Geoff Keighley owes more than you’d think to Britney Spears.
In 2014, the first year of Keighley’s annual Game Awards show, he found himself in a precarious situation — his team didn’t have the money to build the type of show he wanted. Spears had recently begun a residency at the Planet Hollywood Axis Theater in Las Vegas, and happened to have a week off when Keighley’s team wanted to shoot.
So, The Game Awards asked if it could use her stage. And Spears said yes.
As Keighley tells it, getting the first Game Awards up and running had its fair share of challenges. From budgeting issues, to talent such as Trey Parker and Kiefer Sutherland not confirming their appearances until 72 hours before the show, to having to stretch for time as bands re-rehearsed after someone running sound accidentally deleted levels, Keighley’s team had an uphill battle just getting the show live.
Now in 2018, The Game Awards is, in terms of viewership, budget, and scale, bigger than ever. As of writing, three million people have watched this year’s show on Twitter, nearly four million on Twitch, two million on YouTube, and it was the number one trending hashtag on Twitter. It was a more polished show than previous years, full of surprising game announcements, celebrities, and memorable moments.
Yet it still, sometimes, can be an uphill battle. Even the day before this year’s show, the team didn’t have the trailer for one of its reveals, and Aisha Tyler, announced as a presenter, had to drop out to be on set for a Criminal Minds shoot. Problems always arise; things constantly shift around for the show.
To find out how a show of this scale comes together, I tracked Keighley and his Game Awards team over the past six months, observing how the show begins as a vision in the host’s head and evolves into one of the game industry’s biggest events, and learning how things twist and change throughout the year — all the way up until the host takes the stage.
As it turns out, getting Keighley to that stage on December 6 takes a lot of sleepless nights, secrets, hands on deck, and frequent flyer miles.
July 17, 2018: Where in the world is Geoff Keighley?
Keighley picks up his phone in his car. He’s driving from Los Angeles, where he lives, to Blizzard’s headquarters in Irvine. All things considered, it’s a pretty short trip for him — about an hour drive, if traffic is good. But it’s one of the first of many that’ll take him all over the world, meeting with developers and publishers to talk about possible announcements and trailers to debut at the annual award show.
The work is starting to pick up, he says. July is when he shifts from E3 mode, where he hosts YouTube Gaming’s yearly coverage and organizes the E3 Coliseum panels, to full-blown Game Awards mode. There’s a lot to do, a lot of meetings to take, and a lot of countries to visit. He was in San Francisco last week, he says. Next week he’ll be back. After that, he heads to San Diego Comic Con. Then China, Japan, North Carolina, and Europe “for a little while.”
“It’s really just going around the world sharing [with] people what we’re doing with the show,” Keighley says. “Even though it’s a big show and we get a lot of pitches, I never want to rest on my laurels. We need to be out there. We need to be talking to people. We need to be finding those next games.”
But that’s not to say nothing’s been done yet. As Keighley puts it, The Game Awards is a year-long ordeal, and it all begins as soon as the previous year’s show ends. The production team — consisting of contractors that jump from show to show — typically begins its year with a postmortem of sorts, assessing what it did right and wrong the previous year, and how it’d like to evolve the next show. From there come the more inside-baseball details, as Keighley says, such as securing the Microsoft Theater, which needs to be booked about a year in advance. Additionally, the team is working on more minute details such as updating the show’s logo and ordering the year’s batch of trophies. It’s a lot of top-level stuff, Keighley says, like working with new distribution partners to get the annual show broadcast in more countries than the year prior.
“It’s funny,” he says. “Every time I meet with someone new and they’re like ‘You do E3 and Game Awards, but what do you do the rest of the year?’ My response is always like, ‘No, that’s what I do.’ I think some people think we just start in November and pull it together, and it really is a year-round effort.”
But, again, it’s July now. Things are starting to heat up for Keighley and his team.
Earlier today, the team met to discuss the show’s budget for the first time. It’s always a point of consternation for Keighley, figuring out how much to spend on the show. It’s a bit of a tricky balance, he says, since he wants to grow the show year over year. But he funds the show himself up-front, so he has to be careful not to overspend while trying to raise money from publishers and sponsors.
Keighley won’t divulge this year’s budget, but says it’s “multiple” millions of dollars. And a lot of the partnerships and sponsorships run through Keighley directly, who says he wears “ten different hats” when it comes to the show.
