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2020 was a frustrating year for many industries, but the events business suffered more than most.
With large in-person gatherings made virtually impossible due to the pandemic, the games industry was forced to rethink its events calendar in a year when its audiences boomed and the market scrambled to prepare for a pair of console launches.
The result was a mishmash of digital events from an army of media publishers, events companies, and game developers, stretching from May all the way to September. Although viewing figures were high, the consensus from most was that 2020’s events calendar was confusing and underwhelming compared to the physical E3, GDC and Gamescom shows of old.
Geoff Keighley, the host and producer behind some of the industry’s biggest events such as The Game Awards, looks back on 2020 with pride that he was able to put together the debut Summer Game Fest under what he called “the worst conditions possible”.
“When I reflect on last summer when people were like, ‘it’s been so messy’… the world was a mess. It was so hard to do anything, to the point where the fact that companies were able to ship consoles and games is incredible,” he told VGC.
“We were all pretty frustrated about the state of the world last year, in our lives and what was going on. We had to create Summer Game Fest in the worst conditions possible, in terms of trying to build an event, and I was super proud that something was able to come together.”
This year, Keighley’s acknowledging the feedback to 2020’s widespread events schedule with a condensed Summer Games Fest 2021, which is holding its own dedicated Kick Off Live showcase on June 10 with “more than a dozen” of the kind of world premieres he’s become associated with.
“So the big news is that a lot of the big games will be coming together into a big live showcase, similar to The Game Awards or Gamecom: Opening Night Live, with a bunch of games, live music and things like that to really kick off the summer.
“That’s something that’s new, whereas last year it was spread out and there were one-off events on singular games, but now you’ll have 20 or 30 games together in this one big show. So hopefully that will answer the request from fans!”
He added: “Most of the companies will be involved in the Kick Off show with some content. Some of them will have their own events and will save some of their big announcements for those.
“We’ll have a Kick Off show, then we’ll have individual events like Ubisoft Forward which is announced for Saturday, June 12 as part of Summer Game Fest and I think it’s also part of E3. But it’s ultimately Ubisoft’s event and E3 and Summer Game Fest are co-streaming the event.”
VGC spoke to Keighley via video call about Summer Game Fest and the future of the industry’s events calendar.
What can you tell us about your plans for Summer Game Fest 2021?
We’re excited to be doing Summer Game Fest again and build on last year, where everything was created in the middle of a pandemic. The feedback from fans was that they wanted everything to be more condensed and together. Last summer was lengthy, with a lot of different events, and this summer we’re excited that we’ll have a big Kick Off show that we’re doing on June 10.
So the big news is that a lot of the big games will be coming together into a big live showcase, similar to The Game Awards or Gamecom: Opening Night Live, with a bunch of games, live music and things like that to really kick off the summer. That’s something that’s new, whereas last year it was spread out and there were one-off events on singular games, but now you’ll have 20 or 30 games together in this one big show. So hopefully that will answer the request from fans!
It’s the worst time in modern history to be in the events business, but you seem to have had a decent year with The Game Awards, Gamecom: Opening Night Live, and now Summer Game Fest?
Yeah, we’ve been lucky that all of my events are digital-led events. Yes, The Game Awards usually has 5,000 people in the audience, but we’ve really always focused on the global, digital aspect in all of the things that I’ve done, so it’s been easier for us to transition into this digital world. One of the things that I’m really excited about with Summer Game Fest is that it was birthed as a purely digital event, and we’re not a physical event trying to transition to something digital.
And yeah, we’ve had success building these live streamed events that everybody co-streams and watches together. The business model was really about delivering news direct to fans: there are no badges, or sign-ups or booths or anything like that, it’s really just like cool trailers, news announcements and playable stuff.
So yeah, we’ve been blessed that things have worked out the way that they have. We haven’t really had to change our strategy. Last year with The Game Awards, for six months everybody was like, ‘how are you going to do the show? Is it going to happen?’ and we ended up doing a different show, but it had double the audience compared to the year before.
