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Seeing the past and future of gaming through The Game Awards

Geoff Keighley shares his plans for continued growth, the need for world premieres, and the benefits and challenges of running the show himself

Geoff Keighley sees his Game Awards as a microcosm of the entire games industry for a given year: a reflection on its past, a clue to its near future, and a celebration of the people who make all of that happen.

"I think gamers have begun to really identify with the show as a representation of what this industry means to them," Keighley tells GamesIndustry.biz. "I've worked on awards shows for games for many decades, and I finally feel like we have a show that's really built by the audience, for the audience."

The Game Awards began in 2014, and since then has seen considerable growth. Its 2017 show more than doubled its 2016 streaming viewership with 18.7 million devices streaming the show - 11.5 million of which were livestreams (the rest came from video-on-demand and similar services). A good chunk of that growth has come from The Game Awards' international push over the last few years, especially from its Chinese debut in 2016 and growth in 2017 to being broadcast across 20 different Chinese streaming services.

Now with a successful foothold in China, Keighley says he's focused on continuing to grow the audience in the countries the show is already in, especially markets that are currently smaller, but full of potential.

"We're looking at emerging markets," he says. "Southeast Asia, we're doing a lot there this year. We're curious about India, what we can do there long-term. And we see growth in places like Brazil and Argentina. It's really amazing when we look at the stats coming back from the show and people around the world watching. We know it's late in Europe, but I talked to someone in Germany yesterday and he said, 'Yeah I'm up at 3 am. watching it,' which is amazing to me.

"I finally feel like we have a show that's really built by the audience, for the audience"

Geoff Keighley

"I spent a lot of time this year in China meeting with gamers and game companies to understand more about what the market is there, and the thing that really amazes me is that these games are universally acclaimed. Red Dead Redemption 2, people are playing around the world. When I first started exploring China, I was worried the [popular] games were different, and there are different games there. But a lot of the games we talk about are universally respected, and that's something that's been eye-opening to me, that the content in our show is global in its appeal."

That doesn't just mean streaming to more services and advertising to wider international audiences. Keighley's also positing ways to celebrate international games and developers on a local level, eventually drawing those audiences into the main December showcase.

"Longer term, we've thought about how to sort of 'TEDx' The Game Awards and let local markets have their own versions of them," he continues. "Down the road, I'd love to have a Game Awards Brazil and a Game Awards Russia, China, stuff like that, which ultimately feed up to the global show."

While Keighley is looking at further international expansion, one thing he isn't concerned about is that The Game Awards are in any way too niche, or too focused on core gamers to have broad appeal.

"The core gaming market is tens of millions of people strong," Keighley says. "When I have 80 million people watching The Game Awards, then I'll probably think a little bit more about how to go to the next rung, but we have a lot of core gamers that we still have to reach. That was one of the challenges I faced on television. People were always going after this sort of mythical, mainstream viewer. Because of the nature of TV, that's what you have to do. But in the online world, we can laser focus on this niche of gamers, and we have a lot of people to find. Look at how many people play Fortnite in a month."

Musical acts, celebrity guests, game trailers, and other entertaining appearances punctuate the awards presentations and are a necessity for keeping a large audience there for the entire program

Musical acts, celebrity guests, game trailers, and other entertaining appearances punctuate the awards presentations and are a necessity for keeping a large audience there for the entire program

Keighley made reference multiple times during our conversation to the differences between TV broadcasted award shows and what he's done with The Game Awards on streaming services. It makes sense - prior to this, Keighley was the executive producer of the Spike Video Game Awards on Spike TV, and has also worked on the Oscars, Emmys, People's Choice Awards, and other shows. There, he appears to have developed a distaste for television's limitations and isn't eager to return with The Game Awards.

"We've been offered television broadcasts all the time, and it's not something interesting to us at all really," he says. "I love the freedom of being on digital. In many ways, our show looks better on digital - we're live in 4K on YouTube, which you can't even get on traditional television. We're on the new TV; most gamers around the world, they watch the show on their 85" television through Twitch or YouTube. It's the same experience, it's just not through traditional TV, and that allows us so much more freedom, because we can own and design the show we have. We don't have a rung of network executives telling us how to make the show more appealing.

"We're on the new TV; most gamers around the world, they watch the show on their 85" television through Twitch or YouTube"

Geoff Keighley

"That's been the big shift for me - going from an environment where you have creative executives and networks that are telling you what you think this audience wants when they're not a part of it, to just making the show that gamers want. In some scenario, we might consider a TV thing if we can do exactly what we're doing now and just put it on television, but it's not where we want to go."

One of Keighley's main standbys for growing The Game Awards' audience has been inviting increasing numbers of developers and publishers to announce their games and premiere trailers during the event. As a result, the show has gradually shifted focus to (arguably) have a heavier focus on these world premieres while awards are relegated to the spaces between.

