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“TV doesn't trust games enough”

Go 8 Bit creator Steve McNeil discusses why broadcasters still struggle to embrace the power of video games

Last year, British broadcaster UKTV confirmed that it has not recommissioned Dara O'Briain's Go 8 Bit, closing one of the few bridges over the chasm that exists between video games and television.

The news came as a disappointment to fans, and the way it was announced a surprise to Steve McNeil, the show's creator and one of its team captains. Meeting with GamesIndustry.biz a few weeks later, McNeil observes that the two mediums have "always had a strange relationship" and it's unlikely to become less strange in the near future.

steve

Steve McNeil

"TV has always been tentative in embracing video games as a thing that people want to enjoy," he tells us. "The internet has proved that video games can work on TV without doing it on TV -- the only reason Twitch is a thing is because watching people play video games has inherent entertainment value.

"Television could have done this -- it could have broadcast people playing games 30 years ago, but they never did. Now that everything like Twitch and YouTube does exist, in the absence of TV giving a shit, they've created their own world and now don't require TV."

Since broadcasting games does not require TV, it's debatable whether the industry even needs a presence on these traditional channels. But McNeil argues television can showcase games to a completely different demographic, as Go 8 Bit proved.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Go 8 Bit was a series of video game contests. Each week, McNeil and his fellow captain Sam Pamphilon would be teamed up with a celebrity and engage in a variety of multiplayer challenges, ranging from simple four-way brawls on Gang Beasts, to vying for high scores in retro classics like Pac-Man, and even to speedrunning Uncharted chapters. The whole affair was hosted by comedian Dara O'Briain with context on each title introduced by gaming expert (and former Eurogamer writer) Ellie Gibson.

"Television could have broadcast people playing games 30 years ago, but they never did. Now that Twitch and YouTube exist, in the absence of TV giving a shit, [games] now don't require TV"

Naturally, it found a fanbase among established gamers but McNeil also reports a strong family audience -- something you're unlikely to achieve through Twitch.

"The parents enjoyed the retro stuff, the kids enjoying the new stuff and they could share that together," he says. "TV can also still offer a level of production values and the cache of celebrity and those sorts of things which will happen on the internet but don't at the moment. The internet tends to be quite tribal.

"You wouldn't get Russell Howard on League of Legends coverage. There's no reason he should be on League of Legends coverage. Television can do crossover -- whether it's Bake Off or whatever, you can have access to these culture icons, use them in interesting ways and have fun with them. The internet hasn't really explored that."

There were more than 100 people working on Go 8 Bit, from a mix of gaming and television backgrounds. Yet despite the success of the show, the former group were unable to truly convince the latter that simply playing video games could be entertaining. Some of the non-gamers would try to come up with specific win conditions for each challenge, despite the fact that games already have established rulesets.

A prime example arose when the teams played Gauntlet. One of the researchers -- "through no fault of their own," McNeil adds -- decided to add 20 of credit to the game to ensure the challenge wasn't too short. Anyone who watched that episode remembers what happened.

"It just wouldn't end," McNeil recalls. "We had to change win conditions halfway through [filming] so rather than it being about surviving modes, it became about high score. There were moments where the TV show had to subvert itself. Once or twice it's funny but over a period of time it can be a frustration. Just trust in the game -- give everyone 30p or whatever and that's it and the game will tell you who won. TV didn't trust games enough, even when we did Go 8 Bit, and it could afford to trust games more."

"TV didn't trust games enough, even when we did Go 8 Bit, and it could afford to trust games more"

TV could also do with trusting more in the audience and their gaming knowledge. After all, with the UK games market worth more than video and music combined, chances are people tuning in will not only know the titles being played, but how they work.

Yet with Go 8 Bit, Gibson's intros to each challenge sometimes over explained even the most iconic video games -- although the comedic presentation and fun facts made this easier for gaming audiences to bear. Still, it's something that has stuck with McNeil.

"The running joke we have at the Video Game Game Show Show -- the live thing I do which is like Go 8 Bit but isn't -- and I'll go: 'Like with Go 8 Bit, we need to get people up to speed on the games so tonight we are playing Mario Kart. Mario Kart is a racing game. That's it'," he says. "You don't need rules because it's two cars and the fastest car wins. That's all you need but TV has a tendency to contextualise or explain.

"If you trust in it, go: 'Street Fighter's a fighting game' - the best at fighting wins. No amount of video is going to explain the special moves or the nuance of the controls. Just trust in people to go: 'I prefer Russell Howard to David James, so I'm going to support Russell Howard - I hope he is better at fighting in a thing'. You don't need to get it."

Gaming TV shows have had an erratic history. Attempts range from Sky's cringeworthy Gamesville to the hallowed GamesMaster of the '90s, but little to none have found the formula that secures a long-term slot in the broadcasting schedule.

Even the mighty GamesMaster -- which inspired the original Edinburgh Fringe Festival show that became Go 8 Bit, described by McNeil as "like GamesMaster but in a cupboard, drunk" -- might not win over television executives if a revival were attempted today.