“I probably should have a bigger team to help with some of that stuff. But, you know, I am kind of the brand of the show,” Keighley says. “So I tend to be the one that has to fly around the world. I’m a bit of a control freak about the show in general just because I worked for, really, two decades to be able to have this opportunity, to be able to build the show the way I want.”
“So, I have a lot of passion to make sure it’s, like, the absolute best show we can build,” he adds. “All the games that we show, I’ve sort of hand-selected and worked with the developers and courted them — or sometimes they’ve courted us — to be a part of the show.”
Getting those game reveals — something the show’s become known for over the years — is a collaborative effort between Keighley and video game developers and publishers, he says. Companies aren’t just sending video files to his email address; Keighley says he works with them on how to best reveal their games.
In-person meetings will go on to yield some pretty big results for this year’s show, such as a look at Fortnite’s seventh season and the next Mortal Kombat. The newest Dragon Age game will be teased and a new PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds map shown in a cinematic trailer.
But for Keighley, it’s not just about the huge, AAA game reveals; it’s also about giving a big stage to smaller-scale games.
As a result of meeting with smaller teams, Keighley will go on to secure a trailer for The Last Campfire, a new title from No Man’s Sky developer Hello Games, one for Giant Squid Games’ new title The Pathless, and a trailer from new “micro game studio” FJRD Interactive for its first game Among Trees.
The next couple of months will be more of the same, Keighley says. He’s traveling, meeting with people, and starting to get an idea for what The Game Awards will be like in 2018. When he talks, he sounds excited, almost like he can’t stop himself. He also yawns quite a bit. There’s a lot of work to be done, and the self-described “control freak” puts a lot of it onto his own shoulders.
Keighley is five months from taking the stage once again, and he’s got a lot to do.
August 20, 2018: Shoot for the stars
Keighley is back in Los Angeles the next time we speak. His travel schedule, for the most part, is starting to settle down. He’s still yawning quite a bit — which might have to do with the fact he’s flown somewhere in the range of 100,000 miles for the show this year.
In the month since our first chat, Keighley went all over America. In China, he met with new distribution partners such as Panda TV to talk about getting the show in front of more viewers. In Japan, he visited approximately 10 game studios, including Kojima Productions, Platinum Games, and From Software. But now he’s home, and the planning for this year’s show is beginning.
The Game Awards, in August, is in a bit of conceptual phase; the team’s coming up with big, high-concept ideas without knowing what’s possible yet. It’s a time to shoot for the stars, Keighley says, to just imagine things. Inevitably, all their pie in the sky ideas won’t make it into the show, but now’s not the time to worry about that. This is, as Keighley puts it, the creative phase of the show.
“And that’s really sort of part of the fun of just kind of kicking things off early,” he says.
That’s not to say, though, that the show starts from scratch every year. As Keighley tells it, The Game Awards is an iterative process. If something doesn’t work or doesn’t make it into a previous show for one reason or another, the idea isn’t immediately thrown out. If anything, it becomes a bullet point for the next year.
“Even last year we were going to do something with Hanz Zimmer, the film composer, and then he got busy with other things and wasn’t able to do it,” Keighley says. “So it’s like, ‘Hey, do we try and resurrect that this year?’” Fast-forward four months and this one will end up working out.
Some ideas, too, are as old as the show is itself. Every year, since the show’s debut in 2014, Keighley and video game voice actor Troy Baker have tried to work out a musical performance for the latter — who, as well as working in video games, is a touring singer-songwriter. For four years, the team hasn’t been able to make it work, but it’s still on the table. Fast-forward four months, and this one remains on the table.
August is also a good time for the team to assess the previous year’s show, evaluating what it feels it did well and what it can improve upon. It’s part of the iterative process of the show — and it extends to everything from awards, nominees, and the panel of jurors voting on The Game Awards.
For example, since 2014 The Game Awards has given out the Industry Icon award, and last year the show gave it to former Atari employee Carol Shaw. That worked well, in Keighley’s opinion. The Trending Gamer award, however, needs to change, he says. For one, a lot of people point out it’s hard for nominees with smaller social footprints, such as Stephen Spohn, COO of AbleGamers Charity, to compete against nominees like popular YouTubers Boogie2988 and Dr. Disrespect — who won the award in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The team will go on to cut the Trending Gamer award, and replace it with separate Content Creator and Global Gaming Citizen awards.
Being a once-a-year show, Keighley says, gives the team time to watch the industry, noticing how it evolves over years prior, and respond to it accordingly.
