The first time I picked up a skateboard, I busted my 12-year-old ass over and over again. Slamming onto the pavement, catching the side of my board in the shin or ankle, I experienced all the rite of passage injuries almost every skater will face. Many would have quit the sport in these early stages, but not me. No, I wanted to be just like the skaters I idolized in the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video games — the ones who inspired me to get that first board, and who I lived through vicariously as I tirelessly churned out the highest-scoring combos I could muster to Goldfinger’s “Superman.”
I wasn’t the avid gamer I am today when the first two Pro Skater games hit consoles (I was only four years old in 1999), but those who were already playing those games at the time were being introduced to a world many of them hadn’t been familiar with: the world of skating.
When Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 is released to the public on September 4, the series reboot will be poised to do that again — this time with a whole new generation.
Transcending the medium
A cultural touchstone for the young, impressionable minds of the late ’90s, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater vividly captured what made skate culture so special like no piece of media had before. For some, it was their first introduction to the DIY style, swiftness, and gritty feel of ’90s era skate tapes (hip-hop and punk soundtracks included). It helped launch the sport into the mainstream mere months after Hawk famously landed the first-ever 900 at the 1999 X Games.
Before that, the community was mainly composed of outcasts yearning for a way to express themselves freely and without judgment. Skating was viewed largely as something that street punks did — damaging public property, loitering where they shouldn’t, and interrupting the status quo of “civilized” lives. What the critics didn’t see was how it provided a safe haven for those who didn’t fit the mold and were searching for an escape that wasn’t limited by the rigid rules and inside-the-box thinking of prevailing society.
Pro Skater was a fresh glimpse into the counterculture for the unversed — an introduction to a lifestyle filled with baggy pants, graffiti, and Rage Against the Machine — and many of the people who sank hours into those early iterations say they’re the main reason they ever attempted hopping on a skateboard in real life. They, like me, wanted to emulate Kareem Campbell, Elissa Steamer, Rodney Mullen, and the other skate legends of the THPS series. In a time when you couldn’t just go down a skateboarding rabbit hole on YouTube, the games were one of the few points of reference those skaters-in-training had.
Interest in skating games started to wane slowly but significantly as the THPS series carried on and other franchises (most notably EA’s Skate) entered the fray. After years of success, the genre would run into a years-long period of stagnation, with 2007’s Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground marking somewhat of an end to the excitement for the future of Tony Hawk games.
But over the past few years, we’ve been witnessing a resurgence in the mainstream popularity of skate culture. You can see this happening in real-time with movie releases like Mid90s, Jonah Hill’s 2018 film that chronicled the antics of a budding group of skate kids, and with the explosive number of skaters that have taken TikTok by storm, documenting their skills and challenging others to do the same. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the increasingly shitty reality of our situation — the complete loss of empathetic leadership, older generations drowning out the voices of younger ones. As things get worse, the resistance grows, and so does the relevance of the counterculture.
Whether it’s that deep or not, it’s an ideal moment for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 to come back with more than just a fresh coat of paint. And lucky for skaters new and old, that’s exactly what’s happening.
The game’s September release will bring improved visuals, but also an array of new skaters to the roster. Most of them have been big names in the scene for a while now, including the likes of Nyjah Huston, Lizzie Armanto, and others. Their presence isn’t solely for star power, though — it makes for a more inclusive, accurate portrayal of not just skate culture today, but what it’s looked like for quite some time.
And just as the Pro Skater games influenced some of these skaters to join that culture way back when, they in turn are shaping and influencing that culture back, as well as the future of the Pro Skater series.
Kicking, pushing, and coasting forward
“I started skating really young — I think I found skateboarding maybe around two or three — and the only video game I would play was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Pro Skater 2 with my friend, Evan,” Leo Baker, one of the new additions to the Pro Skater roster and the first non-binary skater to be included in a Tony Hawk game, told Mashable in an interview. “And before I even started playing those games, I thought I was the only girl skater besides Elissa Steamer, just because that was the only representation there was for that,” says Baker. “So I thought it was just really rad to see, you know, not a whole roster of only men on there.”
Baker believes that the reboot’s more diverse roster will inspire even more skaters to skate. “I think it’s really important and timely that they include a diverse group of people in the game because, like, the political climate and what’s going on in the world right now — it kind of would be in bad taste not to include a diverse list of skaters. And the way marginalized communities are breaking down barriers within skateboarding — it feels like a really big win for women’s skating, queer skating, because we’ve been fighting for space for so long.”
Baker is no stranger to helping change the landscape of the skating world. After living in Los Angeles and then moving to New York City, they realized how rich and diverse the skate scene was, specifically the LGBTQ+ skate scene. But there was no real home base for that community to come together. That’s what led Baker to create , an “intentional space” for LGBTQ+ and cis female skaters to connect with people just like themselves. “Since the birth of NYCSP, the community has grown a lot. It’s something that we can say is ours, and I think that’s really important,” they said.
“We started off as outcasts. When a group of outcasts find each other in the world, they gravitate towards each other.” —Chad Muska
LGBTQ+ visibility in skateboarding has been sparse since the beginning. The corporate skate industry’s treatment of queer skaters wasn’t always the most kind. Coming up in the pro circuit, Baker experienced constant attempts to strip them of their identity, with sponsors telling them they needed to look and identify a certain way to be more representative of their brands. Baker hopes that their inclusion in the game signals a change, encouraging new skaters to be authentically themselves instead of having to conform to archaic ideals.
