An All-Male Club Lets Video Gamers Punch at Sports' Glass Ceiling

For years, EA Sports' Tiger Woods PGA Tour series has allowed gamers to create female golfers and play with them, even against all-male tournament fields, on any course and in any of the events licensed to appear in the game. Last year, Tiger Woods added The Masters Tournament, the event hosted by Augusta National Golf Club, notorious for its all-male membership.

It took nearly three years and constant negotations with, assurances to, and approvals from one of the most conspicuously conservative institutions in sports, to finally bring that course and event to a video game. Was there ever a conflict between the video game's female-inclusive career mode, and the fact no woman has ever participated in The Masters, a tournament run by a club whose membership policies specifically exclude them?

"Not at all," said Craig Evans, the senior liaison between EA Sports' Tiburon studio and Augusta National for the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series. "Because we knew that qualifying for The Masters Tournament has nothing to do with gender."

As strange as that may sound, it is true. There is no gender proscription in qualifying for The Masters. Among other bids awarded, The Masters gives an automatic qualification to the current champions of five tournaments, none of which prohibit women from entering. One of those tournaments is the U.S. Amateur Public Links. Michelle Wie advanced to match play in that tournament in 2005, as the first woman golfer to qualify for a United States Golf Association national men's tournament. Had Wie won that tournament, she would have played against men at Augusta.

"Augusta had no concerns about that, whatsoever," Evans told me. The club does not prohibit women outright—they play as guests of members all the time, and there are only two tee boxes, Masters (the longer) and members (the shorter). No ladies' tees, in real world or the game.

"Their concerns were more like, a golfer wears a bunny suit when you play Augusta National. They were concerned more with things like fanciful gear in our customization options. When it came to who was playing—our created players, be they female or male—they just wanted them to be dressed professionally."

I thought about this a lot over the past two weeks, beginning with an excellent question from one of our readers, through to the arrival of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 for me to review. The reader, a diehard baseball fan, acknowledged her impossible dream of ever making the major leagues. Yet it was no less realistic than the one I harbored as a scrawny, .200 hitting teenager on my high school nine. Her point has no legitimate refutation: If my ultimate sports fantasy is just as unattainable as hers, why do I, as a man, get to create myself in a video game and live it out there, yet she does not?

There are a number of excuses for that. Some invoke aesthetic boundaries—-these are, after all, supposed to be "simulation" games, and no woman has played a regular season game in the "big four" of North American sports leagues, which dominate the video game publishing calendar. Others concern production costs. Though another EA Sports title, FIFA, is routinely looked to for the inclusion of women, largely because of the rise of women's soccer and its popularity here in the United States, that already is a game featuring 29 leagues and 42 national teams and thousands of players from all over the world. Adding just the 16 teams, with authentic rosters and realistic player modeling, from the most recent women's World Cup would require considerable, if not separate, illustration and animation efforts.

Yes, NHL 12 this past year notably allowed for the creation of female players, especially in its career-fantasy "Be a Pro" mode. Manon Rhéaume, in the 1990s, played in two exhibition games with the Tampa Bay Lightning and in two dozen minor league contests with all-male teammates and opponents. But in a video game you're still talking about a sports story without much of an anchor in reality, leaving it up to the player to invent the story of how she got here. The commentary won't acknowledge the unique circumstances; she'll just show up, perform, and be judged accordingly.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13, releasing on Tuesday, and its predecessor, serve the story in a more complete way. This year's game, for example, starts a created golfer on the amateur tour. Should he or she win the U.S. or Asian Amateur Championship—neither of which are gender restricted in real life—a bid to The Masters is awarded on the spot. Now, coming so early in the player's career, it is extremely unlikely they can win, as their attributes—male or female—are way too low to be championship competitive. And as I discovered last year, when you play The Masters, the field really comes after you. Hard.

But simply making the cut as an amateur would be a victory, and more easily attainable than getting an invitation through a yearlong slog as a money leader on the PGA Tour—which also isn't shut off to women, as Wie has participated in four of its events. The difference here is the game outlines a path to an outlandish sports fantasy in a manner that still is consistent with real life. Whatever she shot, a woman playing in The Masters would likely be the No. 1 sports story of any year in which that happened. Here, a golf fan can create the scenario under which it would most likely occur, if it ever does.

And according to Craig Evans, most Tiger Woods players choose to create female golfers, even in a game where created players are used vastly more than the real world golfers, male-or-female, who have licensed their likenesses to appear in the game.

"Our player base is roughly 75-to-25 male," Evans said, breaking it down into percentages. "We have telemetry that tells us which athletes people are playing in their game experiences. In all of the created players we have, it's about 50-50 male and female."

It helps that there is no gender restriction on attributes, whether that's driving power or short-iron accuracy. In real life, to debate the limitations of either sex is to invite an unpleasant argument, and EA Sports has understandably avoided that, if not for PR purposes, then for the fact that their customer has paid $60 for a video game and probably doesn't want to be told they hit like a girl.

Still, it is there, a chance to see and live one of the more amazing stories in any sport, should it ever come to pass, whether you are a man or a woman.

An All-Male Club Lets Video Gamers Punch at Sports' Glass Ceiling
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.