Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The death of G4, and how to make a successful gaming TV channel

Last week, it was announced that videogame television channel G4 will be rebranded as the Esquire Channel in 2013. It's a loss for videogames--as the biggest industry in entertainment today, how could a videogame TV channel fail?

When discussing television channels devoted to a specific medium, many people point out that MTV doesn't exactly play music anymore. But MTV had a solid decade or so of music programming, and even today features a number of sister channels that actually play music videos.

G4's Attack of the Show

There seems to be an untapped TV market for videogames. In the future, how could a videogame channel succeed?

A common suggestion is to model a games channel more after ESPN than MTV, and feature competitive gaming. Games like League of Legends and Street Fighter have thriving competitive communities full of professional gamers, and tournaments for these titles are televised online and watched by millions. In South Korea, entire TV channels are dedicated to StarCraft. So why can't a gaming TV channel in the United States consist of televised eSports?

While a limited amount of competitive programming might do well, the unfortunate reality is that most competitive games are not that fun to watch for the casual observer. Often, what's going on onscreen is incredibly hard to comprehend for people who aren't hardcore fans of that genre. I consider myself a fairly "hardcore" game enthusiast, but even I have trouble understanding or enjoying this half-hour-long video of a StarCraft II tournament match, which has nearly a million views on YouTube:

This would be a giant failure for a television channel aimed at gaming culture as a whole.

What would I like to see from a videogame channel? Well, a lot of the potential television programming is already being made... online. Most major game websites like IGN and GameSpot produce a significant number of video previews and reviews, and weekly gaming video series like Zero Punctuation and Extra Credits are very popular.

If a game TV channel could get the rights to some of these shows, as well as produce IGN-style previews and reviews, it'd be great. Throw in commercials consisting of game trailers, and there's a significant amount of your programming right there.

G4 has tried some of this before. They've done a fair number of reviews, but in aiming towards general audiences and feed the PR machine, the games covered and review scores given tended to be fairly trite and predictable. An ideal game channel doesn't need to be "niche," but it should treat its viewers as intelligent consumers and assume they already have some working knowledge of videogames. GameSpot and IGN hit a competent balance of reaching a general gaming audience and still providing relatively deep insight.

Despite all this, G4 has done some things right. Their in-depth E3 coverage every year was fairly solid, and their Top 100 Games countdown had a nice VH1-style quality to it, with both game designers and prominent comedians hired to talk about the games.

The most notable programming on G4 was its gaming culture variety shows, Attack of the Show! and X-Play. They were aimed squarely at the Mountain Dew & Doritos crowd, if you know what I mean.

Neither show really attempted serious journalism. Look at their choice of hosts: it's pretty clear how you're trying to market your show when one of your female hosts is a former Playmate of the Year and one of your male hosts is... this guy.

Sexism in the gaming industry is a sticky subject. It's obvious these hosts were chosen to appeal to the young nerdy male demographic. But I have nothing against either Sara Underwood or Matt Mira individually--it's their inclusion together that makes the inconsistency palpable.

It's superficial to choose attractive people for your TV broadcast, but at the end of the day, most of us would rather watch pretty people than ugly people. Choosing someone like Sara Underwood or Candace Bailey makes sense--you could complain that they're chosen solely for their looks, not their gaming knowledge, but that's what writers are for. And for what it's worth, both these hosts were competent when talking about games.

On the other end of the spectrum, it makes sense to hire someone like Matt Mira: awkward and geeky, clearly knowledgeable about the topic at hand. But why give male viewers attractive hosts to look at, while female viewers get some chubby guy in glasses? It reeks of G4's quest to solely gain the attention of teenage boys.

This gives in to classic stereotypes about Who Plays Games. We'll never expand as an industry if we keep going after 14-year-old boys. Research by the Entertainment Software Association indicates that women make up 47% of the gaming population, and this number increases every year. Female gamers are a demographic that a new gaming channel can't ignore.

It's obvious you shouldn't choose supermodel female hosts and dorky male hosts. You should choose either supermodel male and female hosts, or dorky male and female hosts. Inconsistency in this regard is what gives in to the existing sexism in the industry. And really, I'm sure we can find hosts of both genders who are knowledgeable about games and sexy.

In conclusion, this is what I'd like to see out of a successful videogame television channel:

  • Video previews and reviews that are accessible to general gaming crowds, but with some journalistic integrity
  • Competitive gaming--in small amounts. Maybe air the Grand Finales of a few major competitive games.
  • License some of the most popular gaming internet TV series, like Yahtzee Croshaw's brilliant Zero Punctuation.
  • More original programming featuring people who are both smart and attractive.

What would you like to see out of a gaming TV channel?

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