who Tony Hawk was. 

Courtesy of Activision

Tony Hawk’s saga began when Activision approached game developer Neversoft with an idea to make a downhill skateboard racing game similar to the Top Skater arcade game. Each of the levels had a skatepark at the bottom where players could pull off tricks. When it turned out everyone had more fun doing tricks at the bottom than actually racing, the team switched gears and focused the game on scoring points instead of racing. 

Screenshot from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Courtesy of Activision

Once a working demo of the trick-based game was playable, Activision invited Hawk to their offices to see if he’d like to attach his name to the project. Hawk didn’t think this meeting would go anywhere as he had been approached by developers to make skateboarding video games before that hadn’t materialized. However, this time was different. Once Hawk played the demo he “felt like he was skating” and knew Neversoft was on the right track. Hawk then became very involved and did tricks in motion capture to flush out the physics from the ground up. Hawk’s input added untold value to the game’s feel and made it authentic to real skating. He’d end up playing each new version of the game and reporting his thoughts back to Neversoft.

In the summer of 1999 Tony Hawk was a pro skateboarder, but he still wasn’t a household name. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was scheduled for release in September of 1999. In the 1999 X Games, Hawk attempted to be the first skater to pull off “the 900” from a halfpipe. Hawk had missed his first two attempts at the trick, but the announcers decided to let him keep going after his regulated time to land the trick. Hawk jumped ten times before finally landing the first 900 in history. Despite Hawk landing the first 900 he wasn’t awarded the “Best Trick” because he didn’t do it during the regulation time, despite making world history. 

Even though Hawk didn’t get an award for completing the 900 that year at the X Games, the team at Neversoft had a trick up their sleeves as well. After Hawk landed the 900, he emailed Neversoft asking if they could add the trick to the game so late in the process, one month before release. Neversoft wrote back, “Already on it, you f***ing rule!” and the developers patched in the special trick. So with a month before the game was supposed to hit shelves, Hawk landed the 900 and the game landed on shelves programmed with a world-record-breaking trick. 

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater screenshot. Courtesy of Activision

Activision didn’t think Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater would end up being a smash hit, let alone their best-selling title of the year. Because the game sold so well, Activision hired Neversoft to immediately start development on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, which was released a year later. 

So with a perfect storm of pulling the 900 in the afterhours of the 1999 X Games and then being able to put it into the video game within a month of it hitting shelves, Tony Hawk accidentally became an esports icon and a household name overnight. 

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