You know this: fans just want the news and they don’t necessarily require it to be in a certain format or approach, and I’m really excited that we can be truly global. That something that I’ve learnt from The Game Awards, to just really think of the world.
And with this show, Summer Game Fest… sure we’re doing it from Los Angeles, but people from India and China will participate and be a part of it. I think that’s one of the things the digital events are trying to figure out now: how do you go truly global with something that used to be about buying a ticket and standing in line to play games?
And I’m not sure even post-pandemic how much of that is going to come back and in what form it will come back. I think that’s one of those things that fundamentally is just a shift, right? People will continue to work from home after the pandemic and I think the same thing is going to happen with physical events: they’re going to have to think of a new digital approach.
Physical events such as E3 or PAX have seemingly found it more difficult to adapt to digital. Obviously, E3 has its own digital event in June, but last year it cancelled plans at the last minute. Do you put your comparative success down to the fact that you were coming from a digital-first approach already?
Yeah. I acquaint it a bit to when I used to work at MTV and Viacom, when we used to work on the Video Game Awards that was more of a traditional television show, right? It was very focused on the domestic TV ratings, but when I birthed The Game Awards I was like, ‘no, we’re going to go fully digital, we’re not going to focus on television at all’.
That was a hard transition for me and the same issues that TV companies are having now with streaming platforms I think are the same issues that event companies are having, trying to think up a digital approach. I love physical events and eventually, Summer Game Fest could have a physical component to it, but it’s a digital-first event that we would add a physical event to, whereas for a lot of these other companies it’s just such a pivot and really hard to do.
ReedPop, E3 and all these other companies are, I think, really trying to figure out how to reinvent themselves for this digital world. It’s just so hard because sometimes you have so much momentum around the old way of doing things in the old structure. We used to sell booths, tickets and hotel rooms and it’s just such a different approach.
And the other thing going on in the background obviously is that a lot of these game companies are very good at talking directly to their fans digitally as well. And I think that’s part of the thing that we all need to think about: how do we add value? With something like The Game Awards, we have to be as big as we are to make sense for the games companies to be there because otherwise, they can talk directly to their fans, right?
So this year, with all the stuff about what’s happening with E3 and Summer Games Fest, at the end of the day a lot of these companies are very effective at announcing an event and then millions of people showing up the next day. Nintendo announces a Direct with 24 hours’ notice, and everyone shows up. That’s a thing I think we all face: how do we add value? And I think traditional events companies are thinking about that too.
“I think sometimes we always want to see big, new blockbusters and 14 new CGI trailers for upcoming, story-driven games – and there will be some of that, but I also think some people want updates on their favourite games.”
Kick Off Live is going to be your third annual tentpole games showcase, alongside The Game Awards and Gamescom: Opening Night Live. Has the success of the latter two made it easier to earn the backing of major games publishers, in terms of securing content?
I think so. I’ve been at it for 20 or 30 years, so it’s a lot of the same people. But the fact that we’ve had success with Gamescom and The Game Awards allowed us to build Summer Game Fest. And really, when Summer Game Fest was birthed last year, a lot of the game companies came to me and asked if I could help organise something in the summertime.
Because I think everybody does believe in the idea of the entire industry coming together and uniting, and as we’ve seen E3 has had its challenges getting all the games companies aligned around an approach.
For me, it was really important to get everybody involved, including PlayStation, Activision, EA and all these other companies. I build all of my events in partnership with the publishers and this was really them reaching out and saying, ‘hey, we think there’s an opportunity to do what you’ve done at other points of the year in June’. I wasn’t really looking to make another big show, but it turned out that’s what we’re going to end up doing!
In every quarter we have a big moment for the industry, with everyone coming together, and the thing that I’m really proud of with Summer Game Fest this year is that a lot of the live service games will be participating. The industry is evolving and I’m really excited to have the live service games involved in what we’re doing.
I think sometimes we always want to see big, new blockbusters and 14 new CGI trailers for upcoming, story-driven games – and there will be some of that, but I also think some people want updates on their favourite games. I think back to The Game Awards and the new map for Among Us was probably one of the biggest things we had.
