It was billed as the Oscars for the world of gaming, a live, televised video game award show from the creator of the Teen Choice Awards that would deliver an experience the producers described as “Golden Globe Awards combined with a bit of the VMAs and Teen Choice.” For performances, according to that original pitch document, “think Marshmellow, Conan O’Brien … Ninja versus Tiger!” Hosts would include “surprise A-listers.” Presenters? “Superstar city – the problem is we don’t have enough slots for all of the folks that want to present!”
But the Gamers’ Choice Awards, when it aired on CBS earlier this month, didn’t come close to that promise of glitz, glamor, and celebrity and now two of the producers are involved in a legal battle that one tells Variety involves a substantial change in the promise of the show and six figures in missing payments.
Michael Burg has a knack for creating award shows. Over the past few decades he helped to create shows like the Teen Choice Awards, the Southern Sports Awards, and the Kid’s Choice Awards. A call earlier this year piqued his interest in another sort of award show, he told Variety in a phone interview this week.
“A friend of mine who is a rock and roll promoter started talking to me about video games and esports,” he said, ‘We’re filling up these venues left and right with gaming competitions. Your next awards foray should be in video games; they’re big.’
“When you look at the numbers tied to video games, the numbers are just staggering and when you read about esports a lot of them are bigger than sports.”
Burg said he poked around and found that there wasn’t any current award show being presented on TV. His idea also came at a time when broadcasters are increasingly looking at live events as a way to attract audiences who have migrated to streaming services or taped programming.
“From a network perspective there really wasn’t anything out there at all,” he said. “I had seen a number of broadcasts tied to esports on television, but I’m not quite sure that is the right medium for that. So the idea was, we’ve done the Choice Awards, we’ve realized how passionate fans are when it comes to gaming, why wouldn’t we make a show that celebrates video games?”
Victor Borachuk, who says he was the show’s co-creator and executive producer with Burg, said he worked with Burg on several shows including a Teen Choice red carpet before helping to create the Gamers’ Choice Awards. He came on board, he said, because he liked the idea of highlighting video games and the fan community.
Burg denies that Borachuk helped create the show, but did acknowledge that he and his production company, Jupiter Return, worked on the show. Shortly after reporting began on the story, Burg contacted Variety to say he could no longer talk about Borachuk or his involvement with the show because of legal proceedings. But in the initial interview, Burg said that Borachuk was a great producer.
It’s clear that early on, the people behind the Gamers’ Choice Awards had big plans for the show. An early pitch deck for the show provided by a source to Variety called the Esports and Gaming Awards — the original name for the show — the first network awards show honoring the world of esports and gaming, the only network broadcast featuring the biggest stars from both worlds, the only such show to follow the NFL on CBS and the most authentic awards “where fans choose the winners.”
While some of those statements may have been ambitions, rather than locked-down facts, the show did indeed have a time slot following the NFL on CBS.
Burg said he purchased three time slots for the award show, in part because he wanted his company to control the rights to the property.
Borachuk said that the time slots were originally intended for a show called the Science and Innovation Awards, which was created to be an “interactive Hollywood-style awards show where pop culture meets science and technology,” according to the show’s site which is still live. The site says the show would include “mind-blowing demonstrations, appearances by Hollywood’s biggest sci-fi stars and STEM-leaning celebrities, salutes to the world’s coolest science icons, tech-infused music performances, and of course honors to our newly discovered science superstars.”
That show, Borachuk said, was mothballed after being delayed three or four times and some or all of the time slots initially set aside for it were repurposed for the Gamers’ Choice Awards. When asked if that was the case, Burg simply said that the Science and Innovation Awards has been shifted to 2019.
Development on the Gamers’ Choice Awards seems to have begun in the fall. Burg said he planned to use the same approach used for the initial Teen Choice Awards.
“We used this philosophy when we launched the Teen Choice Awards,” he said. “We launched that in a small venue, the Barker Hanger venue. We wanted to start it small and see if it caught on. The same with Gamers’ Choice.”
The idea, he said, was to host two network shows in the lead-up to the award show. Both were billed as nomination shows. They were designed, he said, to seed the market.
But those nomination shows seemed to be the breaking point for the work Borachuk and Burg were doing together.
Borachuk said that those nominee shows were thrown together at the last minute as a way to use the two time slots that had already been purchased. He said when he saw the direction the nominee shows were heading, he decided to pull out.
“At that point, I began to lose faith in the show being anything worthwhile, and of recouping any of the debts incurred with his company,” he said. “After seeing the disorienting playlist of clips they passed off as nominations shows, those fears were confirmed.”
Burg, when asked about the disagreements that led to the two parting ways before the nomination show was finished, said he didn’t have much to say.
“We had a contract with CBS and had to deliver two preview shows,” he said. “What speaks are the results of the show.”
Burg said the ratings increased with each new show.
“The results,” he reiterated, “speak for what we did.”
The show itself featured the unveiling of more than 150 nominees across 22 categories. Some who watched the show seemed surprised at the list of nominees and categories. Where the final voting for winners was conducted by fans through a website, the nominee process wasn’t a public one.
“Much like the Teen Choice Awards which I created, the nomination process was a group effort,” Burg said. “We solicited the opinions of experts in the gaming world including industry leaders, management companies, and major distributors of content.”
One management company involved early on in the process was Loaded, which represents Ninja and other big names in the influencer and livestream markets. Burg said he reached out to the company early on about including some of their talent in the show.
Borachuk and several others Variety spoke to on background, said that Loaded was also asked to approach clients about potential sponsorship in the show. Loaded CEO Brandon Freytag denies the allegation.
