In mid-December, Forbes.com concluded that pro skateboarder Tony Hawk is the world's third-most influential athlete, trailing only Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong.
For those not all that familiar with skateboarding as a sport, this might come as a surprise, given some of the athletes he came in ahead of--football star Peyton Manning, basketball prodigy LeBron James, and NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But to the millions of people who have played any of the 10 Tony Hawk video games, the Forbes honor surely came as no surprise. After all, those games have become one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, cementing the Hawk legend that began more than 20 years ago on the asphalt of Southern California. He retired from skateboarding nearly 10 years ago at the age of 31.
These days, Hawk, 40, is working on a new iteration of the game franchise, even as he promotes skateboarding and action sports in general, and puts much of his effort into his Tony Hawk Foundation, which has helped build nearly 400 skate parks in disadvantaged communities around the United States.
Hawk, along with celebrities like Nicole Richie, basketball player Yao Ming, and Fall Out Boy, is also promoting a new charity initiative being run by Facebook and PayPal, called Regift the Fruitcake, which hopes to leverage their fame to help raise money for needy causes.
Q: Explain Regift the Fruitcake?
Hawk: Through PayPal and Facebook we're raising awareness of charities and making it possible to spread the word to your friends by sending little videos created by celebrities and athletes, with each of them representing their own charities or the charities that interest them. The idea is that you receive a video and you pass it on and you donate in the process. It's the same idea as when you get a fruitcake for Christmas and you end up giving it away because it's not going to go bad, so to speak.
These are viral videos?
Hawk: They are and each one directs you to a specific charity or cause, and on Facebook and on regifitthefruitcake.com site you can track them and find out how many times they've been sent.
Are you involved in other kinds of viral or social media?
Hawk: I have a Web site called shredordie.com, which is focused on action sports and action sports videos and kids uploading user-generated content. I do a lot of celebrity interviews there, with guys like Lance Armstrong, and Michael Phelps, and Jack Black.
How important is the user-generated content?
Hawk: That's the meat of it. We want kids to come and upload and show off their stuff. It's also a hub for companies looking for talent to sponsor.
You describe yourself as a proud computer geek. How so?
Hawk: Well, beyond shooting my own video clips, editing them, and doing all the effects, I've been into computers since I was a kid. I bought the first Amiga when it came out and then graduated to Macintoshes when I could afford one.
Mac or PC today?
What is your computer set up?
Hawk: I've got a dual-processor desktop, an iMac in my office and the newest MacBook. Not the MacBook Air, because I wanted a hard drive.
Do you have an iPhone?
Hawk: I have an iPod Touch.
What are your favorite apps?
Hawk: You know, I'm afraid to admit it, but I play a lot of Yahtzee Adventures. My kids love Line Rider, and I play poker and blackjack and Scrabble.
It seems like the iPhone, because of its accelerometer, would be good for skateboarding games?
Hawk: You're absolutely right. I wish I could say more about that, but let's just say that we're going to incorporate that technology into our next game.
So there will be a Tony Hawk iPhone game?
Hawk: Not iPhone.
Will it be for PS3 or Wii?
Hawk: The next game we're doing is for consoles, which will be next year. I get in trouble when I say too much about it, but you're on the right track.
How do you work with Activision on the making of one of your video games?
Hawk: I play it. Basically, we start with an idea and then we start creating it. I'm there every step of the way so that nothing gets decided before it's too late, including things like characters and locations and tricks and challenges. I've actually always been there throughout the process, playing it and making suggestions and just keeping it authentic, because that's the most important thing to me.
How much of challenge is it to keep the games true to skateboarding?
Hawk: That's the thing. When I'm there, it's pretty instinctual. It's actually quite easy because if I see something, I intuitively know if it's legitimate or not, as opposed to seeing it after the fact and going, 'Well, maybe that works.' I go with my gut feeling on all of it.
Can you describe something that would feel legitimate to you versus something that wouldn't?
Hawk: This is something we're working on in our new game. If you're grinding on something, let's say it's a ledge or a rail, and the board is doing it a certain way, that would be a different trick. And some of the challenges that we're running into with the new game we're developing are, let's say, the guy is doing a certain grind and he wants to change to another grind. The body positioning can't be the same. Every grind has a signature body position that you have to get into and that's crucial to keeping it authentic. So you can't just have this guy standing there, just balancing his arms, and suddenly his board goes into a different kind of grind or slide. The real skaters just know that's not real.
So it's important that you be there to help the developers get that right?
Hawk: Yeah, literally last week, that's the exact thing I did. I had a meeting with them and I was talking about how this one grind didn't look right. And then they said, 'What would it look like?' I have a little skate park in my office, and I said, 'Let's go out here,' and we did it, and they shot video for reference and they had it.
Over the years, how has the process changed for you in terms of your involvement with the development of the games?
Hawk: Up until recently, it was easier because the whole development team was familiar with skating. They'd been working on skating games for nearly 10 years, so it wasn't like I had to explain what a switch-crook (a skating move) looks like. They'd just know. So it got a little bit easier, and I became more of an overseer and approving certain aspects of it. Now, I don't want to say we're starting from zero, but we are rebuilding the whole game, so I'm back to being fully immersed at every step of the way so I can make sure it's authentic when it comes out.
But you're not doing any of the development yourself?
Hawk: No, I don't write code.
How has technology changed skateboarding?
Hawk: I think the biggest change is the speed of information and how it travels and how widespread it travels. When you've got videos up on Web sites that are literally shot the same day, the whole skate community knows right away when new tricks are invented, or new techniques are available. Before, it was only through skate magazines, which would come out months after the fact and weren't nearly as widespread. So I feel like there is this sort of global evolution of skating now, whereas before it was very confined to say, Southern California, or just certain parts of the country.
So new moves are spreading right away?
Hawk: A kid in Italy or in Australia can go out and be inspired to learn a brand-new move the same day, and that evolves skating globally as opposed to just in certain geographic areas.
Does that change how skateboarding is seen by the population at large?
Hawk: I think the acceptance has come with the success of things like our video games, or the television coverage skating has received in recent years. It's much more accessible. It's obviously more of a legitimate option for kids, career-wise. And parents are encouraging their kids to skate, and that's really why I started our foundation, because I felt that skating is massively popular. More kids are skating than playing little league now, but they're just not provided for in terms of facilities. So these kids want to do something physical, and positive, yet the only place they can skate is the shopping mall parking lot, or in front of the library, and they're discouraged from doing that. But the same cities that are discouraging them aren't providing facilities for them. So I wanted to help bridge that gap and provide skate parks in low-income cities.
With video games, does it ever reach a point where the technology is at such a high level of realism that there's nowhere else you can go with it? Do you see that happening with skateboarding games?
Hawk: For sure, with our next release. I can guarantee you that it's as close to real skating as you'll ever come.