“A lot of other content creators have to think about content on a daily basis,” he says. “The fact that we can actually sit back and think about these things all year, I think really helps us.”
As Keighley tells it, he spends the better part of the back half of the year thinking about the show. “I mean, I probably spend 18 hours a day working on it, now through December,” Keighley says. “And that’s seven days a week. That’s just sort of what we do.”
If August is a good time to just brainstorm new ideas and revise old ones, then September is the time to start nailing down what the show will really look like, what the team will actually implement this year. Next month, just over two months from when he takes the stage, is, as Keighley puts it, when he has a good idea of what the show will actually look like.
“The next month is when things start to get real,” he says.
September 13, 2018: Closer
One month and 2,800 miles later, Keighley is an enviable position. When he picks up the phone, he’s recently left Rockstar Games’ Manhattan headquarters after playing the much-anticipated Red Dead Redemption 2. Of course, it’s not all play for the host. He also spent time talking with Rockstar about how the game could be represented at the show.
“[To be determined], as things always are with Rockstar, but yeah it’s just meeting with them and talking through some of the ideas,” Keighley says. “We’ve seen so little of the game, yet it comes out in six weeks, and we fully expect it to be a potential nominee. So it was good to sit down and check out the game.”
This year, as the Game Awards crew puts it, is a “Rockstar Year.” Rockstar Games, when we speak, is approaching the launch of Red Dead Redemption 2, its next big release — something that only happens, these days, every four or five years. When Keighley talks about it, you can hear his excitement for the game, and he hints about his ideas for the game showing up in a big way.
But Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t the only game on his mind. Fortnite dominated 2018, becoming a full-blown phenomenon. God of War and Spider-Man both did well for Sony commercially and critically. He wants to include them all in some way.
“Now we have 12 weeks or something until the show,” Keighley says. “So yeah, we move into kind of like picking which ideas we wanna lead with, which games we wanna work with. It gets real shortly after Labor Day.”
The day before, Keighley was in a set design meeting with LeRoy Bennett — The Game Awards’ set designer — finalizing this year’s stage setup. Doing that means going back and forth with Bennett, sharing ideas and needs for this year’s show. Bennett then goes and makes a render of the set design and presents that to the team.
“There’s certain things that we know that we have to have for this show,” Keighley says. “Like, we’ve gotta have a really big screen to do all the world premiers on because people have to see that. We know we’re going to have the orchestra, so those kind of things get factored into the design.”
Once Bennett comes back with a set design the team approves, then the process moves into a budgeting phase, which, Keighley says, is where ideas inevitably have to be cut. “You always kinda dream a little bit bigger than what you can afford,” he says. “So then you start to make some compromises and changes and that happens over the next few weeks as we get through that.”
This year the team is leaning into lighting for its stage design and making the show feel more immersive than years past. “We’re actually talking about maybe using a little bit less LED video, which is, you know, the big video walls that we often have,” Keighley says. “We’re a very video-heavy show, but we’ve been talking about some ideas to make it a little more lighting-based instead of having tons of video all over the stage.”
Working with Bennett, the host says, elevates the production of The Game Awards, bringing aboard an industry veteran who’s worked on stage design with everyone from Ariana Grande and Lenny Kravitz to Paul McCartney. It’s also a bit of a dream for the host, who went to the tours Bennett designed for Nine Inch Nails growing up.
Working with industry veterans like Bennett, holding the show at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles, and hiring an orchestra, costs a lot of money. Even though The Game Awards grows year over year, Keighley says he and his budgeting team are cognizant about not going overboard with spending.
And though Keighley’s self-funded the show every year, producing something of this scale requires sponsorship deals — something the host has caught heat for in the past, with some feeling the show has come across as overly marketing-driven or feeling certain sponsors appear out of place.
While Keighley says he understands the sentiment that the show should be sponsored by more high-class brands like, per his example, “BMW and American Express and Tiffany,” he says the show just isn’t there yet.
“Like the Schick Hydro razor, it’s like, no, we didn’t think that was a great idea and [we didn’t want a guy in a razor costume] to be there,” Keighley says. “But it’s like, hey, they were a sponsor, to their credit, that was willing to show up and invest in the show in a time when a lot of people weren’t.”
“It’s like, I get it, but we’re not there yet,” he adds about sponsorships. “So, you just have to be patient and that’s what I’ve learned in my life is you just have to do the best you can and learn and grow [...] We look back and laugh at the Hydro bot. The internet does too.”
