Dawn breaks over the dew-frosted fairways of Bethpage Black. Each blade of grass sparkles in the low morning light and all is quiet save for the gentle rustle of leaves on the surrounding trees. This legendary golf course is lush and beautiful, not just for those lucky enough to come and play here, but also for the millions who have never come, and probably never will. For those players, a virtual experience of the course, meticulously recreated by game studio WGT, is as close as it gets to actually playing there. For Chad Nelson and his team at the studio formerly known as World Golf Tour, authenticity is not just a mission, it’s an obsession.
Authenticity. Realism. Accuracy. This is what they do. Nelson and his crew of a dozen photographers and surveyors trudge miles and miles over each golf course with laser scanners, GPS units, high-end cameras; mapping and documenting almost every location where an actual player might find him or herself setting up a shot in a real game of golf. They return from each course with over 100,000 photographs. And that’s where the real work begins. The process of sourcing, editing and color-correcting these photographs in order to create an accurate virtual golf course is a Herculean task accomplished by proprietary hardware and software developed specifically by WGT, who wanted to bring the world’s greatest courses to golfers of all levels in the comfort of their living rooms.
Mission accomplished. The result of WGT’s efforts has been nothing short of spectacular. Today, over 6-million virtual golfers from 120+ countries play on the hyper-realistic course recreated by WGT. And here’s something even more amazing. They are averaging 2.6 million monthly visits to the WGT.com site – that is more than golf.com and pga.com.
“The vision for WGT has always been to combine high-quality visuals, rich & deep gameplay within a social community built around competition,” says Chad Nelson, WGT Founder and President. “We are committed to building truly authentic experiences for both serious and casual sports fans.”
Notice he said ‘sports’. WGT is no longer just about golf. In 2012, they expanded into their offerings with WGT BASEBALL: MLB – the largest MLB-licensed baseball game on Facebook. And though he can’t talk about it yet, Nelson is promising a lot more to come.
WGT was founded in 2006 by Chad Nelson, YuChiang Cheng and JF Prata. The idea was to take the social and competitive elements of fantasy football and poker and package them within a premium, console-like sports game experience.
“When we started WGT, casual gaming was synonymous with Pogo.com and an endless sea of Bejeweled clones,” Nelson says. “Social gaming wasn’t a buzzword, the iPhone didn’t exist and, outside of fantasy football and online poker, there wasn’t much for guys in terms of casual games.”
Nelson grew up playing golf. He loved the game and thought that it had all the elements he and his team were looking for in a social, multiplayer experience. Golf is global, it has that easy-to-learn/impossible-to-master gameplay factor, it’s social and it’s got lots of competitive side games associated with it. But this was the era of the big EA Tiger Woods games. How could a small start-up enter the market, let alone compete with EA?
“Indeed, it seemed daunting,” Nelson says. “Yet I saw EA focusing a majority of their development efforts on consoles and, as a result, (they) left the web/online space wide open.”
They started by boot-strapping WGT for nearly the first year, working with a very small core team. This allowed them to build their first golf product, get it live and acquire their first 100k players. From there, they began to attract investors and soon after going live, closed their first round. To date, WGT has raised over $20-million from Battery Ventures, along with Panorama Capital and JAFCO Ventures.
When asked what sets WGT apart from other studios, Nelson points to their technology. Millions have been invested in the content and the photography solution pioneered by WGT, resulting in golf course visuals that never look dated or need updating with a new 3D engine. This puts WGT in a very defensible position, even against big companies like EA. This patented technique for recreating courses allows them to focus, and deliver, on photorealistic accuracy – which is what has become the hallmark of their brand. But the process was a significant initial investment. WGT developed new hardware to work with their cameras and survey equipment. They built new software to help in the pre-production planning, as well as to assist their post-production team in managing the thousands of images taken per hole. It took double the time and investment to create this foundational production pipeline than their initial plans had estimated. It was quite a learning process, but each shoot and subsequent course reproduction helped them refine the technology and the process so that now the cost of each has been brought down significantly.
WGT has transitioned into mobile by embracing Unity. Their WGT GOLF LITE™ for iOS was developed in Unity; which required them to learn a whole new bag of tricks, as WGT had become the masters of Flash™. By all accounts, WGT GOLF LITE is doing well and the future for both World Golf Tour and other WGT products is headed in a direction that will adapt to their players’ more mobile lifestyles.
WGT is headquartered in San Francisco and they’re closing in on fifty employees. World Golf Tour is extremely popular, WGT BASEBALL: MLB is growing month-over-month and there are new games set in realistic worlds of new sports in the offing. WGT is flying high. And so is their President. Chad Nelson now spends more time riding shotgun on a helicopter directing aerial shots than he does in the boardroom. And this year promises to be the best for the company so far.
“2013 is an exciting year for WGT,” Nelson says. “We just launched Merion Golf Club as part of the Virtual U.S. Open Championship and anyone who participates has a chance to win a VIP trip to the 2014 U.S. Open Championship at Pinehurst.”
Golf will always be a bread and butter sport for WGT. But their goal is to entertain all sports fans, and their challenge is to maintain their vision of quality, competition and community as they continue to grow and expand. For Nelson and his crew, it’s clearly about a passion for the games they portray and the worlds in which those games are experienced.
“Realism, accuracy and that thrill you get from the actual experience – that’s what keeps us going,” Nelson says. “We honestly believe the best is yet to come.”