It is a universal truth that every awards show is compromised in some manner, and so it is for The Game Awards. For while the self-proclaimed Oscars of videogames might draw more eyeballs when compared to the nine decades old celebration of cinema, it’s still difficult to take it seriously.
The most obvious reason for that is the sheer amount of shill that goes on every year. Between the trailers to hype upcoming games, announcements for new content drops and the appearances made by Hollywood celebrities to promote upcoming movies, at least half of what makes up The Game Awards is pure promotion.
For industry folks and casual viewers who are just watching to have a good time, and the people who want to put on a good show for them, you could argue that these marketing segments are necessary to fund The Game Awards. But there’s just something incredibly incongruous about saying you want to honor the broad cultural swath of an industry while stopping to do ad reads.
Never mind the trailers and “world premieres” of new product, this year’s The Game Awards gave me whiplash, careening between speeches from presenters and award winners to ad reads from the cold, dead eyes of Geoff Keighley as he urges people to take advantage of free delivery when they place food orders over 15 dollars on GrubHub.
Look, dunking on Keighley is something of a pastime among those of us in the pundit class in games media, but I don’t doubt that when he says that The Game Awards is a celebration of the industry, he believes it, like absolutely genuinely believes it. But his attempts to thread the needle of corporate sponsorship through this program are never successful.
But this year might have given us the worst version of The Game Awards as a show. I won’t debate the nominees and the winners, as that kind of discussion is for a different kind of article. But these past two years have been so fraught with industry tensions that what ultimately aired was a show that came off as a manic depressive episode expressed entirely through advertorials.
At least when 2020’s Game Awards was performed as a virtual broadcast, it felt more alive because we got the sense that Keighley’s team was trying to make the best out of a bad situation. By contrast, this year’s show behaved like someone totally in denial that the past two years happened, smiling awkwardly but the frayed edges of their sanity being totally apparent.
And I’m not just talking about COVID-19. The past few years have seen big headlines about abusive companies like Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft. Companies that have seats at The Game Awards’ board of advisors. Keighley opened up the show by calling out abuse in the industry, but did so vaguely by neglecting to name any companies or the allegations against them.
And you know what? I really don’t expect much more out of him. What I didn’t expect was for him to immediately present a trailer for Star Wars: Eclipse, a game by Quantic Dream, the French studio behind Detroit: Become Human and Heavy Rain that has been the subject of reports of a toxic, racist, homophobic workplace.
What’s difficult to change about The Game Awards is the fact that Keighley is an ad man and always has been. Snickering about the Dorito Pope aside, he has always sought the mainstream validation of games through the path of commerce and corporate sponsorship. The Game Awards traces its lineage back to The Spike Channel, a now defunct cable station that pandered exclusively to dudebros.
So while Keighley’s attempts to build an awards show that’s by and for the gaming industry might be sincere, the lens by which he visualizes that is incredibly compromised. Keighley seems to believe that he can’t speak out against his sponsors and must yield the floor to their advertisements as if there is no other option.
I haven’t sat through a night of the Oscars since 2009, but I bet you they’ve never asked Billy Crystal to tell the audience to eat fresh with Subway, and I doubt that Leonardo DiCaprio holds an envelope in his hand for a full thirty seconds to promote his next collaboration with Martin Scorsese before presenting an award to Martin Scorsese.
And here’s the thing, The Game Awards doesn’t need to have all these problems. Last year, it drew 8.3 million concurrent views, up from 7.5 million the previous year. Media pundits lost their minds to the thought that the show could draw more viewers than a so-called prestige ceremony like the Oscars. These are numbers that should free Keighley from so much compromise.
At this point, The Game Awards draws enough eyeballs to free Keighley to visualize pretty much any show he wants. He can define the show for his sponsors rather than the other way around. What does Keighley think it means to be about the best of videogames. Does he believe that this is how it should be presented?
Because when most of the awards are taking a backseat to the announcements and advertisements, and telling people about the Spotify Wrapped data on their consoles, and the host is afraid to speak truth to power, what Keighley tells us is that the Game Awards doesn’t really belong to us. It belongs to the corporations.