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The four kinds of celebrity appearance | This Week in Business

It's rare that hiring a big-name talent to pitch a game at a show like E3 works for both the company and the audience

This Week in Business is our weekly recap column, a collection of stats and quotes from recent stories presented with a dash of opinion and intended to shed light on various trends. Check back every Friday for a new entry.

It's E3 time again, and that can mean one thing: a wave of celebrities awkwardly trying to get you hyped about games they know little about and care even less.

Thursday's Summer Game Fest gave us just a taste of that, with Jeff Goldblum appearing to promote Jurassic Park: Evolution 2 with a bit of uninspired canned banter somewhat redeemed by Goldblum's unparalleled ability to deliver Jeff Goldblum-esque line readings, Ryan Reynolds literally phoning in a clip to introduce a trailer for his upcoming video game movie Free Guy, and comedian Hannibal Buress and pro wrestler Ember Moon doing their professional best to sound like they loved every second of Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance.

Later on in the show, Weezer performed a song promoting their upcoming tour and Funktronic Labs' game Wave Break, while Giancarlo Esposito talked about his role in Far Cry 6 and how he was attracted to the project because it was "so in line with what's going on in the world politically today." (Nobody let Esposito talk to anyone who actually runs the company).

Depending on one's interest in the games and celebs involved, most of these segments were watchable, at least. And that was in itself kind of strange. Because at a normal E3, shows like this are typically live events streamed to a massive audience, no reshoots allowed. Sometimes that creates space for a bit of spontaneous magic and something more effective than the sanitized recordings we're likely to see this week. Other times, it lets things to go off the rails in ways both humorous and horrific.

The star-studded Summer Game Fest got me thinking about the long history of celebrity spokespeople in games, and how they generally fit under one of four categories, depending on whether they managed to accomplish the two basic goals involved: Entertain the audience, and make the thing look good.

Good for the business, good for the audience

Let's start with the ideal celebrity gaming sell job, the one where everyone walks away happy. The game looked good, the audience was entertained, and the celebrity added something by their presence. Sometimes this happens because of good forethought, and sometimes it's just good fortune.

Perhaps the best example we have of this is also one of the most recent.

QUOTE | "You're breathtaking! You're all breathtaking!" - Keanu Reeves responds to an audience member during an E3 2019 Cyberpunk 2077 segment on the Xbox conference in a genuinely fun moment that basically everybody loved.

QUOTE | "Two mouths, this is obviously a creature developed in Hollywood; it can talk out of both sides..." - Robin Williams, delivering one of a maybe a hundred cracks during a 10-minute segment at E3 2006 that was just him fooling around with the Spore creature creator tool.

Williams' appearance isn't nearly as well known as Keanu's, but it's one of my personal favorites because the comedian not only appeared to have a passing familiarity with the basics of the tool already, but because the Spore creature creation process lent itself so perfectly to Williams' particular style of humor with its quickly shifting anatomical oddities.

Bad for the business, good for the audience

This is my personal favorite category of celebrity appearance, where a much-loved celebrity is saddled with a bad product or a bad pitch, and it can go down a few ways.

Sometimes a good professional decides to suck it up and go through the gig as close to the way it was rehearsed as possible. Usually this bumps the situation down into one of the categories we haven't talked about yet, but every now and then, if you've got a taste for awkward humor and sad spectacle, there's some joy to be pulled from it.

Take Ubisoft's E3 2010 showcase, for example, where Community star and Talk Soup host Joel McHale -- an actor with a natural gift for derisive snark -- does his level best not to mock the publisher's new laser tag knock-off Battle Tag.

QUOTE | "Way to go, you beat models." - McHale congratulates Ubisoft's Gaël Seydoux for winning a very awkward laser tag battle (complete with gratuitous acrobatics) through the audience of Ubisoft's E3 2010 showcase.

But every once in a great while, a celebrity puts professionalism on the back burner. They decide the paycheck isn't worth their dignity, or that they owe more to their audience than their employer. They go rogue.

This is as rare as it is enthralling, and I don't think it's ever been demonstrated as clearly as when Sony enlisted Tom Hanks, star of its upcoming movie Angels & Demons, to host its 2009 Consumer Electronics Show event.

Watch on YouTube

QUOTE | "Everywhere I turn in this world, I see the name Sony. Sony, Sony, Sony. I show up on the set and there it is on the camera: Sony! Really? I have yet to see that... Ah, they write the lies but I tell the truth." - Five minutes into a terrible spiel he's clearly trying to race through, Hanks has had enough.

QUOTE | "I should have read this before I came out today." - Hanks, half a minute later, just before he introduces Sony CEO Sir Howard Stringer to the stage.

QUOTE | "I took a risk. It failed." - Stringer takes the stage, fully understanding that with half the event left to go, it's not likely to get any better.

QUOTE | "[Anguished, blood-curdling scream]" - An unknown audience member reacts to Stringer attempting a retaliatory shot at Hanks.

This presentation was more suspenseful, thrilling, and entertaining than all the DaVinci Code films put together. Hanks even mocked Sony's big conceptual hardware for the show, a pair of HoloLens-like glasses that would project a transparent postage-stamp sized video in the user's field of view for unclear reasons.

I can't wait for E3 briefings to go back to live in-person events just so I can cling to the faint hope that we will see a celebrity endorsement like this one ever again.

Good for the business, bad for the audience

By contrast, this is the least interesting category of celebrity spokesperson pitch. Most often it's a good idea because the celebrity in question is a legitimately big deal, and the product in question is going to get a bump from its association with them. But something goes wrong in the execution.