Over the next few months, Keighley will find himself in more and more meetings — and longer and longer meetings. He’ll also be spending a lot of time working on more minute details, such as working on motion graphics for the show and its teaser campaign.
“It’s like, what’s the ticket going to look like that people get when they come out,” Keighley says. “What’s the flow of the red carpet? How are we working with Twitter and what do they want to do on the red carpet? Who’s the list of judges? Pulling that together and sharing it [with] the game companies.”
More so than previous years, the show’s pretty far along at this point, he says. The team has room to breathe a little bit knowing — for the most part — what will be in the show.
“I feel really good,” Keighley says.
October 12, 2018: Music and meetings
Keighley spends a lot of time on the phone.
Two months out from The Game Awards, the host says he begins taking calls around 7:00 in the morning and usually ends in the evening, talking to companies debuting trailers and other people involved with the show. As the hours until the show get shorter, the hours Keighley spends on the phone get longer.
Keighley says the bulk of his work this week is creative work and trying to finalize details. For the most part, he knows what all the announcements will be. As of right now, he says, The Game Awards has 10 big announcements it’ll make. While, he says, the team may add or lose a few as things shift around, what took up a lot of his year is now — more or less — in the rearview mirror.
“We’re starting to book up presenters, talking to folks about that and who’s gonna come back,” Keighley says. “Jeff Kaplan from Overwatch will be there. Josef Fares is gonna come back, which I’m sure the fans will love after last year’s rant against The Oscars. So things like that are starting to come together. We’re trying to pull together what we hope will be a kind of big moment of the show.”
Right now, Keighley and his team are figuring out what will be “a kind of big moment of the show,” but he’s not sure exactly what it’ll be — and it’s possible he won’t decide that, the internet will. One thing he’s been trying to make happen since the inception of The Game Awards is get leaders from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo to all appear together on stage together, a metaphor for bringing the game industry together. So, maybe that’ll be it. Maybe it’ll be one of the new AAA announcements. Or a musical performance, or an acceptance speech.
One of the biggest phone calls Keighley says he took this week was yesterday with The Game Awards’ composer, Lorne Balfe, a Grammy award-winning composer known for composing soundtracks for Pacific Rim Uprising, Penguins of Madagascar, and the Skylanders series. The two had a long talk about how they’re going to approach music this year, and what themes they want to highlight. With Red Dead Redemption 2 releasing soon at the time of our interview, Keighley says he’s trying to figure out if there’s a way to do a music piece tied to the game’s soundtrack, eventually locking in a performance from one of the game’s composers, Daniel Lanois, and his band.
“Do we do other musical moments,” Keighley adds. “Do we do a tribute to heroes in video games? A tribute to female heroes? We’re just trying to think of other was we can celebrate different aspects of the industry.”
Additionally this week, Keighley spent time chatting with Peter Jackson, talking to the famed director about possibly doing something at the show, which won’t end up panning out.
But the host is also looking to the near future. Next month, The Game Awards will announce this year’s nominees — which is kind of a guessing game, he says, because voting hasn’t started so the team doesn’t actually know what will be nominated. And in considering that, again, music comes up.
“We look at Metacritic scores and attention,” Keighley says. “A game like God of War is probably gonna get nominated for Game of the Year. So we start to talk about the music in all these games, but we really can’t do anything until November 13 when we know the nominees. We know them a day or two before that. But it’s sort of this dance where we can talk about all the things we might do. But until we know the nominees we can’t really make the show or figure out how we’re gonna do a montage of all these games’ scores.”
This month is also when The Game Awards becomes less of a virtual operation. In a few weeks, members of the production team will move into an office where they’ll have the chance to work together face-to-face. It’s one of the big landmarks for the show, as it signals the final stretch before The Game Awards goes live in December, with the team announcing the nominees a couple weeks after moving into the office.
The Game Awards, over the course of the year, evolves organically. Rather than delegating different aspects of the show — such as lighting, set design, etc. — to different months, the entire run of show, all all the logistics required, naturally transforms over the year from dreams into something tangible. Essentially, the team is working on everything all at once for six months trying to make the show a reality.
Time will eventually run out for the host and his team; he’ll have to take the stage. So I can see it firsthand, Keighley invites me to visit The Game Awards office in mid-November to meet the rest of the team and see the show’s home stretch.
November 15, 2018: The brains of the operation
Talk to the people working in the Game Awards office and you can sense the excitement for this year’s show. You can also sense the immense amount of stress. This is especially true when talking to the two people in charge — Keighley and executive producer and showrunner Kimmie Kim.
