How the Game Awards Brings an Industry Together: "Every Group Has Their Version of the Super Bowl"

2018 The Game Awards, Shawn Layden, Phil Spencer and Reggie Fils-Aime - Publicity - H 2019
Frank Micelotta/PictureGroup/Courtesy of The Game Awards

The annual awards show, set for it sixth iteration on Thursday evening, has more than doubled its viewership each of the past three years.

In 2014, video game journalist Geoff Keighley debuted the Game Awards, an online, live-streamed re-imagining of the Spike Video Game Awards, which ran on cable television from 2003 to 2013 (and which Keighley also worked on). Now in its sixth year, the Game Awards has more than doubled its viewership year-over-year from 2016 to 2018 while also solidifying itself as the premier awards show for the video game industry. 

"When I started the show, I said I wasn’t going to invest the money to do it unless I could get all the game companies to back it," Keighley tells The Hollywood Reporter. "They’ve all been with us since the beginning."

As both a celebration of the industry's creations over the past year and a showcase for upcoming titles, the Game Awards is something of a hybrid, merging traditional award-show mainstays (speeches, skits, musical performances) and hype-driving gaming convention reveals (this year's event will feature roughly 10 new game announcements). The result is a show that has become a must-watch for gaming fans and a necessary stop for industry players both within gaming and without.

"Every group has their version of the Super Bowl," says Andrew Hotz, executive vp global digital marketing and chief data strategist at Warner Bros. "We realize there are subgroups and subcultures with massive media impact, and the Game Awards are an example of that." 

This year marks the third partnership between the Game Awards and Warner Bros., which has used the event as a marketing platform for films such as Shaft and Aquaman in the past. This year, the studio is bringing the stars of its upcoming Margot Robbie-led superhero film Birds of Prey to the stage, as well as an exclusive clip from the new film. "Every time we’ve put content out through [the Game Awards] we’ve seen that group take to social in a big way and start talking about our movie," says Hotz.

"Five or six years ago it felt like we were asking other parts of entertainment to please come be a part of this, and now the tables have turned and the rest of popular culture wants to be in and around games," Keighley says. 

Of course, the primary focus of the show is gaming, and many companies choose to utilize the platform for maximum impact when unveiling their latest projects. Last year's show saw 16 new game reveals, including Ubisoft's Far Cry New Dawn, Nintendo's Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 3 and Warner Bros. Interactive's Mortal Kombat 11, currently one of the five best-selling titles of the year.

"The Game Awards have grown into one of the biggest annual showcases for gaming talent due to the strong connection with the community of players around the world," says Warner Bros. Interactive president David Haddad. "We chose to reveal Mortal Kombat 11 at the Game Awards because it felt like the best way to ignite the campaign for the wide gaming audience." Mortal Kombat 11 is nominated for best fighting game at this year's show.

More eyes on the show (last year's live-stream viewers peaked at 26.2 million, up 128 percent from 2017's 11.3 million) has helped the prestige of the awards handed out, as well. "The show itself is an important initiative to push games into the mainstream and brings everyone together to celebrate the accomplishments of the year," says Ryan Wyatt, head of gaming at YouTube. The video platform is among the sponsors of this year's event and has been a live-streaming home of the show since 2016.

Often called the "Oscars of gaming," the show's top annual honors are coveted marks of recognition amid the industry.

"I remember how shocked the team was when that year's nominations were announced," Chad Moldenhauer, co-founder of Cuphead developer Studio MDHR, tells THR. Moldenhauer's indie platforming game was up for five awards in 2017 (and took home three, including best debut indie game), including in a category against one of his major influences. "In the art direction category in particular, to see that we were sitting alongside The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was unbelievable, having been inspired to make games in the first place by many of the titles in that series," he says. Cuphead won the award in that category.

Breath of the Wild ultimately went on to win game of the year in 2017, the night's main award, and Keighley notes that it was a monumental moment for both his show and him personally. "That was a real landmark for me, to see all the top guys from Nintendo in the front row and see [game director Eiji] Aonuma get up onstage and how much that award meant to him," he says.

In the days after accepting his award onstage, Aonuma contacted him to get the "exact measurements of the award to get ready on his desk to place it," Keighley recalls. "It really meant so much to me to see the award, only a few years old at that point, had so much weight to it."

"The Game Awards helps spotlight our medium in a positive way and ... brings the global video game community together to celebrate everyone’s accomplishments," says Rob Dyer, chief operating officer at Capcom USA. Capcom is nominated for numerous awards at this year's event, including game of the year for its remake of Resident Evil 2 (the game has a total of four nominations). 

"Film, television, music, Broadway — they all have their own awards shows and traditions. There are so many talented individuals and teams who spend years making these incredible entertainment experiences that it’s only fair we should celebrate them and their work, too," says Adam Novickas, vp marketing at Ubisoft San Francisco.

Ahead of last year's Game Awards, Keighley told THR that his aim was to "future-proof" the show by embracing digital streaming. This year he doubles down on the sentiment but adds that the industry lends itself to forward-looking strategies. "The thing I love about games is that the technology is always improving, and there’s always great things to look forward to in the future," he says. "There’s never a year where I think we don’t have anything to announce for next year."