The industry is evolving so I’m always aware of trying to get all of the companies involved and not just the traditional brick and mortar publishers, but the evolving landscape of live service games too.
Your announcement lists a lot of companies such as Sony and Activision who are not participating in E3 this year. Could you give us a sense of how many of these companies are providing content for your Kick Off show, versus just running their own streams, and if so why that might appeal to them more than E3’s model?
I know to fans it’s probably a little confusing, because it’s like, ‘what’s E3 and what’s Summer Game Fest?’ And the way I’d think of it is that none of the companies that are part of Summer Game Fest are exclusively part of Summer Game Fest: people can do what they want to do.
Most of the companies will be involved in the Kick Off show with some content. Some of them will have their own events and will save some of their big announcements for those. We’ll have a Kick Off show, then we’ll have individual events like Ubisoft Forward which is announced for Saturday, June 12 as part of Summer Game Fest and I think it’s also part of E3. But it’s ultimately Ubisoft’s event and E3 and Summer Game Fest are co-streaming the event.
I think you’ll find that some publishers are planning their own events but I don’t think there are as many standalone events as people might think. I don’t think it’s the case that like 30 companies are planning to hold their own Directs. I would say to fans that the middle of June will be pretty good for game announcements: all of this stuff is free to watch and you can move between channels.
Sometimes people want to paint it as this battle between all these events and everything, but they’re free streams and you can watch wherever you want to watch. But yeah, there are definitely a lot of companies involved and they’re excited to be a part of it. I don’t know why or why not people are not doing E3… you’d have to ask them that question.
“I know to fans it’s probably a little confusing, because it’s like, ‘what’s E3 and what’s Summer Game Fest?’ And the way I’d think of it is that none of the companies that are part of Summer Game Fest are exclusively part of Summer Game Fest: people can do what they want to do.”
But I think the general sense is that I wanted to get everyone together, share information and be a part of something and I’m super proud that we have almost every company in the industry communicating to fans during that period. And to your point, some people will just have announcements in the Kick Off show because they’re not doing an event, some people will have their own standalone event, and others may bridge and do both.
So it’s a little bit of everyone having their own approach and embracing that, versus people having to fit a square peg into, ‘this is exactly how you have to do an event’. That’s why I’ll be as curious as anyone to find out what E3 is, what the format is and how they’re approaching it.
So it sounds like some of the content E3 is claiming to have will be co-streams of publisher shows you’ll also have?
I don’t fully know their plans but certainly, I think there will be events that are part of both E3 and Summer Game Fest. There haven’t been a ton of events announced, but Ubisoft Forward is probably the best example, because that’s part of E3 and also Summer Game Fest. Really, it’s the publisher’s event that they’re running.
The Kick Off show is obviously not part of E3 and that will be held on the 10th. That’s where it all starts, but we’re also in an environment where things will be announced in May or July. Sometimes fans want three days where everything is focused inside of that, and that’s just not how the world works anymore.
But yeah, I would say our Kick Off event is the big moment where everything starts and then yes, there will be events that run through the next week that will be part of multiple shows and I’m fine with that. They’re going to be their own events. Ubisoft Forward is called ‘Ubisoft Forward’, it’s their own event distributed to fans directly.
E3 may have their own bespoke content as well, I’m not really sure, but we certainly have a lot of big announcements that will be part of the Summer Games Fest. Also, it might be a case that on the 10th something gets announced and then they show more content as part of E3 or another show later, right?
I know people are wondering which is E3 and which is Summer Game Fest. It’s so complicated right now and I don’t envy fans trying to understand all of this stuff, but for us it’s just: think of Summer Game Fest as a show this year on June 10 with a lot of content, and then supporting publisher events in the days after that. We’re not trying to do a week-long live stream with tons of interviews or anything like that. We have a show, and then publishers are going to continue with their own shows after that.
With your events, you’ve basically become synonymous with big game announcements. With the pandemic still affecting game companies around the world, how excited should fans be for the calibre of exclusives you’ll have this year?
