Game Awards Bet That Viewers Care Just as Much About Premieres as Winners

Creator, host and producer Geoff Keighley explains his forward-thinking approach to crafting a show that celebrates the gaming industry but isn't afraid to reinvent itself.
Courtesy of Fortyseven
'Breath of the Wild' director Hidemaro Fujibayashi and Nintendo's Eiji Aonuma accept the game of the year award at the 2017 Game Awards.

This has been a hard year on awards shows.

Annual staples such as the Emmys, Grammys and even the Oscars have all posted record-low ratings in 2018 and have been showing serious signs of viewer fatigue for years. One lesser known event has steadily been growing its audience, however, and increased its viewers from 3.8 million individual streams in 2016 to 11.5 million in 2017: The Game Awards. Created by producer Geoff Keighley, the annual, digitally broadcast awards show that honors the best in video games is entering its fifth year. 

"I think what’s unique about our show is that it’s all digital," Keighley tells The Hollywood Reporter. The Game Awards is held in the Microsoft Theater in Downtown Los Angeles, the same venue that has hosted recent Emmys and ESPYs awards shows. "It’s done on a grand scale like a TV show but it’s exclusively distributed on digital, which means that it’s free to watch for anyone around the world," Keighley explains. 

The show's pedigree goes beyond just its venue. This year's set was designed by LeRoy Bennett, who handled Lady Gaga's 2017 Super Bowl Halftime Show. The Game Awards also features a score composed by Lorne Balfe, who worked on this year's Mission Impossible — Fallout and Oscar winner Hans Zimmer will sit in with the orchestra. The night's awards themselves are designed by Weta Workshop, the effects house behind such films as James Cameron's Avatar, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok.

Fans eager to watch this year's show will have a number of platforms on which to do so as the Game Awards will be streamed on Twitch, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook Live and Steam, as well as through gaming consoles such as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The show is also streamed internationally in major markets such as China, Japan, Korea, Europe, Brazil and Russia. 

Going completely digital was an idea Keighley had back when he worked on the Game Awards predecessor, the Video Game Awards, which aired on the now-defunct Spike TV.

"Whenever we did the Video Game Awards on Spike, it would do very well online and digitally," Keighley says. "I saw that and the rise of Twitch and YouTube for live streaming and the excitement around that in 2013 and it got me thinking that there might be a new way to distribute this show straight to the audience and not require a middleman. We think we’ve kind of leapfrogged television."

Keighley believes his new model for broadcast is "future-proof" and insists digital streaming is where the entertainment industry is headed. And looking forward is not only something Keighley applies to where his show is distributed but also the content that it showcases. The Game Awards has become a major platform for the video game industry to debut new titles. 

At this year's show, more than 10 new games will be announced, making the Game Awards a newsworthy event for the video game industry on par with major conventions such as E3 or Germany's Gamescom. This year's show also features a roster of A-list Hollywood talent as presenters, including Avengers directors Joe and Anthony Russo; Stranger Things showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer; actors Jonah Hill, Joel McHale, Christoph Waltz, Aisha Tyler, Alita: Battle Angel star Rosa Salazar — who will debut new footage from the upcoming Fox film — and even the Muppets.

"They've done a great job of putting the show anywhere and everywhere younger viewers are consuming content," says Scott Bishoff, vp digital media for Fox Theatrical, who is affiliated with the show. 

"A lot of the reason these other awards shows are declining is that they’re just not as urgent," Keighley says.

Last year's show featured appearances by Norman Reedus and legendary game creator Hideo Kojima who debuted footage from their upcoming game, Death Stranding. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild's DLC package, The Champion's Ballad, was unveiled at the show and made available immediately for audiences watching at home. Film director Guillermo del Toro also made an appearance (he has a role in Kojima's Death Stranding) just months before he would win best picture and best director at the Oscars. 

Naturally, such revelations appeal to a consumer audience, particularly a younger one, in a way that more traditional awards shows would love to tap into. "It’s a pretty massive scale global audience who we know are rabid consumers of entertainment," says Bishoff of the Game Awards' viewers. Bishoff has worked with Keighley and the Game Awards to debut footage from multiple films at his studio in past years.

While making a direct comparison between streaming numbers and television broadcast ratings is tricky (live streams can be, and often are, counted for a much shorter period of engagement time than TV viewership), the numbers behind Keighley's Game Awards are still impressive, particularly when contrasted with the recent woes surrounding traditional awards shows.

The Emmys, acquired by Fox last week, announced they would move back to Sunday following this year's disastrously low ratings for its Monday broadcast on ABC. The Oscars announced its much-maligned popular movie category to appeal to a broader audience. It later postponed the category. The Grammys recently expanded its top four major categories from four nominees to eight to cast a wider net for potential viewers.

Meanwhile, CBS is planning to air the inaugural, fan-voted Gamers’ Choice Awards on Dec. 9, a pretaped show that fielded 2.1 million votes from fans and features appearances from Snoop Dogg, Terry Crews, Tony Hawk, Chandler Riggs and a performance by KISS. The show is hosted by VH1 personality Carrie Keagan and Twitch streamer Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham and was held Dec. 3 at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood.

"I have tons of respect for traditional television awards shows, but I also think that model has been doing the same show for so many years," says Keighley. "There are little modifications, but it’s pretty much the same every time."

Perhaps most of all, Keighley — who has been working in the video game industry since he was a teenager — aims to create a show that honors and celebrates the medium.

"I think all of us feel that gaming is the most successful form of entertainment in the world and should be celebrated as such in a big and grand fashion," he says. "I would certainly hope that at some point in my lifetime the Game Awards will be as big as, or bigger than, any other awards show — including the Academy Awards."

The Game Awards will stream live at 5:30 p.m. PT on Thursday from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.