USC Games previews The Game Awards

Experts say that “Baldur’s Gate 3” rules this year’s crop of video game excellence.

Megan Dang / Daily Trojan

Each year, thousands of entertainment lovers tune into a plethora of award shows to see their favorite medium honored. The GRAMMYs, Emmys and Oscars all take the country by storm, igniting both critical and audience debate.

To those who exist outside of the gaming sphere, The Game Awards, founded in 2014, may pale in comparison to these respected shows with decades of credibility and viewership under their belt. However, USC Games professor and lab research associate Sean Bouchard would disagree with that — and that’s because video games are more popular than ever before.

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“Whether you personally engage with them or not, they have a tremendous influence on a huge population that you are living around,” Bouchard said. “If you are not familiar with what’s going on in the world of games, this is a great opportunity to check in.”

Bouchard is just one of a slew of USC professionals and students excited to tune in when the show airs Dec. 7 at Los Angeles’ own Microsoft Theater. The Game Awards, though still somewhat small compared to other awards titans, garner a massive audience of game developers, content creators and gamers — including many of those involved in the USC Games program.

“The Game Awards gives people in the games community the chance to voice their opinions and show developers what people want to see in games and reward good development practices,” said Michael de Souza, a freshman majoring in game development and interactive design. “It’s really important to have stuff like that, and to make your voice heard and cast your vote.”

But these awards aren’t just for fans of the games — they can be a massive help for the game developers behind the scenes, too, USC Games adjunct assistant professor Kyle Ackerman explained.

“Award shows that are established have tremendous potential to … boost sales of games,” Ackerman said. “Obviously, that’s a terrific thing if you’re a developer with a popular game, but it also helps boost the reputation of the studio, which means people who work there in the studio themselves can get more work, make better games and do more things.”

This year’s show is just the 10th edition, and it combines awards with “world premiere” announcements of brand-new games. Ackerman noted how its relative infancy, as well as its commercial-friendly format, could come back to hurt its credibility.

“I think The Game Awards aren’t old enough for us to have a good sense of how established they are and how much they’re going to represent fan interests,” Ackerman said. “I know in the past, people got really excited to watch it as an award show. But we’re also disappointed that they felt that some of the awards reflected a more commercial interest than a fan interest.”

Martzi Campos, a professor and designer at USC’s Game Innovation Lab, similarly warned against taking the festivities too seriously.

“As with any awards ceremony, take it with a grain of salt,” Campos said. “This is advertising.”

The Game Awards’ voting system draws 90% of its votes from a small jury of professionals, but the larger community de Souza mentions casts the other 10% through an open online voting system. Everything centers around the central prize: “Game of the Year.”

If you ask Campos, the deserved winner of this year’s trophy is obvious.

“Boy howdy, do I love ‘Baldur’s Gate 3,’” Campos said.

Campos’s justification for her pick focused on the state of the industry at the time of release of Larian Studios’ latest title and the waves the game made, diverting expectations and raising standards.

“There was a lot of talk about games being multiplayer and always online, [so there was] a lot of push in the AAA games industry for games like that,” Campos said. “‘Baldur’s Gate’ is very much a solo experience — it has an end. I think in the industry that there was exhaustion with these live service games, and ‘Baldur’s Gate 3’ being the huge, unexpected success that it is really speaks to an interest in narrative and character-driven things.”

Ackerman echoed Campos’s decision, also singing praises for Larian Studios’ recent masterpiece.

“I think there’s no question from the perspective of video game fans, Game of the Year should be ‘Baldur’s Gate 3.’ It is so incredible,” Ackerman said. “They’ve done a lot of things that video games haven’t been doing in a long time.”

Despite the love for “Baldur’s Gate 3” from the professors, Ackerman also discussed the seeming rivalry for the top award between “Baldur’s Gate 3” and “Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.”

“Who will actually win? That’s another question. I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘Legend of Zelda’ [won]. But, I think while Nintendo fans would be thrilled to see the latest ‘Legend of Zelda’ game [win], I think the vast majority of fans would be disappointed that it’s not ‘Baldur’s Gate 3.’”

Bouchard mentioned “Tears of the Kingdom” as his own pick for Game of the Year, calling it an “incredible follow-up” to 2017 Game of the Year winner “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” Ackerman also took time to praise the narrative excellence of Alan Wake II — or as Bouchard described it, the “Twin Peaks video game I’ve always wanted.”

But “Game of The Year” is just one of the awards the show will hand out. Campos extolled the positive influence of this year’s frontrunner for “Best Adaptation,” HBO’s TV adaptation of the 2013 game “The Last of Us.”

“When ‘The Last of Us’ [aired], people started streaming playthroughs of ‘The Last of Us’ again. People were like, ‘What is this? I want to get ahead, I want to understand.’ They started going back to the games, playing the games — the people who I think normally wouldn’t — and it was fun to watch those reactions to an older game,” Campos said.

No matter which game takes home an award, this year’s show felt particularly momentous for de Souza from an inclusion standpoint — and a big reason why he decided to attend this year’s show in person.

“I’m glad with the progress that the industry is finally making, just in the diversity of genres and communities that are represented in this year’s Game Awards – I’m really, really happy to see that,” de Souza said.

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