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A few weeks ago, a somewhat-serious Twitter thread considered, "Who is the face of video games?"
According to an extremely unscientific skim of the more than 4,000 responses, No. 1 was clearly Nintendo's iconic character Mario. No. 2, and the leading real person, was Phil Spencer, Microsoft's head of Xbox. Neither should surprise you.
But third place just might. It appeared to go to Geoff Keighley, a 42-year-old Canadian transplant to Los Angeles who does not make games, star in games, invest in games, stream games or even review games. All he does is create, produce and host what have become perhaps the most influential and powerful marketing and news events in the yearly video game calendar.
Keighley's annual The Game Awards, which he founded in 2014, returns to streaming services everywhere Thursday. Last year's live broadcast from the Microsoft Theater in LA reached almost 50 million viewers. That is more than twice the audience for the most recent Oscars broadcast on ABC, according to Nielsen, which collapsed to 23.6 million from more than 40 million as recently as six years ago. By some measures, The Game Awards reach more people than the Grammys (18.7 million) and Emmys (6.9 million) combined.
"My high goal is to make The Game Awards the biggest award show in the world," Keighley said in an interview last week. "The Oscars are held in such high acclaim, and games are actually bigger and more powerful than any other form of entertainment, but aren't necessarily accepted that way. The wider world has never really accepted the power of this medium and has misunderstood it, so our opportunity is to demonstrate and showcase gaming in a way that not only has meaning for core gamers but also represents the best of gaming as a global community."
For that goal, traditional broadcast and cable television are now largely irrelevant. The show will appear live on more than 45 streaming platforms around the world, including almost 20 different services in China, seven in India and four in Japan. With such range, The Game Awards may be available online, live and free to more people than just about any event this side of the Olympics or World Cup.
And here's the beautiful twist, as both a business and promotional opportunity: Very little of the roughly three-hour show is actually about the awards, which mostly recognize the best games of the year in various categories. Many viewers don't actually care much about the awards. Most of the winners are big blockbusters, anyway, though the awards can have a huge sales impact when they go to small, independent games.
Instead, The Game Awards are about showcasing premiere announcements and demonstrations for major games, products and services coming next year. In that sense, The Game Awards are fundamentally different from the Oscars, Tonys or any other traditional awards show: They're forward-looking, not backward-looking. The fans won't tune in mainly to celebrate the games of 2020; they'll watch to learn about the games of 2021. For example, six years after launching its previous major game console, Microsoft chose last year's Game Awards to unveil its new Xbox Series X, complete with a live stage appearance by Spencer.
Of course, the myriad special appearances and world premieres that viewers will see on Thursday aren't free. Keighley owns 100% of The Game Awards, sells the promotional inventory to major publishers, negotiates the global carriage deals, oversees production — which this year will involve more than 400 people, including the London Philharmonic Orchestra performing live from Abbey Road Studios — and then hosts the show itself on camera. Keighley isn't interested in exclusive carriage deals because he wants to sell the most possible eyeballs around the world to the game giants who pay to provide the show's most important content.
And those ads are not a distraction from the program. The ads are the program (mostly) and are exactly what most viewers are tuning in for. Keighley said that his production budget this year is less than $10 million and that the operation is profitable. While the lion's share of revenue comes from sponsors and advertisers, the show also makes some money on the streaming services themselves, as would any other content producer.
With the legendary E3 gaming show on COVID-induced hiatus, Keighley's show will almost certainly be the game industry's most important promotional extravaganza of 2020. And with its forward-looking focus, the show will play a big part in setting the stage for the industry's 2021.
As for the awards themselves, 90% of the result is determined by voting among a global panel of media outlets that cover gaming and also reflect 10% public fan voting (Full disclosure: I administer the official Protocol ballot). The composition of the media panel is overseen by an advisory board that includes just about all of the world's biggest gaming companies.
For him, The Game Awards are just the crown jewel of a flourishing game promotion empire. (He said the show's full-time staff is about six people.) This year he also created and produced Summer Game Fest, an entire series of online game events, and hosted the opening night of Gamescom, the big European game show.
It's all part of a lifelong journey in video game media that began when he was 13 years old and started writing for the magazine Computer Games Strategy Plus. By 14, he was writing celebrity lines for the first broadcast game awards, Cybermania '94. (He grew up in Toronto in a professional media family; his parents were early executives at IMAX and remain that company's "chief quality gurus.")
In a wide-ranging conversation last week, Keighley discussed the awards show, the game industry and the broader entertainment and media industries.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How does your show fit into the broader entertainment landscape?
Well it's great that the game industry is doing so well this year. All these other award shows are struggling. I don't even know if they can have the Oscars. Like, is there enough product released? But the gaming industry has really had a banner year. Developers are still making games, things are shipping and it's all happening in this industry. Games have really brought people together in 2020.
