Tony Hawk Isn’t Done Innovating

The pro skater we grew up with is working on a mobile game and shaking up skateboarding with VR

tony hawk mobile
Courtesy of Tony Hawk

Tony Hawk created this Hot Wheels track, Sim City lookin’ "death loop" that he sets up, every couple of years or so, for the new Evel Knievels of the skate world. It's not designed to kill, per se, but Hawk did break his pelvis once mid-way through the 360-degree trip. He first attempted it in 1995. He first cleared it in 1998. And until this past August, over the give-or-take 40 years that skateboarding has been a popular sport, no woman had ever given it a go. Then Lizzie Armanto, on Hawk's Birdhouse team, attempted the loop.

Hawk had partnered with NextVR to broadcast this competition to attentive watchers who wanted to experience the full-throttle adrenaline-kick of doing a loop de loop untethered, relying on gravity, from the comfort of their iPhones. It was not only a momentous achievement for women in sports, but also an inventive ollie into the virtual reality space.

Hawk, now 50, isn't done pioneering. Though fans continue to beg for the original Tony Hawk Pro Skater to be remastered and re-released, Activision—the game's developer—isn’t budging. So Hawk is developing his own mobile game with an end-of-year release. He also still skateboards whenever he can, whenever he's not gaming himself or going unacknowledged in TSA lines. But is skateboarding hurtling toward a virtual existence? Hawk doesn’t think so—though he isn’t completely ruling it out. And if it does, he’ll be the first to ride the wave.

I saw some big things happened during your loop challenge back in August. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Tony Hawk: So I have this loop that we used for a tour a while back. It was something that we were doing in the show and less than 20 people have ever actually done it, or done similar ones. Every few years', I'll put it up for a new crop of skaters who have requested to try it. This time we put it up in conjunction with NextVR, so people could watch it live. Over the course of an hour, two new skaters were successful.

After NextVR left, Lizzie Armanto—who is one of our skaters on Birdhouse and an exceptional athlete and inspiration to woman in terms of skating and action sports—came back to it as they were leaving and said, "I'd like to try it again." Even though the event was over. I was fully supportive of that. So a few of us started helping her out and placing the pads in the right places. Less than an hour later, she was the first woman to successfully do it.

It's crazy to me that in terms of sports, skateboarding is still considered a young sport, but in 20 years time, I'm not sure how many females have attempted the loop.

Hawk: None, really. Up to that point, none had tried it. We had a few that came to try it. The day before [the loop challenge] I put it up and I allowed people to actually test it. And one girl did give it a go and she decided it wasn't for her. These are girls that I invited based on their abilities. Another girl brought her stuff and refused to even go down the starting ramp, because it's frightening. I mean, I don't blame them at all. It's one of the scariest things. And, and there's a big price to be paid if you do it wrong. I actually broke my pelvis on one of them a long time ago because it was a different design. It was really slow and I paid the price, so I totally understand how they feel once they see it in real life. Lizzie was one of the ones who tried it that day, but she wasn't really getting close, so I was surprised to have her come back the next day and then follow through again later on.

Can you explain why incorporating VR so that anyone can technically experience the "death loop" is a momentous thing?

Hawk: I mean [the fact] that we can do live events anywhere online is amazing to me, but the idea that we can do it in VR, you can see it in actual 3D and you can see the scope and the fear that people go through in that moment in real time—I think that's amazing. When [NextVR] approached me about it, they said, “What kind of event would you like to do live?” There are all kinds of things we could do with skateboarding. But I said no one's ever really seen this loop in real time. Every time you see someone do it, it's something that happened over the course of an hour with a lot of practice and a lot of help. And so to see that unfold in real time in full 3D is leaps ahead of anything that we've done.

You first did it in 1998.

Hawk: I tried one in 1995, but it was designed poorly so I ended up not successfully coming out of it that time. In 1998, we built a proper one and I finally did it.

How do you see VR’s place in the skateboarding world going forward?

Hawk: I would like to see a game that incorporates VR—something that makes you feel like you're skating without getting motion sickness. That's probably the biggest challenge. We have almost every system in our house. In fact, my daughter is playing Rick and Morty right now as I'm talking to you, that's not a joke. So I love the concept of it. I love the technology of it and incorporating skating is exciting to me, but I gotta find the right fit and doing a live event was a step in the right direction.

Your video game franchise is legendary. I heard that Activision tried to buy your name and likeness when you made the first Tony Hawk Pro Skater, but instead you struck a royalty deal where you earn a percentage of every copy sold. How did that come about?

