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Why this year’s Game Awards has Geoff Keighley living in fear

When The Game Awards was first established in 2014, it almost felt like an act of counter-culture. Despite the fact that games were starting to mature and push narrative boundaries at the time, the medium still struggled to be taken seriously at a mainstream level. The idea of games getting a glitzy awards show almost felt like an act of rebellion — something that was cemented by Joseph Fares’ iconic Oscars diss at the show’s 2017 ceremony.

?? THE GAME AWARDS: 2022 Nomination Announcement with Geoff Keighley ??

The landscape is much different in 2022. Video games are now widely accepted as a serious art form, with Hollywood even embracing them with a wave of film and TV adaptations. The Game Awards is no longer a counter-culture show demanding respect for an undervalued medium; it’s now the very institution that it once stood in contrast to. With that growth has come added responsibility, as gaming fans looked to the show to properly represent the industry. The more the platform scales up, the more it’s bound to be placed under scrutiny.

Game Awards host and executive producer Geoff Keighley did not take that responsibility lightly heading into the show’s ninth year. When I spoke to him ahead of 2022’s ceremony, we discussed both the positive feedback and criticism the show has received over its last few years. Though the event has settled into its natural rhythm, Keighley is treating it less like an unmovable routine and more like an ongoing game that’s willing to listen and evolve.

Balancing act

For Keighley, the increased dissection of The Game Awards over the years comes as no surprise. “The root of it is that people care about this show a lot. It represents their passion point, their hobby. We’re hyper conscious of that,” he tells Digital Trends.

Creating a show that honors that passion is no small task. Fans have an entirely different vision of what The Game Awards should be and are quick to debate that every year, from the nomination reveal to showtime. One of the ceremony’s most dissected aspects as of late is its balance between actual awards and “world premieres.” The last few years in particular have gone heavy on trailers for new games, which has been a major viewership draw.

I live in fear often that we’re not going to have enough for people.

That’s also been a sore point for some who feel the show is becoming more of a marketing platform than a celebration of artistry. Keighley is aware of those conversations, but feels the balancing act between the two is ultimately what makes the show special.

“We’ve done surveys online, and the vast majority of fans are definitely tuning in to see the announcements and premieres,” Keighley says. “But we also know our show is called The Game Awards and it’s a really important thing for the industry. I think that’s a healthy tension that creates a good show; it’s not one thing or the other. It’s a battle we face every year. We’re never going to satisfy everyone, and this audience is very opinionated about what they want to see in the show. They comment on the quality of the advertisements, or are there advertisements. We have a very high bar we have to hit.”Geoff Keighley stands with his arms crossed.

That high bar extends to what’s actually shown during the broadcast. Expectations for Keighley-produced livestreams have ballooned in the past two years as game companies have been more willing to trust shows like The Game Awards with their biggest reveals. That always has a chance of backfiring though, as events like this year’s Summer Games Fest kickoff stream left some players underwhelmed by a lack of Elden Ring-caliber premiere. The team behind the show has tried to set expectations accordingly this year, but there’s only so much they can do.

“Even when we say nothing, people will create expectations of things that will be there,” Keighley says. “We know we’re only as good as the content that’s given to us by the game companies. Half of our show is made by them … Oftentimes there are games where we want to show something, but they’re not ready and there are lots of changes … We have great stuff. We’re pretty confident in our lineup. To each his or her own in terms of what you expect out of the show. I live in fear often that we’re not going to have enough for people.”

There’s an additional challenge that makes The Game Awards’ job even harder: Big reveals have a way of leaking beforehand. This year, both the grand finale of the Keighley-hosted Summer Games Fest and Gamescom Opening Night Live (The Last of Us Part 1 and Dead Island 2) were spoiled beforehand due to listings popping up before the show. That’s one area that Keighley and company simply can’t solve on their own.

“It’s unfortunate that these things happen, and oftentimes there are just so many partners and things involved in these games,” Keighley says. “We’ve never had a leak from our show team over all these years. I was talking to one team last week who’s announcing their game at the show who are like, ‘We have a spreadsheet of 143 things we have to do after the game gets announced. Turning on social accounts, posts, blogs, web lists.’ I’d never sit here and tell you that things are going to be perfect!”

Ongoing show

Keighley can’t control fans’ expectations or leaks, but he can control how the show itself evolves with the times. Sometimes, that manifests in little ways. This year’s show is adding a new category in the form of Best Adaptation, which will honor TV shows and movies based on video games. For Keighley, that willingness to read the wind gives The Game Awards a better shot at remaining relevant, rather than becoming too stubborn.

“One of the things we pride ourselves on is being a show that can adapt and evolve as needed,” Keighley says. “Not that many award shows add categories or change them that often. We really try to think of what’s happening in the world of gaming. This year, Best Adaptation is something we’ve been talking about for years. Our rubric for deciding if we add a new category is: Are there enough games to make it a competition? We never want to create a category and struggle to find nominees. With adaptation, we crossed that chasm this year.”

Other changes are much grander, and that’s where the show faces some of its most difficult challenges. Last year’s Game Awards took place amid reports of Activision Blizzard’s long history of workplace misconduct. In what would become a defining moment for the show, Keighley opened the broadcast by shining a light on the widespread abuse issue in the video game industry and called for companies to do better. It was a strong message for a show that had previously been agnostic toward issues within game development.

I don’t believe our show is the platform where we ban companies from being part of the show.

That moment immediately came under the microscope, though, as it was followed up with a trailer for Star Wars Eclipse — the latest game from Quantic Dream. The studio has a reported history of scandals, which led some viewers to question if the show was truly willing to put its money where its mouth was. When asked about the moment, Keighley made it clear that the team listens to feedback like that and has a willingness to change. However, he believes there’s nuance to what steps a platform like this should make.

“It’s something we ponder and discuss,” Keighley says. “I thought it was important last year to address the situation that everyone was thinking about, but I don’t believe our show is the platform where we ban companies from being part of the show. There are lots of incredibly talented developers who do amazing work. I think we have to be thoughtful about it and we debate these things, but it’s a slippery slope when you decide that we have to vet every studio or decide if they’re worthy of being in the show.”

“And it’s a dynamic situation. Companies address things and hopefully deal with things and things do get better. I think it was necessary to say something at the start of the show last year, but hopefully the industry has evolved from there.”

An orchestra plays the music of Super Smash Bros Ultimate live at The Game Awards.

Evolution is the key word for The Game Awards as it closes in on its 10th year. The show continues to grow because it understands that the gaming industry is constantly changing too. It has to rise to meet the medium it covers, which means that it can never get too precious about its structure. That sets it apart from other awards institutions like the Oscars, which can often come off as out of touch.

Though Keighley is eager to keep up with the times, there’s one frontier that The Game Awards is remaining cautious about for now: the Metaverse.

“I’m a big believer in games connecting people and being mass social experiences,” Keighley says. “What I think is a lot of hot air is some of these ideas of the Metaverse from other companies that aren’t gaming companies coming into the space. You’ll see in our show that we’re not focused on web3 stuff or blockchain games. We’re just not interested in going down that path. We’re really focused on the core games everyone knows and loves.”

The Game Awards will livestream on December 8 on digital and social platforms, including Twitch and YouTube.

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