Audience figures for The Game Awards have grown year on year, with audience numbers peaking at 85 million at the last ceremony. But this year represents the smallest percentage increase yet, and you have to wonder when the ceremony will peak and what it can do from here.
In 2014, the opening ceremony attracted a relatively modest 1.9 million, followed by a small increase to 2.3 and then 3.8 million over the next two years. That is already double where it began, but it was the leap from 2016 to 2017 that marked TGA’s path for the first time. 3.8 million have almost quadrupled to 11.5 million. From then on, it practically doubled in the next three years compared to the previous year and rose from 11.5 to 26.2 to 45.2 to the 83 million TGA hit last year – particularly impressive since these 83 million viewers the virtual event that was essentially Geoff Keighley in an empty room interviewing people on Zoom.
This year again at the Microsoft Theater with live performances by Ben Schwartz, Ming-Na Wen, Giancarlo Esposito and Simu Liu as well as Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, Guillermo del Toro and Carrie-Anne Moss, who will join in via video and live performances by Imagine Dragons and Sting saw viewership increase slightly from 83 million to 85 million. Granted, that’s an addition to the total attendance of the first ceremony just seven years ago and a big sign of how far TGA has come, but it also marks a significant slowdown in the show’s rapid growth since 2017.
Of course, there are a few factors to consider here. While the pandemic restricted the 2020 ceremony, it did not have a major impact on the release cycle. In fact, 2020 is one of the strongest GOTY lineups in award history, with The Last of Us Part 2 defeating Hades, Ghost of Tsushima, Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Doom Eternal. Half-Life: Alyx, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, If Found…, Genshin Impact, Phasmophobia, Valorant, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and Microsoft Flight Simulator were also launched earlier this year and featured in several other categories.
This doesn’t apply to 2021. Of the six nominees for the most anticipated game at the 2020 ceremony, four (Elden Ring, God of War, Horizon and Breath of the Wild) are still not out and reappearing in the this year category . A fifth, Halo Infinite, started two weeks late to be nominated for anything but the Player’s Voice Award, despite winning it in the end. Resident Evil Village is the only game that made it, and while it was nominated for Game of the Year, I don’t think it would have had competition like The Last of Us Part 2, Hades, Ghost of Tsushima, Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Doom Eternal.
I don’t think 2021 was a great year for games. It’s good! We just had a global pandemic – and we still have it active – which postponed several games. It Takes Two was delightful and a worthy winner, especially since it is completely different from the gritty blockbusters that usually take home the Game of the Year – but the field has been weaker this year. The top 6 of 2021 do not match those of 2020 or those of 2018 that had God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, Spider-Man and Celeste in their ranks. In 2017, Horizon Zero Dawn, Persona 5, Super Mario Odyssey and PUBG were finally beaten by Breath of the Wild. Hellblade, Cuphead, Nier: Automata, and What Remains of Edith Finch weren’t even nominated, though all but Nier received minor awards. Not every year can be great – great means above average. It wasn’t this year for obvious reasons.
But is that all? TGA is known for looking both ahead and back, but has the balance gone too far? Several categories have been completely skipped, including quite notable trophies like Best RPG. The Artful Escape was nominated for three awards, but its name was never read. Best Debut Indie was completely skipped and announced as representatives from Kena set out to collect Best Indie, while Best Art Direction reeled off with another win for Deathloop. Score and music were read out, except not actually. The nominees flashed on the screen, but no one said the names, just the winner after a five-second pause for us to read them all. It Takes Two won three prizes, but Josef Fares, the most entertaining guest there, was only allowed on stage once. Who made this production decision?
Another blow to the future is that many games aren’t ready to show them off just yet. We have a teaser for Wonder Woman, a trailer for Sonic, gameplay for Suicide Squad, ‘gameplay’ that was clearly mostly cutscenes for Hellblade, a reveal for Nightingale and … was that it? A few little things here and there, but many of the world premieres were just new advertisements for games that we already knew everything about, or for smaller games that might be cool but won’t inspire us at a glance. While all trailers are essentially advertising, there were also a number of direct mails with no fuss this year. I understand the show is expensive and has to be profitable, but it felt like it went too far in this year, especially since the winners and nominees didn’t have the time.
Maybe over 80 million is just an upper limit. The Emmys, which were held in the same location, peaked at 21.8 million in 2000, and drew just 7.4 million that year. The Oscars, known to be “fucked” by Fares, peaked at 57.25 million in 1998 and declined steadily to 10.4 million when it was last awarded, the lowest level since 1974.
I’m not sure The Game Awards need to change. 85 million is a huge turnout, and next year it will support Halo Infinite, Elden Ring, God of War Ragnarok, Horizon Forbidden West, and some brave little indie games that get nominated in a number of categories but will ultimately lose a crisp triple -A game that evokes the exact items that already inspired Celeste and Hades. Aren’t games wonderful?
To you, The Game Awards. I don’t know if you’ll get better or worse or stay the same, but I’ll tune in next year so I guess you win.
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