Get hit with the name Tony Hawk and your brain immediately conjures a wave of images, all of them pleasant. A lanky Superman spinning 900 degrees in the air above a halfpipe, the laughter and smack talk of a group of friends playing a video game.
Regardless, skateboarding success and Tony Hawk are inextricably tied to one another. And how it got that way is a beautiful serendipitous symphony.
From about 1992-1995 Tony Hawk flirted with becoming a video editor, dabbling in the practice when his skateboarding income took a major hit.
On Friday, Hawk celebrated the latest eponymous title in the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise. A man who never once thought about giving up the sport—even when the American public largely gave up on vert skating—helped changed the game.
Because of THPS you know the lingo, have seen the skateboarders and have traveled the world with controller in hand.
I asked the Birdman himself how well he thought Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater would be received back in 1999.
“I thought that it was going to be successful amongst the skate community,” Hawk said. “That was pretty much for me the bar of success.”
Hindsight being what it is, it’s remarkable that he would think that. The controls. The music. The series is as irreverent as it is faithful to the culture to which it pays homage.
The franchise would go on to get an immediate sequel coming out the very next year. The series exploded to 12 titles and nine more spin-offs and remakes, including 2020’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, which launched Friday. It’s estimated that all of the previous games garnered over $1.4 billion in sales. And that’s before THPS 1 + 2, which is a gorgeous masterclass in video game production.
To put all of this into perspective, you have to understand the ebbs and flows of skateboarding’s popularity.
While the franchise experienced an immediate boon following that initial release, the sport constantly fought its stigma as nothing more than a beloved fad, something enjoyed generationally.
The history of the sport and its rise alongside the popularity of THPS is told beautifully in the recently released documentary “Pretending I’m Superman.”
It’s immediately clear that while skateboarding was extremely popular around the time Coke was testing a new formula and Reagan was president, it wasn’t yet fully cooked.
Hawk and the likes of Steve Caballero certainly gave us all thrills and magazines like Thrasher left indelible images in our brain. But certain things had to transpire before the sport reached its zenith, allowing for a video game franchise to grind along with it.
While Hawk’s popularity rose dramatically through the 80s and early 90s, it hit a wall as vert skating and the sport itself lost luster with a large swath of America.
“It was nearly impossible to make any kind of income. Skateboards were not selling as products. Certainly, we weren’t being asked to do any kind of exhibitions for income,” Hawk said about the early-to-mid part of the 90s. “And so in order to skate, you had to really love it and do it at all costs.”
While royalties from boards dried up so too did access to acceptable skate locations. One skateboard park after another closed.
“I would say the early 90s skating was very underground and most of the skateparks had closed by that time,” Hawk tells En Fuego on Sports Illustrated. “So, anyone that wanted to skate had to do it on the streets and basically had to do it in the prohibited areas.”
That had the side effect of completely painting an overwhelmingly large portion of skaters as troublemakers and ne’er-do-wells. Certainly great for marketing to the youth but not quite the demo if you want to take the sport globally.
“So that’s how they all sort of got labeled as outlaws or renegades or rebellious because they’re just trying to find a place to do it,” Hawk explained. “And if you were trying to make a living at it, forget it.”
If you were into skating at that point in time, you were doing it for the love of the culture, not for any monetary gain.
And by the mid-90s, it also meant that you were learning tricks off of park benches, stairs in front of office buildings and sidewalks all over the country.
Content to move from schoolyards to parking lots, many were seen as blights rather than artists painting the community with athletic ability.
Little did the world know but the downturn in interest laid the groundwork for what would be a success not just for a future video game juggernaut, but the sport itself.
ESPN’s “Extreme Games” suffered from a bloat of too many superfluous events from the start, but it gave a platform to skateboarding that was previously vacant from mainstream television.
Rebranded the “X Games” the following year, events like the halfpipe again enjoyed a resurgence in popularity.
Along with a brewing talent pool of street skaters, the time was right for the sport to turn a huge corner. The only thing needed was something to bring it all together.
“I’d say by the time the early 2000s, maybe 10 years later, skating was seen as more of a viable career,” Hawk explained. “There was way more opportunities… X Games was as commonplace as NBA. For the most part, And so it was a different outlook on skating. And then a fan base was created for it. And I think that it’s never really slowed down since then.”