“I think the visibility of women, non-binary, and trans skaters in a video game like THPS is going to be majorly impactful for this upcoming generation,” Baker added. “Kids are going to see themselves in this broader spectrum of people who can skate. If I had seen a queer, trans skater [in the original game], maybe my life would have had a completely different path, because I wouldn’t have had to feel so boxed-in, or like I had to ‘dress like a girl’ in order to be successful as a skater. So that’s really exciting that they’ll have that.”
Veteran skater and THPS icon (or just “OG skater,” as he would have you say) Chad Muska is just as excited about the newly added skaters as the newcomers themselves. “I think the new generation of skaters that we have in the game mixed with the old guys — it’s such a unique and cool thing to bring those two together. And the fact that maybe some of them actually started skating because of the original game is awesome,” Muska said.
“It’s important, when you represent skateboarding in a video game or any type of media, that you show the diversity that exists within it,” he added.
Following Muska’s debut in the original THPS games, young skaters around the world started dressing just like him, sporting rolled-up pant legs, layered accessories, and in some cases carrying around boomboxes (a Muska signature). He thinks the new Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 has the potential to do for skating what the originals did: Bring skate culture to an even wider swath of future skaters that’ll follow in the footsteps of not only the “OGs,” but also the newcomers.
“I mean, there’s been, and I’m not exaggerating, thousands of kids out there that have told me they started skateboarding because of this game and that it introduced them to not only the physical aspects of riding a skateboard, but also the culture that comes along with it: music, fashion, and everything,” he said.
He cited skating’s beginnings as a counterculture as a huge part of its appeal. “We started off as outcasts,” he said. “When a group of outcasts find each other in the world, they gravitate towards each other. That’s what happened with skateboarding. There were all these outcasts all around the world that loved skateboarding so much that when they saw somebody else that shared that, it was just an instant friendship, and an instant connection.”
Not all beginnings are the same though, and that’s proven by Aori Nishimura, the youngest and newest face to join the Pro Skater roster. Unlike most skaters in the game, the 18-year-old prodigy and three-time X Games gold medalist from Japan had never played a Tony Hawk game. “But I knew of them, and I knew all the skaters in them,” she said. “So for me to be a part of that roster is truly an honor.”
Although Nishimura hadn’t played Pro Skater, it had a profound impact on her trajectory anyway. It just so happens that her dad had played the games, and he also happens to be the person who got her into skateboarding. When Nishimura found one of his old boards lying around the house, she picked it up and asked if she could skate with him. “He’s really hyped on me being a part of this game,” Nishimura added. As for who Nishimura is looking forward to playing as in the final game (other than herself), she says that Nyjah Huston and Shane O’Neill will be her first picks.
Shane O’Neill, a professional skater from Melbourne, Australia, was greatly inspired by the original THPS games, too. In fact, they were vital to his crash course in skating. “When the original games came out, they were definitely a tool for me to learn what the tricks were; that was the biggest thing for me. I would always watch skating on TV and stuff, but when I started playing the games, I was starting to learn more about, you know, what a frontside trick was and stuff like that. And, for me, that just sparked a lot more interest in learning more about skateboarding in general,” he said.
“I think that’s what these games become. You relate to these people and you feel like that person is speaking to you, and you want to like, be that person to some degree.” —Eric Koston
O’Neill also said that skateboarding’s unique structure (or lack thereof) is ripe for welcoming new skaters into the mix, and he has hopes that the new game will do just that. “I think because it’s not set up as a traditional sport, it just brings a whole new outlook to everyone doing it and what people are doing it for. I think the general reason is just because it’s really enjoyable, and you get to spend time with your friends, and there’s no competitiveness to it. Everyone has a common goal.”
O’Neill said that his go-to choice in the original THPS was Eric Koston, which led to Koston becoming one of his personal favorite skaters. As fate would have it, O’Neill and Koston will both be immortalized together in Pro Skater 1 + 2 soon.
Koston didn’t fully realize the scope of Pro Skater’s influence until he started getting recognized in public more often than usual. “I would always be like, why is this random guy staring at me? It doesn’t make any sense. And then you end up talking to them and you find out, ‘Oh yeah, I played as you in that game,'” he said.
Even years later, Koston said he constantly hears from other skaters (even pros) that they grew up on the THPS games, with many of them mentioning their preferred roster picks and what boards they bought themselves to be more like their Pro Skater heroes.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was one of those “lightning in a bottle” moments, and Koston thinks that the roster is a big part of what made that so. They were all interesting skaters with different styles that players could choose based on their preferences, discovering their favorite skaters and their own personal skating styles in the process.
When he was younger, Koston found that the skaters he looked up to most were the ones he saw himself in, pointing to former skater turned Flogging Molly accordion player Matt Hensley as one of his early personal idols. “I would think like, oh, he looks cool. I want that dude’s flannel, I want those cargo shorts, and I want that chain wallet. I want to look like that dude. I think that’s what these games become. You relate to these people and you feel like that person is speaking to you, and you want to like, be that person to some degree.”
The legacy cruises on
When Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 comes out this September, a brand-new generation of skaters will be waiting to see if lightning strikes again. If the hopes of the dev team, the members of the game’s roster, and fans of the series alike come true, we’ll see another wave of kids from all walks of life forging new bonds at their local skate shops and learning about one another through their newfound method of self-expression.
The Pro Skater legacy is a testament to the power of video games and their ability to inspire, to get us off the couch and explore worlds that we wouldn’t have without their nudge in that direction. Since the announcement that THPS would soon be in our hands again, I’ve been feeling nostalgic for my skateboarding days. For that reason, I’m picking up my board again (and still falling a lot). I’m assuming that others will, too; perhaps for the first time.