Hawk: The original deal I signed was a royalty deal; that was established from the get-go. It was more that when the game was about to be released, they offered me a buyout of future royalties and for me, that was a big decision because the money they were offering me was more than I'd ever seen. But luckily, I was in a financial position that I was pretty secure with things that were going on and other sponsorships and competitions and future deals. So I rode it out. I basically told them I'm going to give it a chance and it was the best financial decision in my life. But it's hard when people offer you big money to buy you out or if you're running a company for the big exit, that's when you really have to realize that you either believe in what you've been doing or you were only in it for the quick buck.

Based on all of your years being involved in major business decisions, do you have any tips for young entrepreneurs for how to get the better end of a deal?

Hawk: You’ve got to try to keep control of your brand. If you are offered money to take it over, if you can fight for that control, that's probably your best option. Because when someone else takes your vision and runs with it, they're going to do things with it that you probably don't approve of or didn't want them to ever do. That's the key—you gotta keep enjoying your brand and don't try to get the easy quick buck. Get out of it because you're just going to see it crumble and realize that you could've taken it a lot further with your own passion.

You mentioned that the original deal you signed was a royalty-based deal, but did you have any foresight to see how the game would be successful?

Hawk: My only sign that it was going to be successful is that as it was being released, they offered me that buyout. And also a lot of my friends in the skate industry had been playing it. I sort of leaked some copies to people before it got released and they all just started calling it “the game.” Have you played “the game?” And I knew that we had a buzz amongst skaters and people that like video games. [Activision] started talking about what we would do for a sequel before the first game was released. So all of those were signs that there was going to be a success beyond anything that we anticipated.

When it first came out and it was flying off the shelves, how did that feel for you?

Hawk: It was crazy. It changed my life. It changed my life in terms of opportunity, in terms of recognition factor, finances—suddenly my name was synonymous with video games. A lot of people thought that I was new on the scene because they suddenly knew my name and I had been a pro skater for almost 20 years of my life at that point. So it was super exciting. It allowed me to exit competition in a way that I felt good about. And to explore new opportunities like doing arena tours and other endorsements and promoting skating and starting a foundation—all of that was related to having a video game and having that recognition.

I read that by your senior year of high school in the late '80s, you were making $70,000 a year. Then in the early '90s, skateboarding fell out of favor with sponsors and you had to sell your car, house and borrow $8,000 from your parents.

Hawk: That's true. I borrowed money from my parents to buy a video editing system because I knew how to do that. I had worked with computers from an early age, before they were a staple of every home. And so I knew how to edit video but I didn't have the equipment and I thought my career as a skater was ending and so I borrowed money from my parents to actually buy an editing system.

Back then you weren't digitizing things to video, you were actually doing it linear on videotape. So I bought this very, even then it was an antiquated video system. It was a three-quarter inch deck, two decks for the source, one deck for the edit, and made it work. I made a few videos for other skate companies. Ironically, I made a video for a video game company, NEC back then. That was before I had a video game deal, obviously. And I learned a lot in the process and then shortly after that the Video Toaster came out and then suddenly a video was nonlinear. It was digitized and I was ahead of the curve when all that happened. So I was able to use those skills and when I started my own company to do all of that stuff behind the scenes.

tony hawk vertical
Courtesy of the artist

So if God at the gates of heaven said, “Before you enter, you have to tell me which version of Tony Hawk Pro Skater is your favorite,” which would you choose?

Hawk: [laughs] Favorite? So curious as to what platform you'd be using. I think if I had to choose one that I think resonates the most in terms of playability and soundtrack and people finding this series was our second Tony Hawk Pro Skater. That one I'm very proud of in terms of the authenticity, the character, the locations and the game play. I feel like that's the one that put us on the map.

Does it annoy you that people constantly asked for like the old Pro Skater games to be remastered?

Hawk: No, not at all. It doesn't annoy me. There are so many legal issues with that. That's the thing I can't really explain is that I can't do it on my own. Activision can't use my name unless we came to a new deal and I don't think they're really interested in it. So it doesn't annoy me. If anything I'm honored that they still have a reverence for it. I wish there was some way to do that. I really do.

What can you tell us about the mobile game you've got in the works?

Hawk: I can tell you that there are some somewhat similar controls to previous series that people are used to you, but we're taking advantage of the mobile platform and I'm excited about it, but that's all I can really tell you right now.

You don't have a release date in mind, do you?

Hawk: I believe it will be near the end of the year.

Watch the full #Face2FaceTime with Tony Hawk on ONE37pm’s YouTube channel.

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