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Planes, drones, and lidar: How EA Sports built the courses of its PGA Tour game

A process that shut down a course 10 years ago is much more accurate, and less invasive, today

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

What most impresses Craig Penner, a gameplay designer on EA Sports PGA Tour, isn’t the game’s butterlike rendering of the middle of the fairway, or the slight harassment of the first cut lining it, or even the anything-goes tangle of the second cut. It’s when things get really hairy. Like, close-to-the-rope or ask-for-relief bad, almost out of bounds.

“The Country Club comes to mind,” Penner said, of the course in Brookline, Massachusetts, scene of the 2022 U.S. Open. “We have certain areas that are kind of mixed rough — heavy rough and dirt together. It’s kind of uneven terrain. And the artists mapped in the terrain to that. It’s all over the place, because you’re going through these different materials, which actually makes it true to real life.

“But then it has this interesting effect of giving you a situation where you don’t really know, until you get up to your ball, if it’s a good lie or a bad lie,” Penner said.

EA Sports PGA Tour, launching March 24 on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X, will include 30 courses at launch, the most ever on the disc in an EA Sports golf video game, with more hinted as live-service updates. All but two of those are real-life courses, and for each of them, EA Tiburon developers flew drones and aircraft, and deployed lidar scanning from the air and on the ground, to map the terrain and get even the most subtle nuances of their greens true to life.

They’ve done this before; for Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12, designers spent 10 days with state-of-the-art scanning equipment to bring Augusta National Golf Course into a video game for the first time — a process that often required the closure of several holes to club members. A decade later, the technology is more accurate, more compact, and a lot less intrusive, producer Ben Ramsour said.

In other words, no real-life tee times were harmed in the making of this video game.

“It’s better now, because we would have to bring these really heavy tripod things, and set them up, and it would take a week to do a course,” Ramsour said. “But the helicopter, besides anyone hearing it, is not invasive, and we can get everything we need in 30 minutes. It’s when we’re doing the photogrammetry, and the panoramic shots, and the color and lighting stuff, that could be seen as invasive.”

Even then, “in my pitch to the courses” to get their participation in the game, “it’s always, ‘It’s business as usual.’ Some of these places that are super private, they don’t want to see a guy in an EA Sports shirt with a camera running around,” Ramsour said. The developers show up early, plan around the watering schedules, and try to be invisible. “We’ve had people hit by golf balls,” he laughed.

One of the private courses where members don’t want to be bothered is Los Angeles Country Club, a super-exclusive joint up in Beverly Hills, and the site of the 2023 U.S. Open. Unlike Augusta National, it’s never appeared in a video game before. (No, the Los Santos Golf Club in Grand Theft Auto 5 does not count.)

EA Sports PGA Tour’s designers committed to bringing all four major championships of men’s golf, on their real-world courses, to their video game back in 2021, which makes the L.A. Country Club’s inclusion almost mandatory. It won’t be in the game on release, but it will arrive as post-launch DLC before the tournament begins in mid-July. The same goes for Oak Hill’s East Course, the scene of May’s PGA Championship.

As a members-only course dating to 1911, Los Angeles Country Club is one of those bucket-list venues that Ramsour would have been calling up even if it wasn’t hosting a major this year, along with Augusta National, St Andrews, and Pebble Beach.

“It’s in the heart of Beverly Hills, so you’ve got the buildings, you can see L.A. in the distance,” Ramsour said of LACC. “It’s incredibly bucket-list exclusive. That one was very hard to get into the game, because they don’t need the publicity of being in a video game. But they understand how we can render their course, and the level of detail that we can create.”

However, it’s not just the drones, the helicopters, and the flyover scanning that builds a course. Penner described multiple meetings with course superintendents to discuss the terrain and how the ball should play, specific to each hole there. The conversations were so detailed that Penner was marking up a yardage book under a nondisclosure agreement, because the course super was giving him information that pro golfers (and analysts, and bookmakers, frankly) would love to have three months in advance.

“I know exactly what the yardage is going to be, on the boards, for the U.S. Open this year,” Ramsour interjected. “And I am not going to share that. If Scottie Scheffler [the 2022 Masters Tournament winner] called me, and asked, like, confidentially? I would still not share that. But having that open dialogue, to make sure we’re representing it exactly, it’s in all of our best interests to be doing that.”