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The Game Awards: How Geoff Keighley helped create The Oscars for gaming

Geoff Keighley will host The Game Awards. (The Washington Post illustration; Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Some kids grow up writing letters to Santa. At 12, Geoff Keighley was writing letters to game developers from his home in Toronto.

Keighley didn’t have many other hobbies besides video games. So, naturally, he was interested in how California-based Sierra Entertainment wrote the stories that kept him clicking. He wrote a letter asking how the games are made, and like kids writing to Santa, he didn’t expect an answer. However, Ken and Roberta Williams of Sierra actually wrote back, two weeks later. They told him he seemed like someone who knew a lot about games, and sent him 10 floppy disks of games to test.

That was the beginning of Geoff Keighley’s identity as it stands today as a gaming industry insider. In 2014, Keighley created The Game Awards, which the New York Times once called the “Oscars of gaming.” But that undercuts Keighley’s ambition. He wants The Game Awards to be the best awards show on the planet.

“It’s really been sort of a straight line for me,” Keighley said. “I’ve never had another job in my life.”

Today the Game Awards are embraced by both gaming fans and the industry alike. Top executives, developers and game creators from around the globe attend the event, held annually in Los Angeles. Meanwhile fans take interest in the award winners, debating the merits of nominees in Reddit forums and on social media leading up to the event. The event has drawn such a high level of audience interest that game publishers use it to announce and reveal footage from some of their biggest upcoming titles.

“People take it very seriously and I really appreciate that,” Keighley said. “The credibility is something that’s important to this show and this audience.”

An awards show for creators

Growing up, Keighley’s parents worked in the film industry and were both members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. With the Oscars, Keighley saw that film directors and producers were not only celebrated, but also had their stories told. It was surprising, then, that video game developers — who created intricate, interactive worlds — remained mostly anonymous.

“As a 14-year-old kid, sitting next to [The Sims creator] Will Wright and have him talk about science and life, I felt like I was meeting Albert Einstein," Keighley said. "It’s always driven me. How do we recognize these people?”

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The Game Awards were borne out of this question, and his view that prior awards shows seemed to prioritize marketing product over the games’ creators.

His fascination with gaming’s digital bards started with Sierra. After he received the games, he would finish his homework, then play the games and file reports to the developers before their release to the public.

In 1992, the World Wide Web was barely a thing, but Keighley would post on CompuServe forums for the Sierra games, offering tips for new players. He had, after all, completed the games weeks in advance, giving him an omniscience other gamers wanted.

Keighley still keeps the 10 floppy disks from Sierra at his desk as reminders of why he works this hard for the industry and the medium. It’s not surprising then that in 2014, at the first Game Awards, Ken and Roberta Williams were crowned as Industry Icons, the show’s lifetime achievement honor.

The Game Awards aren’t the industry’s only award show, nor is it the first attempt at an annual celebration — and Keighley witnessed that painful evolution firsthand. Before launching his version of the awards, Keighley was heavily involved in other awards shows, most notably the now-defunct Spike Video Game Awards, which ended just before Keighley made his own move. The show leaned into the worst stereotypes of gamers. Its final host, comedian Joel McHale, spent a good part of the show making derisive remarks aimed at gamers, developers, and even co-host Keighley himself. That show also leaned uncomfortably into sponsorship deals at times. Keighley became the subject of a mocking meme in 2012 after being filmed, visibly distraught, surrounded by Doritos and Mountain Dew to talk about a new Halo game.

ViacomCBS, which owned Spike, and Keighley parted ways due to differences over the show. “I was pushing Viacom to be more digital with the show, and they were very dead set on being a traditional TV network," Keighley said. "I don’t blame them for that. That’s just what their business was.”

After his departure, he immediately reached out to all of his industry contacts to create a new show, one that wasn’t tied to any one network. “We can’t have a year where there’s not an award show," Keighley said of his immediate push. "I put everything on the line and had to figure how to do this myself. But a lot of people were supportive. They told me this was important to the industry.”

Unlike other award celebrated shows, The Game Awards is growing in audience. In 2018, 26.2 million people tuned in via livestreams according to The Game Awards’ staff, a 128-percent increase from the prior year. While TV viewership numbers for the Oscars are counted differently, 29.6 million viewers watched this year’s Oscars. The entire show is only available online, streamed on a dozen platforms, including Twitch, YouTube, Twitter and Steam, without any assistance from cable networks.

“The idea of traditional television becomes less and less appealing throughout the years,” Keighley said. “And we really haven’t changed our show much."

Helping build that audience is the fact that video games are a global phenomenon, which means The Game Awards have a larger pool of eyes to draw from, rather than domestic shows like the AMAs and Grammys.

