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Geoff Keighley, gaming’s inescapable hypeman, on ‘the most expensive’ Game Awards yet

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Award shows only get weirder in a pandemic

Geoff Keighley speaks at the 2019 Game Awards in Los Angeles.
Photo by JC Olivera/Getty Images

Geoff Keighley doesn’t get enough sleep. It’s December, which means he’s averaging four or five hours on a good night. “One of the toughest things about [the Game Awards] is that I’m hosting it, and I’m also producing it,” he says. Sure, he’d probably be a better host with more rest, but there’s an added benefit to knowing the whole thing front to back. He could do this in his — ah, never mind.

This year, the 20-hour days leading up to the annual Game Awards on December 10th look a little different. Seating charts for an event of hundreds used to keep him up late, but now, group gatherings are a quaint concept. COVID-19 safety precautions have made the whole process a little stranger. “It’s obviously an evolving situation so we’re kind of staying on top of it — especially [in] Los Angeles now with some of the stay at home orders,” the Game Awards creator says.

Keighley has long played the role of the game industry’s rich uncle, a benevolent force with deep pockets and a genuine interest in giving the medium a bigger platform. He’s been endlessly interviewed and profiled for his work on creating the industry’s biggest awards show — a self-funded venture created from the ashes of the infamous Spike Video Game Awards, now pulling in more than 45 million streams, as of last year.

In the absence of events like E3, after an utterly exhausting year, the Game Awards — already online anyway, outside of a small industry presence in LA — remain largely unchanged. There will be celebrity cameos and musical performances. There will be exclusive game reveals. It is all in service of the same saccharine view of a complicated industry demonstrated in past years.

Gone is the red carpet and studio audience this year. Most appearances will take place over video calls. It’s not much different from the rest of life in 2020.

“Game Awards is kind of perfectly suited for the world we’re in now,” Keighley says. “In 2014, it was a crazy idea to do this streamed-only award show. And now everyone’s announcing a streaming service, and every movie’s going to streaming… We were kind of ahead of the curve in that way.”

That’s been a trend for Keighley this year in particular. He’d already made the choice to skip E3 back in early February, now an antiquated notion 10 months into COVID, when all major events for the year have been canceled.

“I was just like, oh, I guess I’m not really going to do anything for the year,” he says. He went to Europe for a few weeks of vacation and made plans to visit Valve in Bellevue, Washington, for a project on Half-Life: Alyx. By his return in March, COVID had begun to take root — particularly in Washington, where the US had its first confirmed case. He canceled his trip and opted for virtual interviews with Valve. He hasn’t left LA since, and conducts business over Zoom calls from a white-walled den with little in the way of decoration. Next door is the spare room he streams from, the now-familiar backdrop to events like the four-month long Summer Game Fest.

“Summer Game Fest grew out of, honestly, all the game companies coming to me,” Keighley says. E3 wasn’t happening, but developers still wanted to do something. Could he help them pull together an event?

“Normally I do E3 and I’m done,” he says, referring to himself as “the guy who does one big thing and then disappears.” This year, he’s been a larger presence than ever: “Oh, here’s Geoff doing another stream.”

His presence is one driven both by professional obligation and personal determination. “The first year of Game Awards, what petrified me was this sense that we’re not going to have an award show for our industry this year if we don’t do the Spike thing,” he says. “I was like, no, I have to create something.” The same goes for this summer and the vacuum of events created by that whole bothersome pandemic. “This is the year that new consoles are coming out... That’s huge. We can’t just kind of let that fall by the wayside.”

Despite the added pressure of COVID, the Game Awards this year will still be extended across three cities, albeit with more virtual components and safety precautions than anyone expected. “People are like, oh, you’re doing a virtual show, it’s gonna be super cheap this year,” he says of feedback he’s gotten. “No, actually it’s the most expensive Game Awards we’ve ever done ... It’s actually extraordinarily challenging, mentally and emotionally, to do it, but also just financially to just be able to deliver something.”

Unlike earlier 2020 events — the originally-in-March GDC, or even E3 in June — the Game Awards has had the benefit of time. “Initially I was like, oh, it’s good Game Awards isn’t until December, so we’ll be through all this and it’ll be back to normal then,” says Keighley. By May, the reality of COVID had set in. Keighley and his team knew there would be no in-person event this year and opted to not “be under the false pretenses that it’s all going to be fine.” Weeks ahead of the event, they’ve settled on three or four possible scenarios, he says, that they’ll be able to quickly pivot to depending on how things change. “Worst case, there’ll be a satellite truck at my house,” says Keighley.

He knows that most people just want to see game announcements, but they’ve still built a set. “We wanted to still have some spectacle to it. I think this industry deserves it, honestly... We’re going to do a full-on live show.”

Keighley has been isolating at home for the last few weeks. He hasn’t been to the set yet, and will arrive tonight, when the awards stream live. “You know where to find me if you need me.”