"GamesMaster was made on about 5 and it looked like it. But when I was ten years old it was the most exciting thing in the world"

"I love GamesMaster, but it wasn't great," says McNeil. "It was made on about 5 and it looked like it. It was often awkward, there's a worrying amount of sexual innuendo. But when I was ten years old and loved Sonic the Hedgehog, GamesMaster being something that existed was the most exciting thing in the world. The fact that -- potentially -- I could go on it and play a game on it was magical. But it wasn't perfect in the way that some people think it was."

While it's always possible that Go 8 Bit could be recommissioned, McNeil is proactively exploring other possibilities for a games TV show, both with UKTV and online companies. He is working on pitches with the production company behind Phillip Schofield's The Cube, and with ESL UK on ways other ways to broadcast games competitions.

Going back to his memories of GamesMaster, he believes there is potential in a format that allows members of the public to come on the show and compete -- he notes that TV does well at making heroes of hobbyists and enthusiasts in other areas, but has yet to do so with games.

In fact, interactivity could be the key to video games' future on TV. Already broadcasters clamour for shows that involve audience participation, if only in the form of voting like The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing. Voting is usually done via apps and phone calls but why couldn't they build on the concept of Twitch chat, especially as Smart TVs become more prevalent?

"No-one's making fun, interactive things [like Twitch]," he says. "Imagine the BBC's Generation Game where everyone is playing with it -- if there's a conveyor belt of cuddly toys, why aren't all of us joining in? All the ingredients that are needed exists. I'm not going to make the Generation Game online, it'd be shit, but as a point, Play Your Cards right, whatever, all game shows are people just playing along passively.

"It's better to be playing University Challenge with the contestants than it is to be watching it and shouting at your partner. If you could both login and do your answers and compare your scores, not only would the person sitting next to you on the sofa, but globally, that's better than watching. Eventually that'll be a thing and I'm trying to make it happen."

McNeil's current attempt centres around WiFi Wars, a live comedy show that enables audience to play challenges on their phone along with the contestants. It's built around the same tech that enabled Go 8 Bit audiences to vote on which team they thought would win, but has advanced to the stage where "we can actually have people at home playing a full video game on their phone and win the TV show that they're watching."

McNeil's live show Wifi Wars allows the audience to play along with the games on their phone, and he believes this could work with a TV audience at home as well

McNeil's live show Wifi Wars allows the audience to play along with the games on their phone, and he believes this could work with a TV audience at home as well

He also believes there is scope for documentaries about the history of video games -- another concept McNeil is pitching -- and even believes there's scope for a magazine-style show about what's happening in the fast-moving world of games.

"Not everyone watches videos on Eurogamer or IGN. I have mates who like video games but they're not going to go to Kotaku to watch a video or read an article"

"Not everyone watches videos on Eurogamer or IGN," he says. "You can't watch a video on IGN because of all the adverts - I've given up. But not everyone is into that. I have mates who like video games but they're not going to go to Kotaku to watch a video or read an article. But if I stuck a thing on at ten o'clock once a week that went 'You like games, here's what's going on -- this game is coming out next week, we went and had a chat with the developer who made that thing that you like, and here's what's going on with esports'."

On the latter, McNeil has already had conversations about how professional games contests would work on TV, leading to a simple conclusion: "Broadcasting esports is a waste of time because you can just watch it on the internet, and the people who give the most shits would do it like that.

"That said, the human side of esports is so rich in a way that is perfect for TV and no-one is exploiting that. The fascination of watching things like Love Island and Big Brother - that would be teams every week, all these little arguments. because they're young, the silly things that young people do online there's plenty of human interest stories there to talk about these celebrities of esports. That's a way to bring an audience into that."

Then there are other forms of video coverage for games that may find an audience on TV. YouTube in particular is flooded with parodies, clips of funny game moments and glitches, covers of theme songs -- a wealth of content that could fit into a broader games show.

"My drive is to find a channel that would be a home to a daily broadcast where you could have all those different sorts of things," says McNeil. "Some people will only be interested in the gameplay, some will only want to watch the grand final where the celebrities show up on the Friday. Some will want the news, some will want to actually play the games. All of those things can exist on TV and have a precedent either in games or in other forms of entertainment where they demonstrate that they can be perfectly entertaining ways to spend an hour staring at your TV.

"The future of games on TV is that it's all of those things, but for it to be any of those things TV has to be brave enough to create TV that's risk averse - especially on commercial television it lives or dies on advertising."

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Latest comments (1)

Alex Bullock Content Marketing Manager, Gooey Digital6 months ago
It's an admirable goal and I wish him all the best. That said, it isn't just games that have been ghettoised on TV, but culture more generally. Music shows are going away, the BBC's Film show is on hiatus, The Culture Show ended three years ago. I can't even get BBC 4 in HD here. I don't know if it's because people don't value it or just that they're getting it online, but I feel like the problem runs deeper than cautious execs.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alex Bullock on 9th January 2019 10:08am

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