Compared the the scale of the show itself, The Game Awards is a small operation. The show’s team only takes up four, mostly plain, small rooms in a multi-building complex in Santa Monica.
When I visit, only 11 people are working in the building, having moved in about three weeks before the visit. There’s an office for Kim, a room where writers and communications staff work together, and a conference room connecting the two. Across the hall is Keighley’s office, which has a large desk and television, a map of Middle Earth, and a pair of new Nikes sitting in a window. Downstairs, Larry David is working on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Next door is the Los Angeles chapter of the Recording Academy, which coordinates the Grammy Awards.
Geoff Keighley walks into the office around 11:00 a.m. before settling into the conference room to talk. He seems especially excitable, constantly fidgeting and spinning around in the office chair he’s sitting in. He also, more so than other months, constantly yawns during our interview.
When we talk, we’re about 504 hours from when Keighley takes the stage for this year’s show. I bring up the math during the interview because the team is in crunch mode now, getting the The Game Awards ready. Eventually time will run out; the show will have to air. All the works himself and his team are doing will have to end.
According to Keighley, he’s currently working 19 hours a day, seven days a week on The Game Awards. As far as I call tell, he’s the only one putting these kinds of hours in. “I’m probably up until four in the morning and then getting 90 minutes of sleep to do all this stuff,” he says. “So it’s a lot.”
When asked what he’s been working on this week, Keighley simply responds with “everything.”
Two days ago, The Game Awards announced this year’s nominees — with God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 tying for most nominations — holding an event in San Francisco to reveal the list for developers and members of the game press. Getting to that moment required, as you might expect, a ton of work and steps.
“You know, millions of people are kind of waiting on the nominations,” Keighley says. “So it’s getting all our videos ready, getting the website ready, making sure we have the right images for the games, making sure that we have the right descriptions of the games, and the right people listed. So it’s sort of building all that over the weekend in total secrecy and then getting that all cued up and hoping that everything ends up working.”
Which, it didn’t at first.
Launching at 9:00 a.m., the nominee announcements got more traffic than The Game Awards team anticipated, crashing the show’s website for several hours.
“It hasn’t been that bad before,” the host says, laughing. “But every year it’s such an influx of stuff and this year it was, like, five times the amount of traffic in the first hour of people coming to it. Part of the thing is, the web guys will tell you, I keep things so secret we probably compromise the server structure and whatnot because we’re so secretive about everything and making sure nothing will leak. [...] Our web team is in a special white-walled room with no internet connection, just like building it and then it goes out.”
But that’s in the past now. Now, there’s hundreds of new things for Keighley and his team to work on and worry about.
This year’s set is designed; it’s currently being built. The week of the show, the team will move operations to the Microsoft Theater to start assembling it in the venue. A side effect of the host’s secrecy, though, is a lot of details can’t be ironed out until after the nominee announcement. This week, for example, Keighley’s been in meetings with the show’s composer, going over what songs The Game Awards’ orchestra will perform. The problem being, the orchestra didn’t know the nominees until two days ago.
“The orchestra is going to do a game of the year montage,” Keighley says. “We can’t really talk to them about it until Tuesday [morning] at 9:15. Then we have to email all the game companies [and say] ‘Hey we need the Monster Hunter soundtrack. We need the Celeste soundtrack.’ That all sort of happens this week. Tuesday’s a big trigger point for a lot of stuff, because then we know what’s in the show.”
With the nominees out in the open, the team and orchestra are able to figure out what instruments will be used, what songs will show up, and what game visuals need to accompany the performances.
Keighley’s secrecy extends to the Game Awards team itself. As the host reveals, most of the Game Awards team won’t even know what’s going to be announced until the day of the show. Keighley obviously knows long before anyone else what the run of show will be, but other senior members of staff — such as the director, Kim, and the script department — only learn what the announcements will be two days before going live. In the run of the show, trailers are listed under code names with expected durations.
Even though the show’s less than a month away and in full-production, in a lot of ways, The Game Awards still exist only in Keighley’s brain. He’s tight-lipped about the surprises of the show with me, developers, publishers, and even his team. In an effort to achieve the vision for The Game Awards in his head, Keighley, as he’s stated in the past, wears a lot of hats. The show consumes him for six whole months; his life is put on hold, he says, for better or for worse.
