Tennis holds a unique position in the US these days. The sport is dominated by international players, and the biggest rivalry is Federer versus Nadal rather than Federer versus Roddick. Nevertheless, the sport remains popular here. To put things in perspective, would the same hold true in golf if an international rivalry like Harrington versus Goosen dominated the headlines for years rather than a rivalry like Mickelson versus Woods?
Regardless of where you stand on that topic, that’s not the only unique thing about tennis in the US. It is also a unique entity in the video game world. In fact, no other sport can be compared to it on a licensing and marketing front, according to Chris Snyder, the director of marketing at 2K Sports. In other words, a worldwide sport that lacks an overarching license -- like in the NFL or MLB -- can lead to headaches. And even though 2K Sports does have another experience with something like this in the form of All-Pro Football 2K8, even that does not compare.
“It’s the same process of signing individual players,” said Chris Snyder. “But All-Pro was all people in the US; it was all former NFL players. This is much more worldwide, so I think it’s a bit more difficult than All-Pro.”
So when it comes to the Top Spin franchise, it takes a unique approach in order to be successful creating and marketing a title for a worldwide audience. Still, much like almost every other simulation-based sports game out there, the success of Top Spin begins with the roster of tennis stars that make it into the game. And with Top Spin 4, it was all about securing a big-time cover athlete first and foremost.
“When you think about what Michael Jordan meant to the NBA, Agassi is not very far off when it comes to US tennis, said Chris Snyder. “So when we got Agassi, we were not only thrilled to have him as in in-game character, but he was the only choice for us to put on a cover.”
But if Agassi is your MJ, you still need the Lakers and Celtics equivalents to make sure your game has any credibility. In this case, those equivalents are undoubtedly Federer and Nadal.
“I don’t think you can put a game out without having Nadal and Federer in it,” said Snyder, who played an active role during the process of securing players for the upcoming tennis title. “They’re too big to the sport right now, and their rivalry is great.” (As a quick aside, Nadal was a PS3-exclusive in Top Spin 3, but I guess 2K decided it was still OK to release a 360 version of the game during that point in time.)
However, players like Federer and Nadal are the no-brainer choices. Heck, even players like Roddick, Djokovic, Wozniacki and Serena Williams fit into the “duh” category as well. The real test is looking into the future and figuring out who might be a big star in the coming months and years. And the folks at 2K Sports have to look at it this way because securing athletes for a game like Top Spin happens well before the actual game is ready to be released. So much like a baseball scout has to look at tools and project how a high-school player might turn out, the folks at 2K Sports have to do the same when deciding who to pursue for a tennis game that will not be released for at least another year.
“For us it’s really about trying to capture what today’s tennis landscape looks like,” said Snyder. “But you also want to have the up-and-comers. We were looking at Eugenie Bouchard, who is a Canadian female tennis player who is very much so an up-and-comer -- and we think in a few years she probably could be in the top five somewhere. We want players like that because the hardcore tennis fan is going to be able to recognize that we went out of our way to get some of those up-and-comers."
Sometimes the projections work out, and other times they do not. Having Bernard Tomic in Top Spin 4 makes 2K Sports look pretty smart; James Blake, on the other hand, does not look like a great pick at this juncture.
“You kind of have to get the crystal ball out, and it doesn’t always pan out when it comes to the people who you think are going to be stars,” said Snyder. “It’s tough to do because we start so far out while trying to lock down a deal with these guys, so maybe at the time they’re not even close to the top 10.”
At the end of the day, 2K has secured five of the top 10 on the ATP rankings, as well as four of the top 10 on the WTA rankings. Obviously, the rankings could be much different after the Australian Open ends.
After the athletes are officially in the game, it is up the developers to bring these athletes to life in virtual form. The development team has to make sure the athletes have the proper licensed equipment and rackets, but it goes much deeper than that, especially when it comes to Top Spin 4.
“We went into painstaking detail, especially on a guy like Nadal who has a very distinct swing,” said Snyder. “When he hits a forehand or a backhand, it’s almost looks like he’s pulling an arrow out of a quiver. We didn’t really have those animations before, so we wanted to make sure they were brought in and true to life for Rafael.”
From there, each tennis player still needs to act like the real-life counterpart. In this case that means Roddick having a ridiculous serve, or “Nadal staying by the baseline, volleying with you and being tough to break.” Authenticity of this nature is what 2K Sports has thrived on with the NBA 2K series, and the developers clearly want to bring that same element of AI realism to Top Spin 4.
Assuming all has gone well on the development side of things, the last step is marketing the retail game to a worldwide audience. Top Spin does not seem to be as unique in this regard. Instead, it seems to be marketed the same way EA markets FIFA and NHL to various regions.
“We want to make sure there are plenty of European stars in the game, and gracing the cover as well,” said Snyder. “So if you were to guy buy the game in England, you would see Andy Murray on the cover; in Germany you would see Boris Becker on the cover. We try to play to the hometown favorites a little bit.”