Inside Geoff Keighley's Ever-Growing Game Awards: 'I Took a Lot of Arrows in my Back'

Inside Geoff Keighley's Ever-Growing Game Awards: 'I Took a Lot of Arrows in my Back'

In one form or another, Geoff Keighley has been involved in the games media since he was 12. Image: Glixel/Photo: Jill Greenberg

The former Spike TV presenter wants nothing less than to create an Oscars for video games and he's well on his way

The former Spike TV presenter wants nothing less than to create an Oscars for video games and he's well on his way

Anyone who's followed video games for a while has probably developed an opinion on Geoff Keighley. To most, he's simply the guy who used to host the Spike TV Video Game Awards, a show whose pandering, tone-deaf production alienated its audience as often as not. To others, he's the dude from that Doritos meme, the "sell-out" who represents everything wrong with enthusiast journalism. Longtime gamers might even remember Keighley from his stint as a host on the now-defunct cable channel G4, or from his extensive work in print and online games journalism work over the years, or from one of his many, many other hosting gigs. But Keighley himself wants to be remembered for one thing: The Game Awards, which air live on Dec. 1st on pretty much every streaming platform imaginable. Unlike the awards shows he's been involved in previously – which were backed by the likes of Spike TV and G4 – The Game Awards are all Keighley. He put his own money down, and pounded the pavement to get all the moving parts, from sponsors to talent, in place.

"I don't think a lot about the past. That stuff feels so long ago now," Keighley tells Glixel. "There will always be the Doritos and the Mountain Dew memes and jokes, but hopefully my legacy will be something like this… the show is a legacy that I hope will outlive even me."

Keighley is at his shared office space in Playa Vista, CA, and he's calm despite the enormous pressure. There are a million things he needs to do: confirm that talent like Michael Phelps, Hideo Kojima and Run The Jewels are going to show up, solidify deals with big gaming companies as well as non-gaming sponsors like 20th Century Fox and Schick Hydro, check and re-check the various trailers and premieres that will play in Los Angeles's Microsoft Theater on Dec. 1st. Keighley leads a team of hundreds from all corners of the gaming and entertainment industries, and busy-looking people bustle past the glass meeting room walls.

The first Game Awards in 2014 drew nearly two million viewers, according to Keighley, while the second had around seven million in 2015. With the Game Awards 2016 airing on more platforms than ever (including Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, Steam, Twitch, YouTube, Snapchat, China's Tencent, virtual reality platform NextVR, and Twitter, where it will be the first award show broadcast live on that platform), Keighley's hoping that number will soar even higher.

"I think a lot of people are like 'Oh, well, does it get easier now?' and it's like no, three years in, a week away from the show, and we're still sweating," Keighley says. "It's still me taking a massive risk every year on it."

Keighley's self-declared mission is to give video games an award show every bit as important as the Oscars or the Emmys. He wasn't always on this path – he was planning to go to law school but decided to focus on games journalism full-time in 2001. Before that, he'd been writing about games in print media for almost a decade, starting his career at 12 years old, like a video game Cameron Crowe, when an editor at Computer Games: Strategy Plus gave him a freelance job writing features based on his CompuServe message board posts.

"It's like that little New Yorker cartoon where it's like, no one on the internet knows you're a dog," Keighley said. "No one knew I was a 12-year-old kid."

His cover lasted until he started visiting game studios, like Doom developer Id Software. "My mother was sort of freaked out, because I said, 'Hey, I'm heading down to Texas to meet all these guys and write an article about them,'" Keighley says. "We flew down to Texas and stayed in this hotel and all of a sudden this guy shows up in a Ferrari. It was [Id co-founder] John Carmack. It was super weird."

Every year, it was kind of like, oh, here's the apology tour from Geoff...

Keighley worked on his first awards show in 1994, at age 15. His parents, who work in the Toronto film industry (his dad was involved in the creation of IMAX), had a family friend working on Cybermania '94 for TBS – very much a product of its time. Keighley joined to write the voiceovers for announcer William Shatner (the show was hosted by Leslie Nielsen and a young Jonathan Taylor Thomas).

"I was just blown away by the spectacle of the event and how cool it was to see my heroes of gaming up onstage," Keighley says. "It felt like the kind of thing that the gaming industry deserved – a big moment like that."

As his writing and hosting gigs grew both more numerous and more prestigious, Keighley was drawn inexorably back to the world of award shows. Around 2005, he found himself working on both G4's G-Phoria and Spike TV's Video Game Awards, sometimes simultaneously. He eventually settled at Spike, and became the face of the VGAs – for better or worse.

Spiked

"The thing I always tried to do was respect that, hey, here's a television network wanting to invest a bunch of money into the gaming space. No one else was really doing it at this level. They're not going to get it all right, but that's OK – maybe I can help shape it," Keighley says.

It's clear in retrospect that it was an uphill battle. Every year, the VGAs were marred by missteps gamers will never forget, like actor Zachary Levi getting graphically "teabagged" onstage for going long on his opening monologue (skip to about four minutes in), or actor Felicia Day and model Brooklyn Decker doing the "LittleBigPlanet 2 Cakeinator Challenge," which had nothing to do with LittleBigPlanet but did involve the women suggestively bobbing for cupcakes.

By those later years, Keighley had risen through the ranks at Spike to become not just the host and face of the show, but also producer, and he inevitably took the blame for anything that went awry.

"I took a lot of arrows in my back," Keighley says. "Every year, it was kind of like, oh, here's the apology tour from Geoff, and here's how they're going to fix it this year."

It wasn't all bad. Over the years, the VGAs became known for big game announcements, premieres and trailers, for which Keighley takes full credit. That aspect has also been criticized for drawing focus away from the awards themselves and making the show too commercial, but Keighley sees them as integral even today.