“From our side, we always do our best to support projects our clients are excited about and involved in,” he said. “That said, we were not involved as producers, executive or otherwise, in either of the award shows last week, and didn’t see direct financial gain as a result of our participation. Ultimately, we want to see gaming grow, and gain more mainstream exposure, so it was great to see so many of our clients present at both programs.”
But Borachuk said Burg made that request multiple times and that it was suggested that Loaded would also serve as an executive producer on the show.
“Mike mentioned verbally on multiple occasions that they are/would reach out to certain clients and it was suggested by him in emails,” Borachuk said. “If that went anywhere, I don’t know, and judging by what was in the show, it doesn’t seem like any of those names participated. As far as an EP role for Loaded, as I mentioned, it was verbally suggested by Mike, and I said I didn’t think it was a good idea for the show, or for Loaded for that matter, and that it would make it sound cheap if the show wasn’t independent. “
Borachuk added that Loaded was great to work with. “I have nothing bad to say about them in any way.”
Burg said that Loaded and others provided introductions to potential clients for the sale of the Gamers’ Choice Awards.
“This is quite standard for any television property,” he said. “As it related to co-EP roles, we discussed this title with a number of individuals. Although in most TV properties, co-EP roles are the norm, we decided to not engage any outside individuals as co-EPs in year one of the GCA.”
Loaded’s involvement with the show certainly extended to its clients. Several were presenters on the show and seven of the nine nominees for male game streamer of the year — including the winner — are represented by Loaded.
Burg said that none of the winners were paid to be on the show.
The 2019 Games Choice Awards were held on Dec. 3 at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood during a taping, some of which was captured in a live Periscope stream on Twitter. Among other moments of confusion, the stream showed Kiss, which opened the show, in what seemed like a dress rehearsal for a segment that was a tribute to Stan Lee. Sound problems had the band taking to the stage a half-dozen times before Gene Simmons goes off on the sound team about the issues. Another moment showed a vacant-looking set peppered with overstuffed white loveseats peopled with an assortment of influencers and the vaguely famous. Later, when Kiss performed “Rock and Roll All Nite” for the audience, confetti cannons fired to wrap the performance. Shortly after, a production staff member took to the stage to ask the celebrity guests to help clean the area of confetti. Later, someone walked through to pick up the collected trash.
Of those in attendence, the only ones who approached A-lister status seemed to be people like Tony Hawk and Terry Crews.
The show aired six days later on CBS. For some the show was broadcast at 5 p.m. E.T., right out of the conclusion of an NFL game, while for others around the country it was shown at different times of the day. Burg told Variety that in 80 percent of the country the show followed the NFL.
The online reaction from the video gamer on social media was harsh and unforgiving. Viewers took to Reddit, Twitter, and gaming sites to discuss their displeasure with the show, some calling it a cash grab, or out-of-touch with video games and their impact on mainstream culture.
Borachuk took to Twitter to deride the show he said he co-created and for a time helped to produce.
Later, speaking to Variety, Borachuk’s tone hadn’t changed much.
“I would say the productions I saw on the three dates were probably in the top five worst quality programs I’ve ever seen on television,” he said. “It sort of had the art direction and tone of an over-caffeinated childrens’ birthday party.”
For his part, Burg acknowledged some missteps in the show’s production. Many of the companies behind the winning games, for instance, weren’t invited to the taping to accept their awards. Some showed up thinking they were going to the Game Awards show (Variety is one of about 70 publications that judge for that show) — which was streaming a few days later from the Microsoft Theater in L.A., but is not connected in any way — only to find it was a different show.
But he also said that the show had strong numbers and a big fan voter turnout.
“Launching a new property is always difficult,” he said. “I think there are always difficulties when you’re stepping into territory that is new. Some people look askance at this new thing and don’t know what to think. Our goal was to make a mark and do it on network TV and do it different than any other network property.”
The fan voting, he said, got the numbers the show wanted.
“We had some of the best streamers there,” he added. “I’m also happy with the fact that pop culture icons appeared and the show’s ratings were good.”
The Sunday evening show attracted 1.5 million total viewers. While it showed some strength for consumers 18 to 49, the results weren’t particularly notable. But Burg said it was better than he thought they would do.
“From our research that makes it the highest-ever broadcast of any gaming-related property ever,” he said.
Sometime during the reporting of this story, the apparent animosity between Borachuk and Burg escalated into legal issues. Borachuk said that he has hired the Venable law firm in the matter. “We are in the early stages of legal proceedings,” he said.
Burg simply said, “My attorneys have advised me not to comment.”
It’s unclear where that leaves the Gamers’ Choice Awards.
Borachuk said the most disappointing part about the whole affair was that he was “genuinely excited.”
“I felt it could be a great show that was true to the existing audience, and also kept the crossover viewers on TV watching. What we got was that someone took an idea, and tried to execute it poorly, creating a show for an unknown demographic, by playing to stereotypes that people have been working hard to change.”
Burg said his approach with the show was to try to expand the audience beyond traditional video game fans, which was why he selected the post-NFL time slot. That time slot, the fact it was broadcast on TV, and fan voting, he said, were the key distinctions that separated the show from other game award shows.
“Through network television,” he said, “the opportunity to provide a great intro to this exploding category is unique.”
Burg added that he expects to do the show again next year and to see further growth, despite what video game fans may have said about the initial outing.
“I’m aware of people’s criticisms and critiques,” he said. “What we wanted to do was put it out there first and have a very credible show.
“I was warned before I stepped into gaming: If you don’t have thick skin, don’t get into it.”