“It’s just a different mindset because there’s an end date,” he says. “There’s a point in time where everything has to get done. So it’s not like, ‘Ah, that’s cool. I’ll just do that next week.’ It’s like, ‘No, it all has to be done by December 6th.’ So that’s what sort of is frustrating. [...] I should be now talking to this publicist about getting this actor to come but I’m doing this [interview]. It’s just like weighing all the different options and it becomes, like, all-consuming.”
“I love it. It’s such an opportunity. But look, it’s sort of a terrible thing for me personally probably to be so focused on that,” Keighley says. “I really count down the hours, and I’m like, ‘Four hours of sleep tonight, let’s just tackle it tomorrow.’ You eventually get just worn out at some point.”
And in Kim’s opinion, Keighley wears too many hats — and part of her job, she says, is removing some of them from the host’s head. Even if she has a lot on her plate, too.
Kimmie Kim, who’s also worked on shows such as The Oscars, The Super Bowl Halftime Show, and produced documentaries such as Live From New York!, has been working on The Game Awards since its debut in 2014. She originally met Keighley working with the now-defunct television station Spike on its Video Game Awards series — which Keighley was a consultant for and the channel’s go-to guy when it came to the game industry. She says she sees her role on The Game Awards as a 50-50 operation with the host. They have a “yin and yang dynamic,” Kim says. She does all the work Keighley wants her to do — as well as all the work he doesn’t want her to do, she adds jokingly — and the work Keighley isn’t equipped for.
Liasoning with video game developers and publishers, as well as managing game industry contacts, that’s all Keighley. “People would not know who I am at all,” Kim says. Hiring, per her example, a pyrotechnics company or a choreographer, though, goes through Kim because she has better contacts in that department.
This week, Kim says, is very stressful for her. Thanksgiving is next week, when the team will take a week off, and there’s a ton of work for the small team to get done before it begins loading into the venue the following week. Before she starts losing people for the holiday, she says, she needs the show to be at least 80 or 90 percent dialed in.
And while Kim says it isn’t necessarily a disadvantage, The Game Awards, she estimates, has about two-thirds the number of people working on it of other award shows. Where other shows may have upwards of 10 writers working on scripts, The Game Awards has only a couple. “Neil Patrick Harris, when I produced the Oscars with his group [in 2015], he alone brought, like, four or five writers,” Kim says. Where other award shows will have at least four people working in the talent department, The Game Awards has zero. And so on.
One reason for the small team size in comparison to other shows, Kim says, is because a lot of the work is taken on by Keighley himself. Since Keighley coordinates with game companies, he handles all that. Keighley is the host of the show. His life is video games, as Kim puts it, so he writes the majority of his own scripts. Writers Gabe Uhr and Kyle Bosman primarily handle writing for presenters.
One thing that is frustrating for Kim, though, is how different the game industry is compared to other entertainment industries. “[Something] I always complain jokingly to Geoff is, the video game industry’s speed of getting things done is quite different than TV or film,” she says. “They do one video [game] for five or six years. They invest their time; there’s a lot of financial backing. It’s more of a bigger-picture timeline. So if someone like me and my [assistant director] says ‘We need your clip by tomorrow,’ they’re like, ‘Yeah, don’t think so.’ And that means they’re not done yet; it’s not perfect yet. So they’re not going to show it to us.
“Or it’s exclusive, so there’s a lot of NDAs and a lot of things to get signed. Even then, until they hand deliver to us a drive the day before the show we don’t get to see it. And that’s a big stress for all of us. We don’t get to check the right specs; we don’t see the quality of it. None of that is there.”
It’s not all big-picture items on Kim’s to-do list, though. She also wants to redesign the show’s envelopes so they open better for presenters and winners. She also, she adds, prioritizes making sure employees are eating during long hours. “I’m really big on feeding people,” Kim says, laughing. “So I always make sure that everybody’s meal is taken care of.”
Comparing Kim and Keighley highlights the former’s yin and yang comparison. Where Keighley is excitable, slightly intense, and certainly overworked, Kim is more reserved and contemplative when answering questions. She also, more so than Keighley, takes time to make jokes and laugh during our interview.
Next week is Thanksgiving, and she’s leaving the office entirely. “I’m out for the whole week, because I’m a normal human being. I do Thanksgiving,” Kim says.
This balance is something, Kim says, she tries to work on with Keighley, removing some of the self-imposed workload he’s put on his own shoulders.