Sometimes the celebrity is such a big deal the company can't dictate anything to them or put any limits on what they want to talk about. Sometimes it's clear they just don't care about the game. And sometimes the big endorsement gets undermined by technical difficulties, a constant danger with live events.

QUOTE | "We were even able to stop a war during a football match, so we believe it's very important for young people to feel that connection between sports and positive messages." - Soccer legend Pele at Ubisoft's E3 2009 conference, saying virtually nothing about the publisher's soccer game Academy of Champions until about 10 minutes into an 11-minute segment.

QUOTE | "Let's face it. Games derived from movies historically, some of them have kind of sucked. And I didn't want anything associated with Avatar to suck." - James Cameron at E3 2009 talks about Avatar for about 13 minutes, showing absolutely nothing of a game that would launch that holiday season and whose marketing was based largely on the visual splendor of the film and its stereoscopic 3D technology.

QUOTE | "The game is good. The graphics are very good. And, uh, we were great." - Ringo Starr, appearing with Paul McCartney at Microsoft's Xbox press conference to promote The Beatles: Rock Band for a few seconds of clearly unscripted and uninterested banter.

Bad for everyone involved

QUOTE | "Actor and comedian Jaime Kennedy takes the stage. He says E3 is the only place that makes the guys at Comic Con look like Ocean's 13. He then forgets his next joke, remembers it, and tells it to an unimpressed audience." - The beginning of the live blog I wrote for Activision's E3 2007 press conference, possibly the most awkward hour of my adult life.

Kennedy's performance was so agonizingly disengaged, antagonistic, and just plain hostile that until I looked up that live blog again, I had completely forgotten that the event also featured Stan Lee, Tony Hawk, and Slash, three considerably bigger celebrities whose contributions were more than offset by the one disastrous decision to have Kennedy host.

The live blog doesn't truly do it justice, but masochists can endure it all on YouTube.

Ok, enough of that, let's look at what else happened this week.

QUOTE | "Diversity is also important. Having young people of all colours as part of the team going forward, it's very much a fresh, young, global approach that we take." - Koch Media CEO Klemens Kundratitz talking about Prime Matter, his company's new publishing label with an initial slate of games featuring a Switch port of a medieval RPG from a studio with a GamerGate-supporting co-founder that left Black people out for historical accuracy.

QUOTE | "Vita means life." - 10 years ago this month, Sony's Kaz Hirai simultaneously gave the company's new handheld its name and its epitaph at an E3 marked by spectacular faceplants that also included the unveiling of the Wii U and Microsoft's big push to make Kinect appeal to core gamers.

QUOTE | "The Solertia report revealed that the absence of clear communication from management as to the steps taken created the perception that nothing was done or that the allegations were not taken seriously. This was not the case." - Scavengers Studio describes the findings of an audit after our report earlier this year on the misconduct of co-founder Simon Darveau. The allegations referred to above involved a 2019 company party where Scavengers sources told us Darveau got drunk and groped multiple employees.

QUOTE | "Two of the employees who were there at the time said they recall Darveau cracking jokes through the entire meeting. They described him as 'being like a teenager in the audience' and 'laughing and riffing on whatever the sexual harassment policies were'." - A line from our original report describing a company meeting to clarify the company's sexual harassment policy after the incident, in case you were wondering where Scavengers employees might have gotten the idea the allegations were not taken seriously.

STAT | $247 billion - The estimated annual revenues of the mobile gaming market by 2030, according to a new report from GlobalData.

QUOTE | "We want to get to a point of releasing a new game every quarter." - Microsoft's Matt Booty says that with two dozen studios, the company is setting the bar at releasing four games a year. It doesn't sound so impressive put that way, but he added that games can take five years to make and cancellations do happen.

QUOTE | "Canada," "democratic socialism," "toejam," and "women rapping." - Phrases visitors to the E3 Digital Venue would not be allowed to use in messaging functions, according to a JavaScript file on the event's official site that organizers said later was just a placeholder list for testing purposes.

STAT | 43% - Percentage of Resident Evil: Village copies sold in the UK in May that were on the PS5, as noted in our monthly UK charts story. 31% were on Xbox, with 15% on the PS4, and 11% on PC.

STAT | 5 - The number of new C-suite executives GameStop has hired directly from Amazon since February, a number boosted this week by the appointments of new CEO Matt Furlong and CFO Mike Recupero.

QUOTE | "We also see that the [loot box] issue hasn't been as present in public policy matters since that time, and I think it's because policymakers have reviewed the facts, they've seen the impact, and have determined it should not be a high priority. And we think that's the right outcome." - ESA president Stanley Pierre-Louis sounds about ready to declare victory on the loot box legislation front.

QUOTE | "We have been exploring blockchain technology for a number of years and have no intention of rushing to implement it at the expense of environmental sustainability." - Ubisoft tries to explain why it has made executive bonuses dependent on carbon reduction efforts when the publisher has been one of the largest and most aggressive in the industry when it comes to exploring blockchain technology in recent years.

QUOTE | "I'm already 55 years old, so I might retire." - Having resigned from Square Enix after the disappointing launch of Balan Wonderworld, Yuji Naka is apparently contemplating hanging it up.

QUOTE | More than $700,000 - As of this writing, the total amount raised on by the Indie Bundle for Palestinian Aid, a collection of more than 1,000 games and other offerings for a minimum payment of $5. The offer is available until 1 a.m. Pacific time, Saturday June 12.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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