Tiger Woods PGA TOUR 11 offers video game realism at its best

It used to be that Tiger Woods and John Madden perennially boasted some of the highest Q scores, which measure the brand familiarity and likeability of athletes and sports personalities. Madden, despite retiring from sportscasting last year at age 73, is still running a close second behind Michael Jordan.

Woods, meanwhile, has plummeted from being the most likeable athlete in America to a mediocre 25th on the list — surpassed this year by winter Olympians and retired golfers Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. His negative perception, according to Marketing Evaluations, Inc., has increased about 160 percent in the past year.

Indeed, it would seem that Woods and Madden have little in common at this point, but each has an EA Sports video game title that bears his namesake. And these aren’t just any video game titles. The Tiger Woods PGA TOUR franchise and the Madden NFL franchise are the most successful of all time in their respective sports. Last year, Tiger’s title surpassed $500 million in sales since the first edition — Tiger Woods ’99 — was released.

Of course, Woods’ free fall in popularity is directly attributed to the highly publicized sex scandal that began with a car wreck on Thanksgiving Day 2009 and continues with never-ending tabloid speculation about his likely forthcoming divorce. The change in public perception has far less to do with the fact that he missed the cut at Quail Hollow, pulled out of The Players Championship with an injury and finished in the middle of the pack at the Memorial in his latest outings.

When Madden announced his retirement, EA Sports said it had no intention of changing the name of the game that has given so many would-be athletes hours of joy and ensuing tendonitis. And when it was revealed that Tiger had cheated on his wife again and again … and again and again … (et al.), EA said it would stick with him for Tiger Woods PGA TOUR 11, which hit the shelves last week. EA made this announcement at a time when AT&T, Gatorade and Accenture had all dumped Woods as spokesman.

Sure, EA added wunderkind Rory McIlroy to this year’s cover, but we all know it’s still Tiger’s game. McIlroy, who thrilled golf fans in May when he celebrated his 21st birthday with a record-setting win at Quail Hollow, leads a pack of exciting newcomers to the Tour who look to challenge Woods in his bid to return to dominance. It’s not likely he’ll take over as the face of the franchise, but it sets a new precedent — perhaps EA’s recognition that Tiger is no longer the only exciting name on Tour. It also opens the door for other young stars to become more involved in the marketing of the game’s future.

In terms of gameplay, PGA TOUR 11 is, hands down, the most innovative and intricately detailed golf game ever made — just as Madden fits that bill for football titles. And like the Madden franchise, each successive year has seen either vast improvements or minor tweaks, all to correspond with emerging gaming technology.

At this point, EA could rest on its laurels, say, “We have a virtual monopoly on golf games and we no longer need to try.” Instead, they strive each year to bolster the gameplay, make the courses more realistic and provide exactly the types of interactive online features gamers crave.

It’ll be interesting to see how Tiger’s misadventures will affect the sales of PGA TOUR 11. Those who purchased the game because of the name recognition may shy away, but those who play it because it’s an unrivaled golf gaming experience will be back no matter what face they smack on the front cover.

EA’s PGA video game franchise will survive and continue to thrive just as the Madden titles will continue to shatter sales records for the simple reason that EA is the hands-down leader in video game realism. This game doesn’t need Tiger Woods to keep you engaged or give you a reasonable facsimile of what it’s like to tee off on the seventh hole at Pebble Beach.

It’s more than possible that Tiger Woods PGA TOUR will one day be called something else and another Tour pro will be doing the bulk of the promoting. But as long as improvements keep coming to this already-strong title, that shouldn’t be a difficult job.