“There’s areas that he personally really likes. He enjoys thinking about lighting and the graphics and visual stuff. Those are things that he is very interested in and he gets into,” Kim says. Other areas, such as ticketing and invite lists, she thinks, Keighley should leave to other people — such as the show’s ticketing department.
“I know he knows all the names but I’m trying to hand it over to our ticketing department. Because it gets [to be] too much work for him,” Kim says. “I’m trying to balance things out for him, even if he is the center of the hub of all the information and he has all the pieces to put together. [...] We try to prioritize what’s the production priority? What’s your relations, [the] political thing you have to do? What are the areas that we can delegate?”
Kim says she doesn’t think Keighley works too hard, but she does worry about him. The night before nominees are announced, she says for example, she worries the host will stay up all night making sure everything’s “fine.” She’s concerned he won’t get any sleep before the big day. That said, she’s not sure Keighley can stop working as much as he does.
“I think he really sees his entire year focusing on The Game Awards,” Kim says. “So even if there are some areas [where] I want him to do less, I don’t think he can stop right now.”
“I think he’s in a predicament where right now he’s the one who’s holding the key,” she adds.
And Keighley doesn’t necessarily disagree with Kim. When asked about her comments, he agrees, but also says he just enjoys working on the show. But, in the future, as The Game Awards grows, he adds, he hopes more people can be brought to the team, alleviating some of his work load and allowing him to focus on “other things.”
It’s likely, though, that these work-life balance talks may have to wait because the clock is quickly ticking down for the Game Awards team. In a few weeks the team will move again, this time to the Microsoft Theater, where it’ll begin building its stage, finalizing its run of the show, and getting ready to go live for the fifth year in a row. The stress, meetings, phone calls, and frequent flyer miles that consumed the past six months will be over for 2018. Keighley will, for a few weeks until 2019, be free.
“There’s a strange calmness when the show begins, because at the point the show is locked,” Keighley says about how he feels when he finally walks out on stage. “It’s kind of actually freeing because for months I sit on my phone and on my computer dealing with things. Then all of a sudden you’re in a live show, it’s happening, and you’re also mindful that the end of the road is only two hours away.”
December 5, 2018: The final hours
Keighley, sitting in the Microsoft Theater the day before the show, wants to show us a video on his phone.
As it turns out, The Game Awards isn’t the only video game award show in town this week. Two days earlier, CBS taped its Gamers’ Choice Awards, which it recently announced will air three days after Keighley’s show. The show takes a sort of alternate universe timeline from the old days of the Spike Video Game Awards, focusing heavily on celebrities and humor rather than game developers and industry news.
It also mentions The Game Awards.
“I heard that there was a game awards show that takes itself seriously,” one of the show’s hosts says. “And I’m really starting to think that this is not that award show.”
Keighley and The Game Awards team have no time to worry about the Gamers’ Choice awards, though, because in about 30 hours they go live. And, also unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of work to do.
I’m invited to the venue the day before the show to get a sense of how the physical production comes together during the show’s final hours. Alloted time to visit during orchestra rehearsal, I notice a lot of people running around — planning the lighting, organizing the red carpet, and finalizing the run of show. I also notice a lot of people sitting around waiting until they’re needed, and witness one minor argument about camera cuts. Behind the stage, in the loading dock, I see dozens, if not hundreds, of road cases full of audio equipment. In a truck in that dock, part of the team is working on the camera cuts for the show, counting between each cut.
The 11 workers I met in the office last month are all here, but now they’re joined by a team of hundreds of people, all coming together to see the show through. There’s stagehands, composers, musicians, and others all working to make what once existed in Keighley’s imagination a reality. Keighley, Kim, Uhr, and Bosman all sit in the middle of the theater on a makeshift bench resting on theater seats, each staring at their computers.
Keighley seems stressed when we speak. Sitting at his computer for our interview, the host has more than 600,000 emails in his inbox. Which, according to Keighley, are mostly Game Awards-related. He woke up today at 5:00 a.m. to start working, rolling into the venue around 8:30 in the morning to rehearse Ninja’s segment with Pepe the King Prawn. He’s staying across the street at the Ritz Carlton so he’s able to jump in and out of the venue as quickly as needed.
We speak during a brief break for the orchestra. Having only about 10 minutes with the host before he runs off to a meeting, I quickly try to gauge where his head’s at.
Keighley is nervous, he says, because people are flying all around the world to see this event; he just wants to make sure everyone is happy with the show they’re presented. “It’s kind of like being very selfless and getting everything done,” he says. “There’s just so much stuff going on. You just want to make sure that everyone feels good about it.”
