How Geoff Keighley is Reinventing the Video Game Awards Ceremony

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Middle-earth: Shadow of MordorAt long last, the Spike Video Game Awards (a.k.a. the VGAs) – Spike TV’s annual video game awards – are dead.

That’s hardly a surprise. The VGA broadcast had been struggling for years, slowly alienating the very audience it hoped to attract. Over time, the show became less about games and more about celebrity-fueled comedy sketches and out-of-place musical performances. Hosts like Chuck star Zachary Levi spent more time making fun of gamers than engaging them. Roughly seventy-five percent of the awards were handed out off-camera, hours before the show even started. That’s not just disrespectful to the winners; it’s negating the point of the whole enterprise in the first place.

Last year’s effort was the final nail in the coffin. Rebranded the VGX – an acronym that stands for absolutely nothing – the show moved off of television entirely, replaced with an online-only stream and a noticeably smaller budget. Neither the featured developers nor co-host Joel McHale looked like they wanted to be there. Gamers and critics noticed, flooding gaming forums and blogs with complaint after complaint.

This year, Spike left the VGX off its schedule entirely. Nobody seems to mind.

But games are a huge part of modern pop culture; doesn’t the industry deserve an awards show on par with the Oscars, Emmys, or Grammys? Video game journalist and former G4 host Geoff Keighley certainly thinks so. That’s why he’s creating The Game Awards, an awards ceremony that puts games first and everything else second.

From a gamer’s perspective, it’s easy to be cynical about the new show. Keighley was the co-host and executive producer of the VGAs, and a quick glance at The Game Awards’ website suggests this ceremony is going to be more of the same. But in an interview with Polygon, Keighley contends that Spike made most of the VGAs’ creative decisions. This time, Keighley’s committed to keeping the awards independent – which is why he’s funding the whole show out-of-pocket.

Yes, The Game Awards have ties to major publishers, and Keighley sold a limited number of sponsorships to offset production costs. However, he hopes to pay for most of the show via ticket sales, while streaming the show online for free for everyone else. It’s a big risk, but one that Keighley thinks will preserve the show’s integrity and community-first approach. “We all love games,” he says. “I want to get people in the industry, fans, and press and bring everyone together in a room to celebrate our industry.”

Keighley and his team are tweaking the VGA formula to make The Game Awards more relevant to gaming’s growing audience. A new series of “Fan’s Choice” awards commemorate the top professional gaming teams and individual players, popular Twitch and YouTube personalities, and even the year’s best gaming memes. A category called “Games for Change” honors titles that challenge conventional approaches to game design. “Best Performance,” the show’s acting trophy, is no longer split by gender, theoretically putting men and women on equal footing. This does lead to a reduced female presence, however, as Melissa Hutchison of The Walking Dead is the only woman on the list of five nominees.

The jury is more inclusive this time, too. The panel is still comprised primarily of journalists, but there will be a bigger presence from mainstream media outlets, with about a third representing international publications. The message is clear: these are awards for everyone in the gaming community, no matter where they live or how “hardcore” they are.

The Game Awards aren’t perfect, of course. The nominations are still dominated by mainstream, AAA console titles, with “indie” games relegated to their own, single category. Awards are divided by genre rather than technical field, favoring developers who deliver less innovative, but overall more polished experiences. For example, the graphics and sound design in Sony’s Driveclub are truly remarkable, even while the multiplayer-focused gameplay remains an utter mess. Under the current system, there’s no way to honor developer Evolution Studios for its achievements without downplaying its significant failures.

Keighley has a hard road ahead of him, and it remains to be seen if The Game Awards can overcome the lingering stigma of Spike’s VGAs. Still, Keighley’s heart is in the right place; after all, he’s a gamer himself, and knows firsthand how passionate – and critical – the gaming community can be.

The Game Awards take place December 5 at 6:00 p.m. (PST). Tickets to the show, which will be held at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, are available for $45 each. The ceremony will also be streamed live on YouTube, Twitch, PSN, Xbox Live, Wii U, and most major video game blogs. See the full list of nominees here.

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