"I think that's necessary," he says. "When you take out the world premieres, what you end up with is the DICE or the GDC awards, which are great awards for the people in the room. But you know, when those stream online, it's thousands of people watching. We're trying to reach millions."

That aspiration has come at a cost to his reputation over the years. Keighley's fans point to projects like his Final Hours series – multimedia pieces that go in-depth on the game development process – as proof of his journalism chops. But his detractors have fuel as well, from every questionable thing that ever happened at the VGAs, to the infamous "Doritosgate" – a controversy born out of an out-of-context photo of an impassive Keighley sitting amongst bottles of Mountain Dew and bags of Doritos. It's not the sort of thing that would normally catalyze a fevered internet meltdown, but for Keighley, that's just life.

Kotaku described the antics at the messy 2011 VGAs as "puerile," "cringe-inducing," and "bizarre" and even fans have struggled to find anything good to say at times, with Reddit threads calling him out repeatedly.

"Geoff Keighley has been the face of a lot of questionable content," wrote a cautious fan on the Game Awards' announcement. "I don't hate the guy personally, but Geoff has always come off as a corporate shill ever since his G4 days," wrote a detractor.

Keighley insists that the haters don't get to him. "I get more excited about [The Game Awards] and the fact that I had the opportunity to build this, versus thinking about, you know, what's my Wikipedia page going to say about Doritogate or something," he says. And certainly that's the cost of situating yourself in the spotlight of an industry whose fans are this passionate. He wouldn't have lasted this long if he didn't have a thick skin.

The back-and-forth between Keighley and Spike TV – and between the gamers the show was supposed to be about, and the mainstream audience Spike wanted – manifested behind the scenes. One key point of friction: Spike always wanted to have celebrities onstage accepting awards alongside game developers.

"That was sort of where the industry was 10 years ago," Keighley says. "And of course, I would always say, 'No, people want to see [Bethesda's] Todd Howard up on stage – that's a big deal to gamers. But to the general mainstream viewer or television network executives, these people aren't household names. That was part of my plight always."

Keighley didn't always emerge victorious from those clashes, as in the case of the of the highly-anticipated Skyrim announcement at the 2010 VGAs. The reveal amounted to little more than a slow pan across a carved mural, set to a voiceover from actor Max von Sydow. "I had to call up Todd Howard and say 'Hey, you know, people at the network think this is really boring, this stone wall," he says. "[But] Todd Howard is an incredible creative. You would never say that to Christopher Nolan. I saw these people as heroes to me, and I was really proud to put their work on stage."

The final straw came when Spike condensed the VGAs in 2013 to the Video Game Experience, or VGX. Taking the show off TV and making it online-only wasn't necessarily the wrong move – Keighley himself made the same decision when he went independent the following year – but other issues rendered it a death knell for Spike's video game award shows.

"It was a forced transition and I think it showed," Keighley says. "The way my [contract with Spike] was working was either the video game awards were going to happen, or nothing was going to happen. But I couldn't go off and do anything else, so it was like, let's try it and figure out something."

By early 2014, he'd made the decision to leave Spike behind, shed the VGA "baggage," and start fresh with a blank slate and full creative control. The Game Awards was born.

The Game Awards Reborn

The simple name was no accident, despite its somewhat confusing similarity to the name of Spike's show. "I wanted it to be the one game awards," he says. "Some confusion was natural as I transitioned to building a new show – ultimately I knew it would take a few years for everyone to realize it was a different entity."

Keighley spent much of 2014 meeting with various game companies, promising himself he wouldn't do it if he couldn't get all the heavy-hitters on board. And it worked, largely because game developers and industry executives seem to trust Keighley.

"The Game Awards is one of the biggest events of the year: it is edgy and influential, and it keeps raising the bar for the industry," Hideo Kojima said in an e-mailed statement. "Geoff, being the person behind it, is without a doubt one of the people with the deepest love for videogames."

"I cannot think of anyone [besides Geoff] who could pull this off," said Aaron Greenberg, Microsoft's head of games marketing, over e-mail.

I saw these people as heroes to me, and I was really proud to put their work on stage.

After securing the blessings of the industry's biggest companies – and investing $1 million of his own money – the first Game Awards show in 2014 was a success. Its viewership nearly doubled that of Spike's VGX the year before. Things only improved when, in 2015, Keighley used that creative control to give a highly-publicized nod to Kojima. The creator had that year very publicly split with longtime publisher Konami, but was still under contract with the Japanese company, which forbade him from attending the ceremony to accept awards for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

Keighley stood onstage and called Konami out. "It's inconceivable to me that an artist like Hideo would not be allowed to come here and celebrate with his peers and his fellow teammates," Keighley said, as the crowd directed boos at Konami.

"I haven't talked much about that, but it was such a difficult time because he was going through a lot last year," Keighley says. He was shocked when he found out – just days before the show – that Konami wasn't going to allow Kojima to attend, and he felt he had to say something, despite the company being a sponsor. "The fact that he finished that game under those circumstances is just amazing. He was locked in a separate room on a different floor than his development team for the final six months of development. He couldn't even talk to them – he had to talk through someone else. That's how that game was finished."

This year, Kojima will attend, to receive the 2016 Industry Icon award. "Part of what kept me going this year," Keighley says, "was a belief that we had to be back on the same stage to give him his due and give him the award that he was robbed of last year."

When you talk to Keighley, you get the feeling that all the controversies and compromises – and the accusations of dumbing down and selling out – have been worth it, in the end.

"I still pinch myself when I realize the opportunity that we have to do it this way and make it for gamers," he says. "If you can make a difference in the lives of the people that have given all of us so much joy over the years, that's what this is really about."