Skateboarding is a kind of everyday magic, which is most obvious when you throw it in slow motion. Played back, the beginnings of an ollie — which, as a jump, is the beginning of most tricks — make it look like the rider is poised to take flight. And people can’t do that on their own, at least not yet.
Tony Hawk is one of those skaters. He’s been defying gravity since the 1980s when he was a teenager and the sport was becoming a rising subcultural force. “When I first started skating, it was already sliding in popularity, so I never knew it as something you would aspire to be professional at,” Hawk says when I reach him by phone, “or something that you would make a career out of.” Even the best skaters couldn’t make a living doing it. While the ’80s changed that some — “It felt like we were superstars,” Hawk says of the time — the early ’90s saw a real downturn in skating’s popularity. Reality set in. “Suddenly, I was faced with two mortgages and a child on the way,” says Hawk. “And it was like, ‘Shit, I can’t... maybe I can’t do this for a living.’”
Shortly thereafter, skateboarding hit the big time, propelled by a combination of spectacle — ESPN’s X Games got its start in the spring of ’95 — and its outsider cool status. The third thing was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, which debuted two decades ago on September 29th, 1999. The game was a massive hit, earning excellent reviews from critics and enjoying healthy sales. (In total, the franchise has made about $1.4 billion.) Pro Skater made Hawk both a millionaire and a household name. “It put skateboarding on the map as a genre of video games, for one,” says Hawk. “It brought a new audience to skateboarding and not just people who are interested in trying it, but people who learn to appreciate it from a fan’s perspective.” It also inspired a generation of successful skaters, says Hawk, and influenced both popular and skate culture through its soundtrack.
Hawk got involved with Activision, which published the game, just after he had gotten done pitching a separate skateboarding game to console manufacturers and other publishers. There was pushback, Hawk says, because they didn’t think it would be successful or popular. When Activision came calling, he saw what it had completed and signed on to the project immediately. “Every game, I was involved in the development,” says Hawk. “I would play the builds as I received them.” At the time, that meant getting the discs in the mail with the latest build and then sending feedback. Later consoles made that more difficult because, as Hawk says, it was hard to bring a “giant dev kit Xbox” on the road. He said the process was fun, especially in the early games, because Hawk had to give Neversoft, the studio developing the game, a crash course in skateboarding and skateboarding culture. They eventually became skaters themselves. In Hawk’s recollection, the studio used to take a weekly or biweekly trip to the nearest skatepark and make everyone skate — sessions the skater also attended. (“I think one of them ended up breaking their ankle trying to learn kickflips,” he told me.) “At some point, they embraced it so deeply that I didn’t have to teach them anything,” Hawk says.
That’s the stuff I remember best about Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Playing it felt like peering into a different world, one where skate culture was dominant and every single curb looked like potential for a sick series of tricks. “The thing that I’m proud of is that it represented the culture well,” says Hawk. “It represented the lifestyle, in terms of the music and the attitude and the actual skating itself.” When you do a kickflip in the game, you see what a real kickflip looks like. “It taught a whole generation of kids what proper skating can be.” The games were also hard. On a recent playthrough of some of the early levels of Pro Skater, I remembered how unforgiving the game could be but also how satisfying it felt to land a string of combos. (For those wondering: yes, Hawk has beaten every game that bears his name.) I asked Hawk how close he felt Pro Skater was to the workaday reality of skateboarding, and he humored me. “It’s close in the sense that you can create your own challenges and keep coming back to the game and keep trying harder combos and harder moves,” he says. “But it’s not close to reality in the sense that these combos... some are just physically impossible. And the idea that you can crash and fall on your head and get back up and get back into it, that’s a little bit off of reality.”
Even so, the games manage to capture the magic of skateboarding — of defying gravity (and sometimes the law) to get a few tricks off. The game holds up. “I’m proud that people love to keep coming back to it. I mean, I still hear, to this day, ‘I’m busting out my PS2 so I can play some THPS,’” Hawk says. “I’m really proud of that legacy and the fact that a lot of people say it turned them on to either skateboarding or a type of music that they didn’t know about or didn’t know that they would like.” He sounds like a father, which he is, but he’s also someone who’s amazed at their fortune, at the way a life can turn out.
“Everything is just sort of a nice surprise these days,” he says. “I think that the main thing is that parents are encouraging their kids to skate. That didn’t happen when I was young, ever.” Skating is part of the mainstream now. The kids who grew up with Pro Skater are now into their second and third decades. Tyshawn Jones, the subject of a recent slew of magazine profiles and one of the best skaters on Earth right now, recently told The New York Times that he’d learned about the sport from video games. Next year, in Tokyo, a team of skateboarders from across the country will represent the USA in the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, marking the first year the International Olympic Committee will recognize skateboarding as an official sport. “It was surreal, even today, the idea that I could do it into my adult life as a relevant professional. I never imagined it,” says Hawk. “And that stands to this day. I’m 51, and still, my main job is to ride a skateboard.”