For Keighley, this is a necessity - not just to make the event as a whole successful, but also to ensure the award recipients are seen, known, and celebrated by more people.

"I see [The Game Awards] as its own entity. At its best, it sits square in the middle [between awards show and announcement showcase]. It's sort of a look back at the year that was and a look forward to where games are going in the future. There will always be people who think we should only do awards, and there will be others - as my Twitter feed showed, [almost] 80% of the audience was like, 'Where are the world premieres?'

"Awards shows, especially for things like games, generally don't rate in terms of a lot of people watching them. But because we have these world premieres and announcements, it gets a massive audience through the front door, and then our awards and presentations are heavily watched around the world because people want to see these game announcements. I think it's the best way to get game developers and game creators in front of this audience. Those acceptance speeches are seen by tens of millions of people because we have all this other news in it."

"I think [world premieres are] the best way to get game developers and game creators in front of this audience"

Geoff Keighley

Between the world premieres, awards, and Keighley's audience building, The Game Awards seems to have rapidly become prime real estate for big developers to debut their games. The event is situated at a convenient time of year for early sneak peeks of 2019 games, is far removed from E3 and other shows, and has the eyeballs to justify big reveals. Last year, games such as Bayonetta 3, In the Valley of Gods, Soul Caliber VI, and World War Z were revealed for the first time among a number of world premiere trailers for other major titles. This year, Obsidian, Koei Tecmo, Ubisoft, Microsoft, Nintendo, Bethesda, and BioWare are only some of the companies who have promised a presence and reveal of some kind.

That's a lot of big names - enough to fill the entire announcement slate if Keighley wanted. But he says he wants to keep making room for smaller studios at the awards as well.

"It's really important to me that we focus on big games and small games. This year at the show we have, I'd say four or five new indie titles that we're going to announce for the first time.

"One thing I really want to do is pay it forward, and have the biggest franchises in the world on our stage, but also have the small teams that come to me with a game and a vision and want to showcase something that may not even be signed to a publisher, or may not even be able to be at E3, but can be at The Game Awards. There are always a couple of those projects every year, and I think we have an eclectic and interesting lineup of games from big and small studios. Celeste, made by eight people, is up for Game of the Year against Red Dead Redemption 2 made by 1,600 people. That contrast is incredible."

At The Game Awards, developers and industry figures are presented as celebrities to the gaming public - often the only time of year a large gaming audience gets to see them in this light

At The Game Awards, developers and industry figures are presented as celebrities to the gaming public - often the only time of year a large gaming audience gets to see them in this light

Keighley's continued support for indies at The Game Awards is good both for those lucky enough to snag a world premiere spot at his show, but also for those who managed to earn a nomination or award. Keighley told me that games showcased at the awards typically see almost instant boosts in sales during and after the show, and that kind of lift is especially important for smaller titles.

"We do things like The Game Awards sale during the show, and it's fascinating to see the developers come back to me two or three days after the show and say, 'This was a big weekend for us'" he says. "Cuphead last year won a ton of awards, and had an amazing weekend because a lot of people saw that game in the show and then went and bought it. The ROI for everyone participating is in real-time. They see on their Steam dashboard or in their sales results that a bunch of people went and played their game. It's very fulfilling; it's not this blind hope that, 'We were in The Game Awards and maybe it worked!' because people can directly see the results of what they're able to do with us inside of the show."

"It's really important to me that we focus on big games and small games"

Geoff Keighley

Though the split between awards and premieres has shifted somewhat over the last couple of years, Keighley feels that he has a good handle now on what the show itself needs to look like. That doesn't mean he's done growing the event, and he hopes to expand further beyond the bounds of the main awards program in future years.

"Some of the elements I want to add are also experiential things in and around the event," he said. "How do we make it more of a festival? How do we have more hands-on time? It doesn't necessarily have to grow the stream, but it can grow the experience. The core two-to-three hour awards show, I think we have a pretty good model for that. But what could we be doing after or before the show? There are tens of millions of people watching around the world - what do they do afterwards?

"The thing we found is that people just want to go play games, and you'll see this year that there are a ton of new games that are available inside of the show and afterwards. The Game Awards is going to be a great night, but there is going to be a ton to do online afterwards. Smash Bros. is coming out, there are going to be a ton of games that will be announced in the show that will go live that night."

Despite the fact that it takes many, many people to bring an event like The Game Awards together, there's no doubt that this is Geoff Keighley's show. In this interview and in statements elsewhere, Keighley has insisted on that independence. It's allowed him to avoid the pitfalls of, as he puts it, "having this chamber where you have to have 36 people agree about adding a category," but it's also taxing for a single person to lead successfully.

"It's a taxing thing to take this on every year and do it myself," he said. "I don't regret it by any means, but personally it's really challenging to get through every year. Not that I would change it, but it's something I keep in mind, how much effort it's taken and and the personal sacrifice I've had to make to do it. But I would do it again."

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