The Game Awards might only be three years old, but it's already gaming's biggest night. The event—created and hosted by video games journalist Geoff Keighley—began after Spike TV's Spike Video Game Awards had its plug pulled in 2013, and it quickly hit the ground running. Beginning with the 2015 edition, the event takes place at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles—the same venue that's regularly hosted the Emmys, the American Music Awards, the MTV VMA's, and the ESPY's—and the format will be familiar to viewers who like to watch the big nights other industries celebrate. But don't call the Game Awards the video game industry's answer to the Oscars. Keighley has other plans for it.
"Our aspiration is to create a show that represents the best of this industry," he says. "Part of our goal is to have a respected ceremony that is credible and authentic—but it's a different show for a different medium. The Oscars is very heavily reliant on celebrity talent that people want to see on the red carpet. This show is really about a forward-looking preview of what's happening next in the gaming industry. And that's unique to this—we kind of roll back the clock and look at the best moments of 2016, but we also give folks sneak previews, with a Comic-Con level of breaking news. We want to speak to the best games of the year, and expose really interesting games to this audience, and we've found that it's really effective to have not just a look back but a look forward, and that creates a larger base for that."
Building a forward-looking awards show leads to unique opportunities for the Game Awards, which airs tonight. That's true in the way the nominations are built—they include a category for "Most Anticipated Game," which means that one game studio takes home a statue (the Game Awards trophies feature an angel rising through 8-bit digital building blocks) before its product is anything more than a trailer, some screenshots, and a title.
But the Game Awards is forward-looking in other ways, too. There are a lot of major awards shows for major entertainment industries that happen at the Microsoft Theater, but the Game Awards is also unique in that it eschews traditional broadcast for an online-only distribution model. That's not for a lack of options, but rather because reaching the gaming audience where they are allows Keighley to build an awards show that caters to them, rather than one that tries to reach a given network's existing demographic in the hope that perhaps they also play games.
"I could have done the television thing, but one of the challenges I always faced doing a show on television was that you have to stick to the restrictions of a traditional TV show, where you're going after these mainstream viewers," Keighley says. "So [when the Game Awards launched] in 2014, I made a leap and said, 'You know, I don't want to build an awards show for television anymore. I want to focus exclusively on digital and streaming platforms."
Keighley invested a million dollars of his own money into the Game Awards, and reached out to platforms that gamers are familiar with—YouTube, Twitch, and other streaming services—in order to avoid having to convince mainstream viewers to get as enthusiastic about games as hardcore gamers.
"At the end of the day, the core audience for this is men, 18-34, sort of the core of traditional gamers," he says. "This isn't necessarily a show you watch if all you do is play games on your phone. That's a kind of gaming, and we certainly nominate those games as part of it, but we really cater to the aficionados of the medium who care about the biggest games. My idea with the show is that we should start with the core and build from there."
This year, in addition to streaming on YouTube and Twitch, the Game Awards tapped a partner that's been moving into the streaming space aggressively: They're working with Twitter directly to broadcast the event the same way that Twitter streams Thursday night NFL games and presidential debates. The Game Awards will be the first awards show on the platform—something that Keighley says is a natural fit for the Game Awards.
"We're speaking to a gamer audience that loves to talk about the show and debate, and you can do that in a Twitch chat or on YouTube, but the curated conversation happens on Twitter," he says. "So the idea of marrying the show to Twitter is really exciting to me. In past years, people would watch the show on YouTube or Twitch, and then go on Twitter to talk about it. We can unify that experience together."
Another advantage of taking the stream to Twitter is that it's nonexclusive, which means that gamers who want to watch the show anywhere in the world have that opportunity. With the Oscars, audiences around the world are limited by broadcast agreements and who owns the rights—they can check out red carpet clips, or excerpts from speeches, but the entire show is restricted. Gaming has a global audience, though, and the audience for the Game Awards is similarly unrestricted.
That broad appeal matters to Twitter, too. Anthony Noto, Twitter's chief operating officer, explains why his platform was eager to get involved with the Game Awards. "Award shows have occurred on Twitter for years—we bring our conversation to that," he says. "We look for areas within live entertainment that reflect things that are already being talked about on Twitter. Gaming is huge, and awards unfold on Twitter. Gaming is also young, and we're young, so it's a great compliment."
The other key to making the Game Awards forward-thinking comes in terms of the presentation. There'll be 7,000 people in the Microsoft Theater for the event, and part of the point of the production is to make sure that they all have a great time. (To that end, the show announced last week that Run the Jewels will be the event's musical guest.) But doing a show that's meant for a young, digitally enthused, tech-obsessed streaming audience also gives them opportunities to pursue things that other awards shows won't be trying for the next few years.
Virtual reality is a new frontier in gaming, but it's one that's being explored regularly. But as a frontier in awards shows, it's practically uncharted territory. To help chart it, though, the Game Awards tapped NextVR—the VR company that helps create VR experiences for the NBA, the NFL, the U.S. Open, and more—to create a more immersive way to watch the show at home.
The process for VR at the Game Awards isn't just one of dropping a 360 camera near the stage so people can strap on a Galaxy Gear headset and swivel their heads to look around the room. Rather, the entire stage setup is being built to accommodate and take advantage of the opportunities provided by VR. Danny Keens, NextVR's vice president of content, has a lot of ideas about what those opportunities are.
"When it comes to this sort of content, it can't just be different from the TV stream—it has to be better than the stream," Keens explains. "Ultimately, as a fan, you're going to gravitate to the best experience to watch the content. So we think of things that we can do during the awards show that will be the strength of the technology. With the music act, we're putting them on stage with their favorite artists. You get to see the show in its entirety, and I mean from multiple different vantage points. And then on top of that, we're dropping in a virtual Jumbotron into the theater. A lot of the things like trailers and nominations traditionally appear on the big screen—so we're going to drop that into the middle of the Microsoft Theater, and those clips will play on the virtual Jumbotron in VR, so we can do the 2D content in a VR space. It's the first time you'll get an awards show that feels like it's been shot with VR in mind, as opposed to an awards show that's shot in VR because it could be shot in VR."
All of this adds up to a unique awards show, and one whose uniqueness makes sense because it's both for a multibillion dollar industry and about a product that, despite the massive consumer interest, is still considered niche. That's a comfortable place to be, if you like taking risks.
"I think one of the challenges that the Oscars face is that there's so much tradition and legacy and history that it's very hard to change what the show is," Keighley says. "Whenever they bring on new producers, they always talk about how they want to change some things, but 90% of what is going to happen there is always going to happen. With this show, because we're young and we're nimble and we're on all these platforms, we can really adapt very quickly to the audience feedback—even in real time during the show—which lets us create a piece of entertainment that's a cool representation of what gaming is all about, and what it means to this audience."