Suddenly the sport had a deeper well of skateboarders and types of skating. They were also growing in number and in skill, a foundation that would come into play as soon as a major network decided to give this evolving sport another shot.
“In ’95, when it first came out for the X Games that’s when street skateboarding became very popular,” skate legend Kareem Campbell explained. “I was just starting to get my range of popularity. So, it was kind of different for me.”
A few years into X Games success, the sports biggest skater put his name to a video game, a title that puts a heavy emphasis on getting the skate culture correct but doing so in a way that would captivate and entertain gamers.
“That was the most important factor, was keeping authenticity, having the skate action be authentic was obvious,” Hawk said. “But I knew that we would get that pretty quickly. It was more about trying to reflect the look and the attitude and the music and the culture like that.”
With THPS, suddenly you had a vehicle for change. Play the game for all of a few minutes and you get it. The street and vert action you may have gleaned from X Games programming suddenly took on an all-new, more personal context for gamers who could pull off superhuman combos and do so in a sandbox setting that was as immersive as any game to date.
Steve Caballero is skate royalty, a pro by the age of 14. His mark on the sport can’t be denied. He noticed how quickly skateboarding took over the world after the game’s release.
“The game really promoted skateboarding on a global level, not only to skateboarders, but it became a household name because of it being in houses all over the country and all over the world,” Steve Caballero said. “And people got a taste of it from their kids playing it to the parents. I mean, I’ve had parents come up to me and recognizing me because their kids would play the game all day long.”
“And I definitely believe the video game did help. It helped with the progression of the sport as well,” Caballero said. “I see tricks now that the kids are doing. I did those with my thumbs 20 years ago and now I’m seeing them do them like actually for real, which is so impressive to me.”
Skateboarding had to fight constantly against the stigma that it was first a mode of transportation and nothing more, then it became a fun little fad only a small demographic took seriously.
It was a sport that Campbell had to convince his mom was a viable option for his future. But that’s all different now.
“It’s something that I can see my son has a passion for that he can end up in the video game,” Campbell said. “You know, he can end up with a career. We went from the basics of you go on and you just skateboarding down the weekend or just with your friends (to) you can actually make a career out of it.”
Caballero fought the same fight when he was younger, when the sport was in its infancy.
“When I first started skateboarding and was a professional, I turned pro in 1980,” he said. “And what I would describe what my job was, I would tell them I’m a professional skateboarder. The next question was, ‘Well, can you make a living at it?’”
Skateboarding is now as viable an option for future success as picking up a ball or a glove.
“My mom asked me, ‘OK, you’re graduating school now. So, what are you going to do? What kind of job are you going to have?’ And I was like, Mom, I’m already doing it.’”
Conversations like that don’t take place with quite so much regularity. The sport has come a long way in just a couple decades, many of its skaters once dismissed as troublemakers are now celebrated, and will one day be championed on the greatest stage.
“I’ve seen it go from being a fad in the late 60s, early 70s to a phenomenon, a legitimate sport that’s ready to be showcased in the Olympics,” Caballero said. “I mean, it’s amazing where it’s come from.”
Hawk never set out to become a household name. He wanted to get behind a project that would resonate with the skateboard community.
But when you put your passion into something that is also accessible and has remarkable depth to it, good things happen.
I asked Hawk what was next. Sure, the latest game is barely a day old. But I’m already eager to see where this franchise is headed.
“There’s no indication of what we’re doing next to me as of yet. But I think skateboarding is on a great trajectory,” he said.
Tokyo 2020 was forced to hit the pause button due to a global pandemic. But a sport that is as visually stunning as it is patient will wait a while longer before making its mark on the Olympic stage.
But it’s already a global phenomenon. It’s already touching lives around the world, bringing so many different people together to enjoy the skate culture from their own unique perspective.
As Hawk explains, over 20 years since launching a franchise that would help sustain a sport and see its skaters thrive.
It went through uncertain times in the 90s. But its resilience is now obvious; it’s power undeniable.
“There is more support worldwide for skating. There are skate camps. There are literally skate schools in places like Skateistan in Afghanistan and Cambodia, South Africa. So, the future is really bright for skating as a worldwide sport and something that any kid could pick up.”
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