The Game Awards Returns With Glitz and an Industry Asserting Its Muscle
LOS ANGELES — Wearing blazers and bedazzled dresses, downing cocktails, swapping industry gossip, and hobnobbing with some of Hollywood’s biggest names, the stars of America’s video game industry assembled on Thursday night for a long-delayed reunion at the Game Awards.
The lavish event was a victory lap of sorts for the video game community. While the movie industry has fretted over ticket sales and cannibalization by streaming services like Netflix, the video game industry has enjoyed tremendous growth during the pandemic. An estimated 2.9 billion people — more than one out of every three people on the planet — have played a video game this year, according to the video game analytics firm Newzoo.
Thursday’s awards were also a welcome opportunity for the industry to gather under the same roof, since last year’s event was held online because of the pandemic. Gaming luminaries arrived on the red carpet at the vast Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles, joined by celebrities better known for their work in other entertainment industries.
Sting, the rock music icon, was backed by an orchestra as he opened the show with a performance of the haunting song “What Could Have Been” from the Netflix series “Arcane,” which is based on the video game hit “League of Legends.” The hit band Imagine Dragons performed “Enemy,” another song featured in “Arcane.”
The rapper and comedian Lil Dicky told some jokes in a video spot. Paul George, a basketball star who plays for the local Clippers, towered above the crowd. And there were appearances — some in person and some via video — by the television and film stars Will Arnett, Ming-Na Wen, Jim Carrey and Keanu Reeves.
If you were picking up on a crossover theme, you would have been correct. And if you had the feeling that the Game Awards were a bit like some other very elaborate Los Angeles entertainment award events, you would also have been on the nose.
At the center of the gaming industry’s answer to the Oscars was Geoff Keighley, the video game and television personality who created and hosts the annual event and who tried, with seemingly endless reserves of energy and enthusiasm, to steer an increasingly antsy audience through more than three hours of awards presentations and trailers for upcoming games, interspersed with music from the orchestra.
The show began in 2014 and has attracted millions more eyeballs each year on YouTube and Twitch. Last year’s fully remote version garnered 83 million live streams, according to organizers, and Mr. Keighley said after Thursday’s show that he expected more people to have watched live this year, though preliminary numbers were not yet available.
The glee so evident on Mr. Keighley’s face stemmed from a simple reason: Finally, after nearly two years of Zoom calls and virtual hangouts, the industry was back together in the same room. “I missed it,” he said in an interview after the show.
Many among the mask-wearing, invitation-only crowd said they could not believe the event was really happening.
“It’s great, but a little overwhelming,” Hannah Kennedy, a Twitch streamer who goes by bnans, said in the crowded lobby after the show. “We’ve been in quarantine for so long, but it’s really nice to actually get to hang out with everyone again and see each other after two years.”
More than two dozen awards were handed out in categories like best action game and best art direction. The most prestigious title, game of the year, went to “It Takes Two,” a two-player puzzle adventure game developed by Hazelight Studios about a married couple navigating a divorce and journeying through a fantastical world.
Microsoft’s gaming division brought home a number of awards, with “Age of Empires IV” winning best strategy game, “Halo Infinite” winning a fan award called players’ voice, and “Forza Horizon 5,” a car-racing game, taking home three honors. “Deathloop,” a first-person shooting game developed by Arkane Studios, also won multiple awards.
The winners were determined by a vote of industry insiders and the general public.
For many watching, though, the awards were just a sideshow. The Game Awards is also used by the industry to introduce new game announcements and debut trailers for upcoming titles. If audience reaction is any indication, the fantasy game “Elden Ring” continues to be one of next year’s most hotly anticipated titles.
There has been an explosion in sales since the last time the video game world gathered. New game consoles from Microsoft and Sony have been in high demand and short supply. Game publishers like Electronic Arts and Riot Games have reported record revenues. And Roblox, an online game world popular with children, debuted on the stock exchange, topping a $45 billion valuation on its first day of trading.
The increased mainstream interest in online worlds has also been a validation for industry insiders and gamers that were using the term “metaverse” years before Mark Zuckerberg decided that Facebook was going to change its name to Meta. Even Mr. Carrey, appearing at the awards show on a prerecorded video, joked about it.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be there with you, but I look forward to meeting all of your avatars in the metaverse, where we can really get to know each other,” he said.
As the industry has grown, it has faced increasing challenges, none more pressing Thursday night than the treatment of its employees. A shadow was cast over the event by the scandal trailing Activision Blizzard — the game publisher that has been under fire for months following a lawsuit from California accusing it of fostering a workplace environment in which mistreatment and harassment of women was commonplace.
A handful of protesters stood with signs supporting Activision employees outside the theater Thursday evening, and Mr. Keighley faced pressure in the lead-up to the event to condemn the company.
He tweeted last week that Activision would not be a part of the awards show, and he opened the event by saying that “game creators need to be supported by the companies that employ them.”
“We should not, and will not, tolerate any abuse, harassment and predatory practices,” Mr. Keighley said, though he did not mention Activision by name. Rob Kostich, the president of Activision, is on the board of advisers for the Game Awards.
Before the event, Mr. Keighley said in an interview that he wanted to strike a balance between using his platform for good and maintaining the upbeat vibe of an awards show.
“Are we going to use our platform to take companies to task publicly inside the show? It’s always something worth thinking about,” he said, “but it’s not a referendum on the industry.”