The video-games industry was a $36 billion, 65,000-employee entertainment business in 2017; a leading form of expression; a burgeoning new take on sports; a way to educate, elucidate and entertain.
But despite the economic power, social impact and cultural influence of video games, the medium has no real Oscars, Emmys or Grammys. And the people behind the Game Awards, the biggest of a handful of annual video-game kudofests, tell Variety that’s a good thing.
Those famous awards shows of film, television and music are stuck in the past, they say, often struggling to reinvent themselves while remaining anchored to concepts that prevent any true evolution.
The Game Awards is a product born of the internet. It rejects television broadcast in favor of digital distribution free on all platforms and co-hosted by thousands of influencers and video game websites.
In 2017, nearly 19 million devices and screens played host to the Game Awards and the show — streamed live from Microsoft Theater in L.A. and later available as video on demand — was the top worldwide trend on Twitter that night, spurring more than 20 million tweets.
This year, the live show returns on Dec. 6, still disavowing broadcast in favor of livestream, still working to recast itself for a mostly millennial audience. The show will livestream through 40 global video networks, including expanded distribution in China.
The Game Awards was created by Geoff Keighley in 2014, but it really got its start in the ’90s.
Back in 1994, Keighley — then 15 — lucked into a job of sorts writing some of the narration for “Cybermania ’94: Ultimate Gamers Awards.” The video-game award show was co-hosted by Leslie Nielsen and Jonathan Taylor Thomas and aired on TBS.
“I got to go to that event and was really impressed,” Keighley says. “Everyone was in a tuxedo and they were treating games as a big part of entertainment. That really impacted me as a kid.”
Years later, Keighley helped create and hosted the “Spike Video Game Awards” on Spike TV. That show ran for a decade before shifting to online only and fizzling out.
After that previous show, known as the VGX, wrapped in 2013, Keighley started thinking about creating his own awards show as a live streamed-only annual event.
“Building [the ‘Spike Video Game Awards’] within the system, I learned a lot about making these shows, the challenges of making something for a TV network audience when I wanted to make a show for a gaming audience,” he says. “With the growth of streaming, I felt I would no longer have a gatekeeper and decided to build out my own show in 2014.
“I wanted to build something for a gaming audience with the support of the gaming audience.”
So Keighley invested more than a million dollars of his own money into creating the Game Awards. Before taking that final dive, though, he spent some time meeting with the top executives and leaders in the game industry. He wasn’t looking for money, he just wanted to make sure it was the type of awards show that the game industry wanted.
From those meetings sprang a board of advisers, comprising video game developers and executives, and an approach that allowed Keighley full control of the show while still also getting advice about where things could improve, he says.
“As members of the board, we provide perspective on emerging trends in gaming,” says Laura Miele, chief studios officer at Electronic Arts, and a board member. “As the show evolves, we are available as a resource to the production team to advise on new categories, advancements in game design and advise on issues that the industry might be facing.”
Kimmie H. Kim, executive producer on the show, worked with Keighley on the “Spike Video Game Awards” and decided to join him on the Game Awards.
Her experience includes time spent working on a slew of ceremonies such as the Oscars, Emmys, People’s Choice Awards and NAACP Image Awards.
“I knew from day one that it was going to be streaming, not network televised,” Kim says. “That was one of the reasons I wanted to do it. Network shows are great, but the direction everything is going, streaming is taking a bigger role in people’s lives and becoming the next-gen experience.”
It also helps that as the owner of the show, Keighley has the final say.
“We don’t have any executives or network politics,” Kim says. “We do have board members, but the environment we are creating with our show is quite different. We don’t have anyone coming and telling us what to do.”
The approach seems to have worked. In 2014, the live audience for the show’s premiere came from 1.9 million livestreams. In 2015, that jumped to 2.3 million, then to 3.8 million in 2016, and — with the addition of China — to 11.5 million in 2017.
And the growth comes as award shows, in general, seem to be shedding audience, or at least attention from that audience.
Kim, whose experience includes both those historic shows and this new sort of approach, says it’s hard for a show such as the Emmys to change drastically and garner a new audience. The Oscars, too, struggle.
Both are weighed down by their own history and tradition, and both are fighting to find the balance between appealing to an existing audience and attracting a new one, she says.
Keighley believes those shows are all stuck in a rut.
“The Oscars, Grammys, Teen Choice are all tanking and the Game Awards is growing,” he says. “It’s not apples to apples, but we are the only ones that have a model that is building viewership.”
The key to the Game Awards success, and perhaps a lesson that could be applied to other shows, isn’t how the awards are handed out, but what’s done in between those category-winner announcements.
“The formula for announcing winners is always going to remain,” she says. “It’s more a matter of how you get people engaged between those awards.”
That’s one of the biggest draws for the Game Awards. The show boasts a night full of not just awards, but also exclusive trailers and video-game reveals.
“It’s really half award show and half preview of where games are going,” Keighley says. “It’s that mix that drives viewership.”
And Kim says they’re working to add other elements, as well, that go beyond simply promoting the video games, to talking about the people who make them.
“I want to add the human story,” she says. “How are these games changing people? Why are they being played by so many people?”
Perhaps just as important as the show’s evolving goals and growing audience is that the game industry itself is a big fan.
Valve, creator of the world’s biggest online PC gaming store and a slew of popular titles, hosts the show on its own Steam TV and feels it’s important to remain on the board to provide feedback on the show’s evolution.
“The Game Awards have become a great showcase for the industry’s leading creators and titles,” Valve’s Doug Lombardi says. “Gaming is as rich with artistry, innovation, and achievement as any form of entertainment,” says Microsoft’s VP of gaming Phil Spencer. “We value every effort to celebrate and further expose the incredible work being done by our industry and the teams and individuals who bring it to life for the world to enjoy.”
Nintendo of America president and chief operating officer Reggie Fils-Aime calls the show an opportunity to look back at the year’s accomplishments and celebrate the developers responsible for them. “The show represents a global opportunity to honor the past, present and future of our industry,” he says, “and the unique medium we use to tell stories.”