“I was a little naive when I was growing up, thinking people played different games in different parts of the world, but really people play the same games around the world,” he said.

Keighley said while the current trend with streaming platforms has been to sign exclusive contracts, that won’t be happening with The Game Awards. Keighley said he’s been offered millions for exclusivity rights, but he’s turned down all offers.

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“I love that we work with everyone. I really want this show to be agnostic," Keighley said. “It’s not the easiest job in the world to keep everyone happy and feel supported. But it’s a unique property that brings everyone together. It becomes everyone’s show. What weighs on my shoulders is how do we make sure it feels that way, that everyone feels it’s fair, that we’re representing all the aspects of the industry?”

The awards themselves are chosen by dozens of industry and media contacts, and Keighley has had to stress he’s not involved in the awarding process for games. This appearance of conflict of interest was raised this year with Death Stranding, a game made by legendary creator Hideo Kojima, leading the nominations. Kojima is a close friend of Keighley’s and Keighley also has a cameo appearance in the game.

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In a Reddit Ask Me Anything last week, Keighley said he’s trying to be as transparent as possible with all these decisions, and recognizes the potentially problematic situation he’s produced for himself. As the show’s creator, he needs to create relationships with the industry, but such relationships can give off an appearance of favoritism. He also said he’s open to no longer appearing in games.

The conflict is one reason Keighley isn’t interested in making games himself. For one thing, it keeps him from integrating into the industry too much, while freeing him up to produce the show, which takes up about 75 percent of his year.

“I just like talking, writing about, and playing games," Keighley said.

Running gaming’s biggest night

Video games are becoming a convergence point for popular culture, and players drive the medium as much as developers. Games are becoming more accessible. And video game developers, and the gamers that celebrate them, are more empowered than ever to go independent, and become their own entities. The Game Awards tries to reflect that indie, scrappy and creative spirit with its production.

The show has a core team of eight people, including veterans of some of the biggest live shows. Executive Producer and showrunner Kimmie Kim, Keighley’s right hand, has worked on the Oscars, Emmys and MTV Video Music Awards before joining the project. She was skeptical at first.

“Network centered TV was something people at the highest level cared about, and then there’s just cable shows, then there’s premium cable, and the hierarchy 10 years ago is that streaming is just streaming,” Kim said. “But it’s a more effective way to reach your core fans in different countries.”

In the weeks before Thanksgiving, Kim was working 11 hour days as she coordinated with hundreds of other contractors to keep the show afloat and figures out its pacing. The show entertains as much as it celebrates, featuring musical acts, comedy skits and, most importantly, trailers for upcoming games. The Game Awards has become a premium destination for publishers to announce new games. Nintendo debuted a trailer for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in 2016, which set the Internet alight with excitement.

Kim said she’s learning new things about the industry every day, and is astounded by the diversity of talent she has to work with and highlight. Among that group is Game Awards creative director LeRoy Bennett. Bennett was previously in charge of Prince’s live shows from 1980 to 1994, including the “Purple Rain” movie. He’s also created live shows and stage sets with INXS, Depeche Mode, Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Nine Inch Nails and Rammstein.

“Like a live concert, it’s a tribal experience,” Bennett said, adding that this year’s show will feature lots of “transparency, depth and distortion."

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Kim and Keighley try to unite all of the show’s elements among a common theme or message.

“All industries are in video games now,” Kim said. “Geoff and I are always thinking about what’s a good message to send out to people. Are we making sure that female game developers and players are represented? Do we have diversity? Are we balancing a true picture of the industry?”

According to Keighley, this year the show’s theme will be “games come alive.” This year the show also debuts its Game Festival concept, which highlights independent game studios by offering 13 downloadable demos of titles premiering at the show. The demos will be available within a 48-hour window on Steam.

Laura Miele, Chief Studios Officer for Electronic Arts serves on the Game Awards’ board of directors, who advise Keighley on industry trends and where it’s headed. This year, Keighley heeded the board’s advice to stream in China and India, a first for the show.

“It’s great, dare I say essential, that we have a high-profile event such as The Game Awards to push our industry’s narrative forward,” Miele said.

Miele said she’s worked with Keighley since joining EA more than two decades ago. She calls him a “consummate professional” and applauds him for recognizing that the audience lives and watches online, not on TV.

“I also love that this is the only entertainment awards show where you get to see upcoming games through new reveals and sneak peeks, which makes the show inherently more compelling to me,” Miele said.

Keighley hopes to harness a global audience of creators and players, an infinite feedback loop that The Game Awards hopes to help spin.

“There’s this amazing convergence of games, streaming and television," Keighley said. “You start to see this stuff all converging, and it’s exciting for The Game Awards. We recognize interactivity in all shapes and forms. My belief is that all entertainment is going to be interactive in some degree.”

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