Arriving approximately three years too late, with reality stars you’re likely unfamiliar with, CBS’s live-action Candy Crush game show is a fascinating failure. The premiere, which aired last Sunday with host Mario Lopez and former cast members of Survivor and Big Brother as contestants, is pretty much what it sounds like. Teams of two play increasingly elaborate versions of the hit mobile game from developer King — trading smartphones for touchscreens the size of sports club bouldering walls — in the hopes that slapstick antics and goofy personalities can somehow make a match-3 game feel competitive and interesting to watch.
As entertainment, Candy Crush is an unmitigated train wreck that’s banking on the lasting popularity of its lead-in, Big Brother, to drive Sunday night viewership. So who cares? A lot of bad game shows get made, somehow gain popularity, and stick around for far too long (or fail and are promptly canceled). What makes Candy Crush interesting — a lesson for future TV programs — is how it aspires to bridge gaming culture and mainstream culture. What the show gets right and wrong, as CBS tries to walk that fine line in the search for younger viewers, is more thought-provoking than a thousand hours of Mario Lopez one-liners.
In 2017, CBS is just one of many corporations and traditional sports teams investing in the billion-dollar e-sports industry. Mainstream adoption also hasn’t slowed the growth of game-streaming platform Twitch, which Amazon bought for nearly $1 billion in 2014 and where a sizable chunk of this gaming-centric content is streamed live through a browser window direct to viewers.
In that context, CBS’s Candy Crush lives in the murky middle ground between the rapid popularity of watching games streamed online and the eagerness of traditional media companies trying to capitalize on something they only barely understand. Traditional media is still trying to navigate the landscape of online video, unsure of where its territory ends and the realm of YouTubers, Twitch streamers, and seemingly arcane subcultures begin.
It’s easy to imagine the boardroom logic that led to Candy Crush the TV show: millions of people, especially millennials, like to watch other people play video games. At the same time, the concept is still puzzling — if not repulsive — to many network TV viewers, especially those who’ve never heard of Twitch, let alone owned a game console. And so, we have a show designed to appease both, and ultimately failing as a video game stream and traditional game show entertainment simultaneously.
Even if CBS had carefully targeted fans of video game streaming, it’s unclear what a better video game-inspired program might look like. For young viewers, the kind CBS wants to entice with a Sunday night game show, video games are as much a spectator sport as they are a hobby, lifestyle, and pastime. Game streaming, which is more accessible than e-sports, is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week on Twitch and elsewhere for every popular game on the market.
It’s entertainment in a context that makes absolutely no sense to standard TV viewers or execs. It can be digested intently on a big screen, or in the background of a browser window. The way game streaming integrates into a viewer’s life is ever-changing. It’s dictated not by suits at a network, TV schedules, or even by the platform owners, but by viewers and streamers (often one in the same) in an ongoing dance of expectations around how this content should be created, consumed, and marketed.
That is to say game streaming may be too abundant, available, and creatively fluid to live on network television, where it would be subject to slow development time tables, rigid broadcast slots, and minimal interactivity beyond the occasional hashtag campaign.
What’s notable about the product that’s available is just how far it misses the target. Executives at CBS appear to understand the appeal of video games, to an extent. And yet the network still developed a show around Candy Crush, a game that came out five years ago, has long since peaked, isn’t known for its streaming community, and features gameplay that’s barely more interesting than Solitaire. Without compelling gameplay, the show’s creators have decided to complicate the experience with gimmicks and reality stars. Contestants scramble to match colored candies while floating in the air with a harness, riding a makeshift crane and using a giant pole, and while fastened to a teammate with a rigid candy cane in between.
Beyond these physical challenges, there is nothing interesting about watching the actual game being played. Candy Crush has no deeper strategy for contestants to employ or a narrative for viewers to digest. What makes Candy Crush work as a game is the varying levels of passivity and concentration you can sink into it. You can grind your way through levels with intense focus and addictive vigor, or by guilty spending real money on in-app purchases, or you can idly stare at your smartphone for 30 seconds on the subway. Flattening something that discretely dynamic into a chintzy game show completely misunderstands why people watch video games at all, which is mostly to marvel at the unbridled excellence of a pro or to sink into the antics and narration of an entertainer.
The value CBS is most suited to provide is completely absent on Candy Crush. If people want to watch someone play a video game, they’ll go to Twitch.tv. What they can’t get there, and what CBS is equipped to deliver, is professional commentary, carefully edited packages, and human-interest stories.
Of course, nobody should expect CBS to greenlight a competitive Call of Duty game show, or host a League of Legends tournament. The network is smart enough to realize that most of its viewers are casual gamers at best, and largely unfamiliar with the broader gaming culture. That Candy Crush was the only sensible pick then is telling: it shows that the gap between a massively influential online audience and the broader mainstream TV one CBS knows it can reach is larger than it seems. Traditional media’s struggle to adapt to that online universe means that it might take something much bolder than giant touchscreens and Mario Lopez to bridge those audiences.
Perhaps it’s a fruitless exercise, and CBS is chasing an audience that will never be theirs, no matter how hard it tries. Candy Crush may have notched impressive premiere numbers, with 4.1 million viewers who stuck around after Big Brother 19. But it’ll be interesting to see how many stick around next week. The more pressing problem for CBS is that, pending something more audacious and creative than Candy Crush, watching people play video games is best enjoyed anywhere but network television.