The Game Awards: Geoff Keighley talks fandom, borrowing from Britney, and growing the show

By Dave Tach, Contributor

It’s not like Geoff Keighley—the charismatic public face and driving force behind the The Game Awards—doesn’t hear the criticism about being part-host, part-fan, part-video game industry champion.

The Game Awards is billed as a celebration of the best of the best in the video game industry. Complete with orchestral performances, celebrity presenters, and shiny Art Deco-inspired trophies for the winners (in categories ranging from Best Narrative to Innovation in Accessibility to Game of the Year), The Game Awards is effectively the Academy Awards for video games. It’s where the year’s best games are selected, weighed, measured, and lauded.

In another sense, The Game Awards are a hype show for the industry as a whole. Awards are juxtaposed with a steady stream of exclusive reveals of and trailers for future games, big and small. But unlike E3 and its press conferences, The Game Awards isn’t run by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the lobbying arm of the industry tasked with advocating on behalf of games and those who make them.

Instead, Geoff Keighley stands at the center. Keighley is an independent entity, simultaneously a stand-in for passionate gamers, a champion of the industry, and someone who works closely with the people in the industry that The Game Awards de facto promotes.

That’s a nuanced position that all-but-invites criticism, and being neither shill nor superfan is something that Keighley thinks about a lot—including this year, as he spent (by his own estimate) six or seven months working on The Game Awards 2023, which streams live on December 7.
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“It’s a constant balance,” said Keighley. “Sometimes there’s the perception that our show is too commercial, and I get that. But we’re an independent show, meaning that we don’t make money selling games. If I’m a first-party platform doing a livestream event, it’s a marketing expense to make an event. We don’t have that luxury, so we need sponsors to make the show. Luckily, sponsorships have improved over the years as more partners come to the table and really want to understand this audience.”

The audience he’s referring to consists of millions of concurrent The Game Awards viewers who tune in every year for the hours-long end-of-year event.

“I feel the pressure every year,” said Keighley. “It never gets easier.”

But Keighley never utters a word of complaint during my time with him, though he acknowledges that the success of The Game Awards, Summer Game Fest, and hosting Gamescom’s Opening Night Live monopolizes his time. As much as he’d love to, he probably won’t be making a documentary film any time soon.

Instead, he focuses on the opportunities afforded to him and how he can share them with video games fans like him.

“We are pretty heavily involved in the creative around game announcements and trailers in our show,” Keighley said, “and the fans may not realize that. Even when we get pitched a CG trailer, we often say, ‘Great, but can you add some gameplay at the end for the fans?’ It’s little things like that, where we try to help shape the creative, while also respecting the state of development on games.”

In Keighley’s mind, he’s not really even a host. He’s more like a guide, leading the audience through the work that he and his team have done.

“Because I’ve spent all year working on the show, the authenticity of that relationship with the audience is part of why I think the format works,” said Keighley. He’s been working on that authenticity for a decade now, as The Game Awards celebrates its 10th anniversary.

Before The Game Awards, Keighley hosted the Video Game Awards on Spike (rebranded as VGX in 2013 for what became its final incarnation). The VGAs had become increasingly difficult to make, and Keighley thought about calling it quits entirely. But it was a conversation with Sam Hauser, Co-Founder and President of Rockstar Games—whose Grand Theft Auto 5 had just won Game of the Year at the final VGX—that changed Keighley’s mind.

“Sam told me how important it was that I kept pushing forward with this idea of a show to celebrate our industry at the same level as any other form of entertainment,” Keighley said. “That really meant a lot to me, and gave me the conviction to go off and build something new. PlayStation was a real early believer too, as was Reggie over at Nintendo. I mean, I just kept thinking, we can’t have a year where there isn’t a big, proper celebration for the medium. Gaming was growing, not shrinking, so our celebration needed to grow too. And be more global.”

Infused with a sense that he was doing more than just hosting a show, he started planning an event of his own. That first year was difficult, according to Keighley, and it came together in only six weeks or so.

“We couldn’t afford a set,” Keighley said, “but Britney Spears was willing to loan us her Piece of Me stage in Vegas—we took out the fire ring but all the lights and screens were hers. That allowed us to make a show that felt much bigger than it really was.”

He also credits PlayStation as “hugely supportive” in the earliest days. “They hosted a PlayStation Experience event in Vegas alongside the show, which helped draw fans to our show and Vegas. You have to remember, we were doing this show all on our own, without any media partner or funding source. It was a crazy leap.”

But it’s a leap that paid off. Thinking back on the last decade of shows, Keighley is particularly proud of how much The Game Awards has matured and the obstacles that he and his “truly incredible production team behind the scenes” have overcome. “We always wanted to have an orchestra on the show, but we couldn’t afford it the first three years,” he said. “Then in 2017, we added the orchestra. It really helped elevate the celebration. The Game of the Year tribute has become a signature moment in our show.”
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And, of course, there was 2020 when planning even small family gatherings was fraught, let alone an awards show streamed to a global audience.

“I’m incredibly proud of our team and how we’ve adapted over the years—and never had to miss a show, even in the pandemic,” said Keighley. “2020 was insanely tough. The show happened two days after the second lockdown in LA. There was a satellite truck parked outside my house in LA, in case I had to host the show from home. That was a really scary year for all of us, but our team managed to make it happen!”

It’s a constant evolution, and he’s still working on and growing the show. So what has Keighley worked on this year? Well, to start, he’s hoping for a greater international feeling because of his travels.

“This year, I was finally able to travel around the world post-COVID to visit teams and developers, especially in Europe and Japan. I think you’ll see that reflected in the show—we have some incredible things coming to us from teams all around the world. I actually hadn’t been in Japan since before the pandemic, and was really delighted to see how much the show resonates with developers and audiences over there.”

An intriguing new focus this year is introducing viewers—gamers, in other words—to things they may not otherwise be aware of. “It’s going to be a special year, and a chance to showcase a lot of new games—including new worlds and new IP too, not just mega-franchises and blockbuster sequels,” said Keighley. “Part of the role of [The Game Awards] is to help fans discover new games and new teams. We know a lot of people will tune in, so how do we pay it forward and give the stage to new teams, too?”

That’s Geoff Keighley’s unique position, in every sense of the word. He’s a man who’s not just a host, not just a guide, not just a fan, not just an industry spokesperson, but really a light dusting of everything. And he’s well aware of that and willing to take up the mantle for everyone involved.

“I recognize [The Game Awards] is a special night for everyone who loves games, and we are working as hard as we can to make everyone proud to be a part of this industry.”

The Game Awards 2023 will be livestreamed on Dec. 7 at 7:30 PM ET. You can watch it on more than 40 platforms, including Facebook, Instagram Live, Steam, TikTok Live, Twitch, X (formerly Twitter), and YouTube.