It seems there’s never an end to the loose ends for the team. As we speak, Keighley remembers he forgot to upload a video for The Game Awards’ Chinese distributor, stopping mid-answer to do so. A world premier video — he doesn’t say which — won’t be in until about 7:00 this evening. Sales across digital storefronts, such as Steam and the Nintendo eShop, go live tomorrow, so he’s checking any additional work he needs to address off his list. It’s a lot, and he begins to call it stress, before stopping himself halfway through the word.
“It’s not stress,” he says, changing his answer. “I’m so honored to do this. Actually the hardest thing for me is actually is when it’s all done. Come Saturday, it’s over and it’s either good or it’s not. Then you gear up for the next year. You’re just in that mode now where you want to spend every second you can to try and make it good for everyone.”
And Keighley and his team are doing just that. After our chat, Keighley says bye and darts off to his meeting. The next time I see him will be from dozens of feet away, when he introduces the fifth Game Awards.
December 6, 2018: “I really won this shit”
Right at 6:00 p.m., after the pre-show, Shawn Layden, Phil Spencer, and Reggie Fils-Aimé all walk out on stage together to introduce this year’s Game Awards. It’s a moment, as Keighley puts it, that The Game Awards is all about. Putting competition aside, celebrating the game industry. That’s why, as he says, he started the awards show in the first place. It’s a moment that, he says, took five years to make happen.
And when the camera cuts back to Keighley, as he’s introducing the orchestra, getting ready to debut The Game Awards’ new theme song, something interesting happens.
Blink and you’ll miss it.
“We have an amazing show ahead for you guys,” Keighley says, staring into the camera. “And we are going to kick things off with an incredible performance by The Game Awards orchestra, conducted by our amazing musical director Lorne Balfe, featuring the legendary Hanz Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams. And they will be joined by a nominee tonight, Lena Raine, and Sarah Schachner. They are premiering our brand new theme for The Game Awards. I can’t believe it. Enjoy the show.”
As Keighley says his last three sentences, just seconds before the camera cuts to the orchestra, his voice starts to shake. It sounds as if he’s getting choked up.
Being at The Game Awards in person highlights just how big the show is in comparison to its small team. It’s larger than life, loud, and boisterous. It’s impressive to watch and there’s hardly a dull moment. But more than that, you see all the things millions of people around the world watching at home miss.
If you were at home, you probably missed actor/director Jonah Hill pointing and laughing at someone time and time again in the crowd as Visual Concepts president Greg Thomas gave his acceptance speech. After Ubisoft Montreal creative director Jean-Sébastien Decant came onstage to present Far Cry: New Dawn, and a sea of confetti rained down around him, you probably missed the team of guys with leaf blowers that cleaned up. During Sadia Bashir’s Global Gaming Citizen video, you probably missed the drummer for the Devil May Cry 5 performance began playing their kit backstage, drowning out a lot of the video for the members of the audience. You didn’t see Keighley constantly staring at his phone when the camera wasn’t on him, often slipping it into his back pocket literally a second before the camera cut back to him.
You probably did see the world premiers, SonicFox’s viral acceptance speech, and all the celebrities, each giving varying levels of energy to their presentations.
Nearly three hours after Layden, Fils-Aimé, and Spencer introduced the fifth Game Awards — and one hour longer than advertised — Keighley finally tells the crowd goodnight. Six months after his drive to Blizzard, he’s free.
Though his workload is alleviated for a little while, he spends the following days posting on Twitter, thanking people for watching and asking for feedback. He has time to rest, but his gears keep turning.
“Making this show completely consumes me,” Keighley tweets the day after the show. “I have to sacrifice almost everything to make it happen. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it, and I do need to get better at balancing things out. But I think we’re finally over the hump in year 5.”
And though the tweet hints at how he second-guesses his work ethic throughout the year, he follows it with another tweet cementing his dedication to the show he built.
“One thing I know, as my friend [Hideo Kojima] reminds me — I love to create and I will keep creating The Game Awards until the day I die.”
Update: This story originally credited Kyle Bosman as a “writer’s assistant,” which is inaccurate. Bosman is one of the show’s writers. We have corrected the error.
Update 2 (12/26): This story originally mentioned that The Game Awards’ Industry Icon award debuted in 2017. The award has been around since 2014. We have corrected the error.
Special thanks: Kenneth Shepard