That’s a great question because Covid-19 has definitely impacted the industry and I think even more so this year than last year in terms of content. What I hear from developers increasingly is that the games last year that were almost done were able to be finished from home, but for some of the games that were early-to-mid in production, the productivity has really slowed down.
Overall, I think it’s going to be a good year for games, but I think we’ve already seen that it’s been a bit of a lighter year for releases. For the back half of the year, we know that there will be Call of Duty, Battlefield, Horizon and Halo, so there will be some big games coming out.
What I would say is that, overall, I think there are going to be some big announcements and some long-awaited things that will be a part of June. I think there are going to be some good games that we’ll get to see, but I would also manage expectations that things have been delayed. I know fans want to go back to the full-on, E3 onslaught of true insanity, and I think there will be good things, but I do think it’s going to take a little while for things to ramp up.
The good news is that I think the world is coming back online and as we get to Gamescom and The Game Awards I think there will be even more stuff, but yeah, I think people have to be somewhat cautious with their expectations, just because games have just been delayed. We have things that we were going to announce at last year’s Game Awards that we’ve moved a whole year so that they’re ready to share stuff.
It’s better than last year’s summer I think because people can plan against it, but people have to be somewhat cautious with their expectations because it’s been so hard to make games. When I reflect on last summer when people were like, ‘it’s been so messy’… the world was a mess. It was so hard to do anything, to the point where the fact that companies were able to ship consoles and games is incredible.
“I think people have to be somewhat cautious with their expectations, just because games have just been delayed. We have things that we were going to announce at last year’s Game Awards that we’ve moved a whole year so that they’re ready to share stuff.”
We were all pretty frustrated about the state of the world last year, in our lives and what was going on. We had to create Summer Game Fest in the worst conditions possible, in terms of trying to build an event, and I was super proud that something was able to come together.
So sometimes when people talk to me about that, and they’re like, ‘oh, why did you do it that way?’ That was the only way to do it last year: it’s not like we were working in perfect conditions. Also, we’re learning as we go, and I’ve learned this from a lot of the great game companies like Valve is the power of iteration. You’ve just got to start doing things, then learn and build.
So with this year’s Summer Game Fest we’re building on what we did last year and we’ll build again next year. It’s not going to be perfect, but I’ve been doing The Game Awards for the best part of a decade and it takes a long time to figure out how to build these things, especially in a world of constant change.
I definitely think fans should be excited about the summer, but also realistic with their expectations. But that’s never going to happen! (laughs)
Before the pandemic, you quit E3 2020 due to a disagreement over The ESA‘s plans. After years of supporting E3 with Colesium and other initiatives, does it feel weird to be essentially competing with it this year?
I’ve been to every E3 since 1995 and there’s no bigger fan of what E3 represents than me. It’s challenging for me, yeah, but I look at the game companies that are participating in E3 and the ones that aren’t, and for me, I love to do events where the entire industry is united together like The Game Awards. It just became clear to me over the years that wasn’t going to be able to happen with the format and structure of E3.
I think they’re really trying to evolve, but for me, I felt like there needed to be a new approach to events. This pre-dates Covid: I decided last February to not be involved in E3, before it was cancelled. Maybe in the future there will be a way to combine forces and bring everything together. I hope for a great E3 for the industry and a great Summer Game Fest. I think it’s one of those things where all boats rise if the industry has more attention and spotlight on it.
It’s an odd year. There’s no physical E3 anyway and I’m just as curious as you to understand what they’re really doing. I’m hopeful that it’s positive for the industry, because that’s a brand that means so much for folks. In some ways, I think our big Kick Off show is going to kick off a big summer that will lead into what’s hopefully a good E3. And we’re all gamers, so we’re going to watch everything, right? I’ll be tuning in.
I’ve had zero discussions with The ESA or E3 this year about teaming up or getting involved, but I’m always open to those conversations. And I’m also happy with our approach, which is really focused on consumers, streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube, and creating something that’s free and open to everyone.