Are awards shows especially important in the video game industry, compared with other media?
The gaming community is unique compared to other entertainment because players are such a part of the experience. It's participatory, and we have awards that recognize players. You never find that at the Grammys or the Oscars. You're not going to have, you know, a Moviegoer of the Year. It's just the difference of a participatory medium. So I think that leads to how people experience and celebrate games. They want to do it together. And it's more important in gaming because I don't think there are that many other points in time for gamers to rally around the art form, the passion point.
In the old days, reaching the broadest possible audience would have meant being on normal television, and online was the niche. Now, the opposite is true, especially when we talk about the international global aspect. It's not about the Nielsen numbers anymore and it's not about being on network television, correct?
Yeah we turn that stuff down. And I came out of a television world. I worked at MTV for 10 years, and you're right. It was very much about your domestic Nielsen rating and now, to be on a domestic U.S. cable network — it's just not what it's about anymore.
It's been really eye-opening how global the content is now. I used to be a little naive a decade ago where I thought people played different games in different countries. And now it's all the same stuff. Like in India, for example, PlayStation and Xbox are not necessarily big there, but they're aspirational. And everyone there respects the medium. I focus so much more now on the international, global aspect of this show.
It's also incredibly efficient to be able to produce one form of content and then distribute everywhere without having to build from the ground up. How much localization are you doing?
We do a Mandarin version for China. There's a Hindi version for India. And then a lot is done through co-streaming. On Twitch I think about 5,000 creators co-stream us. What we find is that we can do the United Nations, like a lot of official translation, but people actually would rather experience it with the eyes of their favorite creator in, say, Brazil.
And you're cool with all those people redistributing the show live?
Yup. I've been completely open to distributing. I learned a lot of this from when the NBA first went into China. They said, "Hey, we're just going to give this away for free. We just want to have distribution there." And that was my view. We've had lots of offers of being exclusive on one platform or another. And we just really want the widest possible audience because all the game companies that support the show and are on our advisory board want to get games in front of as many people as possible. So yeah, the philosophy is: Let's distribute this as widely as possible. Everyone can take the show, and that includes streaming.
Also, our show lends itself to co-streaming because people want to react to the announcements. They want to predict what they think is going to win. And like last year when we revealed the new Xbox, part of the fun was watching back the co-stream reactions, to surprising people. Because no one knew it was happening. So you see all these people around the world freaking out on camera. And Phil Spencer loves that stuff. It's just super fun.
Tell me about the revenue model for you, in terms of the split.
Honestly it's almost 100% the sponsorships. And then yeah we make money off Twitter clips, YouTube ad revenue and things like that. But mostly it's the sponsors of the show, which are a combination of the game companies and then the non-endemic brands like Verizon or Netflix, people that come in and want to market to this audience.
What are you thinking about game television generally these days? We have the new startup Venn and also G4 is on the way back.
It's exciting that more and more people want to do video game programming. I do think the landscape has changed significantly from when I was doing traditional video game television. And the thing I don't know is the concept of a network. I wonder if that still applies in 2020 the way it used to. I think everyone is so bite-size and so creator-focused that G4 and Venn face a challenge in figuring out how to work that into a network model. I think a lot of people now just consume individual creators and surf around. That's the challenge there. But the opportunity for them is this business is so global now. I think the first one that can really be a truly global network has the biggest opportunity.
What's your sense of the future of E3?
What E3 represents is really important: the whole industry coming together. But I think E3 is going to continue to face challenges. They can't rally all the major game publishers and platforms to participate. So that's sort of on them. That's one of the reasons I decided not to work on it this year, before they canceled. They didn't seem to have a path to get everyone involved.
Coming back to your show: You mention your core group of about a half-dozen people, but how much of all this do you do yourself?
I sell the show. I do all the business development. I do all of the content stuff. I do all the talent booking. I do all the distribution deals. That's all me personally.
And this year, without renting theaters, it's cheaper?
No, it's actually more expensive. This will be the most expensive Game Awards we've done. My COVID-testing budget is massive. Also, we're doing three cities: Los Angeles, London and Tokyo. We have the London Philharmonic from Abbey Road Studios. And then all the nominees are coming in via Zoom. It's a very complicated technical project.
How do you feel about becoming one of the most recognizable faces of gaming?
If I am a face or an ambassador for gaming, that's meaningful to me. We're all passionate about the power of gaming to bring people together and we've hopefully built a show that is super authentic to what this industry is. So playing some part in celebrating gaming and bringing it to the world is certainly gratifying.
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Seth Schiesel ( @SethSchiesel) is a contributing editor for Protocol focused on the business of video games and adjacent industries. He is a former editorial writer for The Boston Globe, entrepreneur and business reporter, technology writer and video game critic for The New York Times.