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VGA host backs new gamer-centric award show out of his own pocket

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Video game award shows have long failed to find the sort of prestige and fan loyalty that seems to come easily for accolades directed at movies and music.

Among the big video game award shows, which include the Interactive Achievement Awards and Game Developers Choice Awards, only the end-of-year Spike TV Video Game Awards aired their program live on television.

But last year's transition to the online-focused VGX show from Spike seemed to be a final stab at turning the VGAs into the show for video game awards.

While officials at Spike TV did not respond to emails seeking comment, it appears the 10-year run for the show ended last December with the VGX show. Now the show's long-time host and executive producer is taking on the mantle of creating a single great gaming award show himself.

Earlier this week, Geoff Keighley announced The Game Awards 2014, a night of new game reveals, new trailers, and awards streamed live from Las Vegas on Dec. 5 in front of a live, potentially massive audience. It's a show created with the help of a powerful advisory board that includes leaders from Activision, Electronic Arts, Konami, Microsoft, Nintendo, Rockstar, Sony, Valve, Ubisoft and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

Keighley, who has been covering the industry for much of his life, isn't just producing the two-hour show, he's paying for it out of his own pocket.

"The investment is my own," he told Polygon. "I'm bankrolling it and we're trying to sell some sponsorships. But there are no submission fees."

Keighley is also hoping to earn back the money for renting Planet Hollywood's AXIS Theater in Vegas through tickets, which went on sale earlier this week for $45 each, but there is no safety net.

"There is a fair amount of risk involved," Keighley said, though he declined to say how much of his own money he had to put up for the show. "I thought about doing a Kickstarter, but I would feel awkward doing that. I think I need to take this on myself to prove I can do it. I need to prove to everyone this is going to be great. If I were to Kickstart it there would have been a fair amount of skepticism.

"Maybe in future years there is a model like that, but the way people can support it this year is by tuning in, coming out to Vegas, telling their friends about it."

It helps the odds that the Game Awards is happening the day before the PlayStation Experience kicks off in Vegas, a massive PlayStation-themed public event being put together by Sony. And Keighley said that he's heard Microsoft might be doing something for fans around his show as well.

Over the years, the Keighley-hosted VGAs received a fair amount of criticism as it tried to find the right sort of tone and mix of entertainment and accolades. Viewers were unhappy with award winners, unhappy with co-hosts, unhappy with the show's tone, which at times seemed to ride on the stereotype of a gamer.

So why does Keighley think that he can create a success on his own, without the financial backing and television muscle of Spike TV?

"The VGAs and VGX always had a group of decision makers involved in the show," he said, when I asked him. "One thing important for me the Game Awards is that I'm sort of driving it creatively. I have a board of advisers, and I'm going to them, but they don't make the decisions. I think this show will be a show I am making for the game audience, not for the pressures of the television network or some of the desires they had.

"Gamers are a mainstream, massive audience that wants to celebrate our culture in a certain way. This show may not be something that works on Spike or any television audience. We're sort of building something for a different audience. I want to make it successful for a gamer audience first and gain their respect. That is something that wouldn't have worked on Spike or on any TV network."

The big question that remains is what will the show be? Will it feature skits or celebrity hosts, live performances or endless acceptance speeches? Keighley is still keeping most of those details to himself.

"There may be a little bit of celebrity if it makes sense," he said. "It may have a little music. I don't want to do DICE or GDC with just awards."

Instead, Keighley said, the mandate of The Game Awards premiere is to celebrate not just the games and game makers, but the game players too.

"We're going to focus more on the players," he said. "Maybe you'll see awards for eSports, for some of the people who play games, not just the developers. I want to unite everyone under the same room. We have a massive theater in Las Vegas that can hold 5,000 people. I want to get people in the industry, fans and press and bring everyone together in a room to celebrate our industry."

That's an important theme to Keighley, he said, given what has been going on lately with things like GamerGate.

"We all love games, love this medium," he said. "That's a theme I want to carry through the show, both in terms of how we talk about games and how we celebrate our industry. I want to recognize creators and players on the same stage."

What that translates into is a show that is more forward looking, he said. There will be previews of games coming down the line, alongside a celebration of the year's best games. Those, Keighley said, will be the show's two main thrusts.

"You're going to see a little less focus on comedy and more of a celebratory tone for the show," he said.

The other big difference between the VGAs and the Game Awards is that the show will be streamed anywhere Keighley can find it space. Already he's lined up deals with Microsoft and Sony to stream the show on the companies' consoles. He's also got Twitch on board.

"I've been working with everyone to pursue a model that isn't tied to any one media partner," he said. "The idea was to build something industry wide like E3 and get everyone on board."

The growing importance and virality of streaming-only shows was also one of the things that drove Keighley's decision to break away from Spike TV and Viacom, he said.

"I think there were a variety of factors that played into it," he said. "For me there were a couple of factors: Generally the level of investment in the category was decreasing from Viacom and Spike. After the success of VGX, they were becoming more interested in doing digital only. What I began to realize was that for gamers today the way we consume content is through gaming systems, watching shows via iPad, Xbox or PlayStation."

And it wasn't just the shift from televised to streaming for the VGAs that fueled Keighley's decision to jump ship. Things in general were changing for him. GameTrailers was about to be sold, and he said he saw a window opening, an opportunity to create something entirely new, entirely on his own.

"I made a decision earlier this year to go on a different path with the awards, Spike and Viacom were fully supportive of that plan and nothing prevented them from continuing the VGX," he said. "I think it is pretty unlikely it is happening though. Spike and Viacom are doing less video game stuff."

That said, Keighley looks back at his years producing the VGAs fondly.

"Those things were pretty successful over the years in bringing mainstream awareness to our industry," he said. "Spike invested tens of millions over the years. I wouldn't change anything about what had happened. There was a lot of value there. Now is the right time to build something new for the next generation of the way people want to watch a show like this."

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