How Tony Hawk's Pro Skater raised the bar for an underground sport
Pretending I'm a Superman chronicles the rise and fall of gaming's raddest sports franchise — and how it changed skateboarding forever.
The underdog story of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater isn't just about the success of an extreme sports game. It's about how a protective subculture opened up to survive, how an easygoing skater named Tony Hawk became the proto-influencer for millennials, how an impossibly cool soundtrack introduced SoCal punk to the world, and how a video game changed the art of skateboarding forever.
"Tony Hawk's Pro Skater introduced kids to a new art form," director Ludvig Gür tells Inverse.
Pretending I'm a Superman, a new documentary releasing August 18 on VOD, chronicles the rise and fall of the touchstone video game series Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. True to its title, the games made it easy to feel like a professional skater.
Consequently, gamers-turned-skaters innovated tricks deemed impossible in Hawk's time, pushing the boundaries of the sport. As told by the documentary's subjects, including Rodney Mullen, Bob Burnquist, Chad Muska, and Elissa Steamer, the video game franchise showed kids what was possible on a skateboard, even if no skater ever matched it IRL.
A young filmmaker from Sweden, Ludvig Gür is also a lifelong skater and attributes his adoption of the sport to Pro Skater.
"It allowed us to see the sport as something else," he says. "The game opened up kids' imaginations. The first trick I ever tried was Rodney Mullen stuff [I did in the game]. Seeing skateboarding in a video game inspires you to think outside the box."
"When you see someone do something, it becomes possible in your mind," says Ralph D'Amato, producer of the Tony Hawk series at Neversoft from 1999 to 2007. "At the time, there weren't a lot of combo flip tricks. They're now doing tricks the game inspired them to try."
Innovated in the 1940s, skateboarding came into its own in the 1970s. Tony Hawk, born 1968 in San Diego, California, first rode a skateboard at age nine. He turned pro with his first sponsorship at 14, and at 16 was considered one of the best in the world.
But success in skating was unheard of in the 1980s. As detailed in the documentary, skateboarding underwent waves of popularity and decline. Skate parks opened and closed. The culture went underground. And while Tony Hawk's skills were renowned, recognition in a dying sport doesn't pay the bills. In 1992, Hawk refinanced his home to launch a skate company Birdhouse. It was unprofitable for years. (In 2019, his reported net worth was $140 million.)
Just like the punk culture they adopted, skaters were resistant towards outsiders coming in. "Skate culture followed punk culture, which is a protective culture," D'Amato says.
"When things get out to the masses, it dilutes the culture. Skateboarding is where you're sacrificing a lot of yourself. You get injured. It's a gnarly sport. The desire to keep it 'pure' just meant, 'It's ours.'"
The sport bounced back in the mid-'90s when the X Games, the annual extreme sports competition broadcast by ESPN, brought skating into people's homes.
"Once people started realizing they can make a living, it opened things," D'Amato says.
Hawk, still the face of skating, was courted by several game companies, including Take-Two (which owns Rockstar Games and the 2K franchise), to star in their skateboarding video game. But the only pitch that impressed him came from Neversoft. Despite a crude demo that bizarrely featured Bruce Willis (modeled from Die Hard ) skating around a wasteland, Hawk saw potential. The two forces combined to create Tony Hawk's Pro Skater.
Released in September 1999, three months after Hawk first landed The 900 (the most difficult trick in skating) at X Games '99, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater for the Sony PlayStation was sold 1.3 million units and won acclaim from the gaming press. It spawned an even more popular sequel, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 in 2000, cementing an annual franchise that lasted until 2010. After an unpopular sequel in 2015, the series will "reboot" in September 2020 with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 & 2, a ground-up remaster built for modern consoles.
Credit lies in Tony Hawk himself. A sports icon held in the same regard as Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and Tiger Woods, Hawk was (and still is) a hero to young people. With licensed toys and memorable guest appearances in Nickelodeon cartoons, Hawk was the influencer to millions of young people in an era before TikTok.
But Hawk is unusual from other athletes of his stature for a single reason: He's a gamer. Like many who grew up in the '70s, Hawk spent as much time in arcades as he did skate parks. D'Amato credits Hawk's instinct on what was fun in the context of a video game, even if it wasn't authentic, as the reason why Tony Hawk's Pro Skater remains a classic.
"Tony was a gamer," D'Amato says. "In his mind, he knew, from a video game perspective, fun. That was huge for us at Neversoft. There were quite a few skaters who were not gamers. Tony brought that aspect of himself to us."
"Tony was offered several skateboarding video games. One of them was Thrasher Skate and Destroy," says Gür. "It was hard to play. He knew it wouldn't be appealing the way Pro Skater was. Neversoft made an excellent game, but Tony Hawk and his influence made it a masterpiece."
In Gür's documentary, aging veterans and Gen-Z pros alike credit Tony Hawk's Pro Skater for showing them in the virtual world what was possible in real life. "This happens throughout all sports," D'Amato says. "Break a world record, and people start thinking, 'I could one-up that.' It applies to video games. Kids were looking at things that seemed impossible. They were pretending they're Superman."
Pretending I'm a Superman will be released on VOD and Digital on August 18.
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