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.
“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.