Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Ian Poulter have all appeared as playable characters in EA’s golf series in the past, but their inclusion in the upcoming “EA Sports PGA Tour” video game, alongside other golfers who have joined LIV Golf, is something of an open question given the enduring feud between the world’s two most prominent pro tours.
The battle between the blue-blooded PGA circuit and the well-monied, upstart LIV began in 2021, when the Saudi tour threw staggering sums of money at big-name PGA players to participate in the new LIV-run events, which feature no weekend cuts to the field and guarantees participants money. In June of 2022, the PGA announced it had suspended any golfers participating in LIV events from any PGA or PGA-run tournament, drawing a hard line as it watched some of its most notable players — including Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka, Cameron Smith and Sergio Garcia — defect to the Saudi tour over the course of that year.
With the LIV Tour and its newly acquired golfers earning ire in the US over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and allegations of the nation’s ties to the attacks of 9/11, the back-and-forth between the tours and players has been rather contentious. That tension, and the political fallout over which golfers can play in what events, creates a sticky situation for third-parties like EA who want to build popular, highly profitable products around licenses for leagues and players.
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The crux of the dilemma for EA figures to revolve around two parts of its upcoming game, “EA Sports PGA Tour,” which releases March 24. One is obviously the roster of pro players included in a game bearing the PGA Tour in its title. The other is a key differentiating factor between existing golf games like 2K Sports’s “PGA Tour 2K23” : golf’s majors.
Instead of marketing the game around a massively popular golfer, as it has done in the past with Tiger Woods and, briefly, Rory McIlroy, EA is framing its new offering around its exclusive inclusion of golf’s four major tournaments: The Masters, the US Open , the Open Championship and the PGA Championship. Those tournaments, the most watched and most notable on the annual golfing calendar, are not run by the PGA Tour, which means each major is able to decide which golfers participate.
Late in 2022, The Masters, the first major tournament of the golfing season, announced that it would allow LIV golfers who have earned exemptions by winning prior major tournaments to participate in the 2023 event. The Royal and Ancient, which operates the Open Championship, also said it would allow LIV qualifiers to participate. So, where does that leave EA when its in-game players tee it up at Augusta for The Masters? Could we see Dustin Johnson’s name on the leader board?
Asked by The Washington Post how the game will handle golfers on the LIV tour and whether they will be included in the game, EA replied:
“For many players the main draw in golf video games is to create their own character and play against some of the real-life pros on real courses. This continues to be an evolving situation with PGA Tour and LIV Golf and although we’re closely monitoring, it currently has not affected our development of ‘EA Sports PGA Tour.’
“As for revealing our golf roster, we’ll have more to share on this in the future.”
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This also becomes something of a wild card around another major marketing point for EA’s game: The Ryder Cup. A press preview event in mid-January made reference to the inclusion — in some fashion — of the Ryder Cup, the highly popular semiannual event that pits the top golfers from the US against their European peers. (When asked, EA declined to specify if the Ryder Cup would be a playable mode, but did say 2023 host course Marco Simone Golf and Country Club would be added to the game “amongst other Ryder Cup related updates and content” and added the company is “still exploring specifics and will share details at a later date.”) Presumably, a full Ryder Cup mode would include playable rosters for each side, similar to the Pro Bowl rosters in EA’s Madden NFL franchise. But will all of those players be available in the game if the rosters include LIV golfers in real life?
Unlike the majors, LIV golfers were previously banned from participating in last year’s President’s Cup, a similar event, and their status for the Ryder Cup remains undecided. Previously, some prominent golfers — such as McIlroy, a staunch opponent of LIV Golf — have stated they don’t believe LIV players should be eligible. Moreover, the qualification process requires players to accumulate Ryder Cup points, which for the US team is done through the PGA of America and requires players to be members. LIV golfers wouldn’t be accumulating points through LIV events and also wouldn’t be able to do so while they’re suspended from PGA events. So how might that impact EA’s roster of pro players in the game?
EA has not yet fully released its full pro roster. During the press preview event, the game developers showed footage that included visuals and references to PGA players Scottie Scheffler (the 2022 Masters champion), Tony Finau, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Cantlay. All four of those PGA players have backed the PGA in its tussle with LIV Golf, with Scheffler, Finau and Spieth publicly saying they have no intention of joining the Saudi tour. Earlier this month, Cantlay shot down rumors he was planning to join the LIV tour, though his response included the qualifier “as of now.”
So what happens, if Cantlay decides to leave for LIV? Does EA yank him out of the game since the PGA Tour wouldn’t allow him to play in its events? Perhaps setting the precedent, 2K’s “PGA Tour 2K23,” another PGA license holder, still includes playable versions of Bubba Watson and Harold Varner III, who both bolted for LIV Golf.
EA finds itself in the less-than-desirable position of having its game impacted by forces beyond the company’s control. Omitting LIV golfers deprives the game of some of the most prominent golfers in the sport today. Including them risks a backlash from the public or EA’s licensing partner, the PGA Tour.
Whether the tour vs. tour conflict has any in-game impact on “EA Sports PGA Tour” will be interesting to monitor over the coming year, particularly for a sports game franchise famous for its slogan: “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.”