The idea of a glitzy award show is far from the frag fests gamers are used to. But for Spike TV’s Video Game Awards, the worlds of pageantry and pixels collide to create something entirely new. Like previous years, this year’s gala-for-all-things-gaming (premiering live on Spike 8:00PM/ET) is a slickly produced, reality-blurring amalgamation of industry recognition and fanboy indulgence.
With its splashy augmented reality-infused sets, unorthodox format, and world premieres of forthcoming titles sneakily hidden as easter eggs, it’s safe to say that this year’s VGAs literally have gaming written into their code. Here’s a look at five tactics the show’s creators used to relaunch the format and give the typical award show a new 1-UP for the gaming crowd.
Tactic #1: Hire The Top Industry Players
Television is already clogged with award shows, so for the VGA to stand out, they need to innovate or die—no do-overs. The VGAs boast an industry veteran who loves to take risks. "With all the big-budget games and movies younger viewers are used to, you really need to be pushing the envelope technologically," VGA co-executive producer, Mark Burnett, tells Fast Company. As the kingmaker of reality TV franchises like CBS’s Survivor, Burnett—who also produced this year’s Emmys broadcast and the MTV Video Movie Awards—is no stranger to the format. "All sorts of things can go wrong with people interacting with game characters on live TV," says Burnett, but taking risks on the show’s unconventional format and fancy tech is part of the reward. "Everyone here working [on set] wants to be on the cutting edge of television, and this show is really just a great fit for that."
Tactic #2: Kill The Gratuitous Celebrity Cameo
They might be the mainstay of other awards shows, but celebrity cameos and filler musical numbers don't fly with VGA producers. The few meatspace celebrities appearing—like emcee/Chuck star Zachary Levi—also all have some sort of strong tie to the gaming industry. (Fallout: New Vegas fans will recognize Levi as one of the game’s voice actors.) Ho-hum award categories have been ditched in favor of fanboy-friendly alternatives, too. This year’s "Gamer God Award" (think: a leveled-up Lifetime Achievement) is going to Blizzard Entertainment’s three founders for their involvement in creating blockbuster PC titles like World of Warcaft, StarCraft, and Diablo.
Tactic #3: Interact With The Crowd
Traditional award shows are produced with passive viewing in mind. Co-executive producer Casey Patterson says the VGAs are expressly designed for the active thumbstick-twiddling set. "We’re dealing with viewers that are used to having a controller in their hands and complete control," says Patterson, which can occasionally make the show’s "by-gamers-for gamers" tone a tricky balancing act. In the weeks leading up to the show, fans have been encouraged to cast votes for the "Most Anticipated Game of the Year" category, and during the broadcast online polls will open to let viewers cast their vote on which athlete’s mug should grace the cover of EA Sports’ forthcoming NFL Blitz game. Football icons Joe Montana and Jerry Rice will effectively close this interactivity loop by revealing the voting results (and Blitz’s new cover) live at the end of the show.
Tactic #4: Push TV's Boundaries With Cool Tech
By far the biggest technological hurdles for the show (and the biggest treat for gamers) are the augmented reality segments used to introduce the Game of the Year nominees throughout the show. While keen-eyed sports fans have already seen simpler versions of this tech at work at home (e.g., the NFL’s yellow "first down" line seen during broadcasts), the VGAs' live AR segments—designed to create the illusion of three-dimensional game characters and environments interacting with set—are vastly more complex: "The standard camera positions on a football field makes their AR segments a little more straightforward," explains the VGA’s augmented reality producer Robb Wagner. "For this, we’re moving cameras through the studio and trying to create the illusion that the game elements are actually in the studio interacting with the talent," says Wagner.
Tackling this feat required months of planning and intricate spatial mapping of the studio’s interior. With a backend outfitted with an army of robotic cameras, media servers, and a team of seven artists and technicians to cue all the action live, the end result is nothing short of showbiz magic. While attendees in the studio will see a largely empty stage during these sequences, viewers at home will see some of their favorite video game avatars and their iconic settings springing to life onstage and even in the audience.
Tactic #5: Get The Industry Involved
Collaboration is key for both the award show and game developers. Months before air, the show’s digital artists work with game developers to collect and convert in-game art assets like characters and level architecture into believable (and properly scaled) set dressing for the show’s augmented reality segments.
For an AR segment devoted to the brawler Batman: Arkham City, Spike designers worked with game developer Rocksteady Studios to find the most aesthetically and spatially cohesive chunks of in-game Gotham to recreate onstage. By getting developers involved early and often even the lines between game development and award show planning has started to blur. While last year was largely a testing ground for the show’s AR elements, Patterson says developers are starting to embrace helping with these segments. "We’ve actually reached a point where game developers are starting to keep our art needs in mind as part of their workflow," says Patterson.
Tactic #6: Use It As A Marketing Tool—For Next Year's Content
Most awards shows only look in the rearview mirror. But the upcoming titles of gaming companies get a moment in the spotlight too. Exclusive peeks at forthcoming games—some pre-announced and others devilishly hidden until their live world premiere—are interspersed throughout the show. The result is a savvy dopamine reward system for viewers that resembles an impeccably paced video game level; interspersed between the accolades and nostalgia for familiar titles are polished theatrical trailers and behind-the-scenes looks at next year’s gaming hotness. Ultimately, these peeks at the future kick off a mutually benefit hype cycle for everyone involved: The VGAs get the bragging rights (and ideally viewership) for the first reveal, game developers get a crushing amount of pre-release hype, and gamers get a sneak peak at their next potential purchases. Evidently, everyone seems to win on the video game industry’s biggest night.