“Mark has really floppy hands,” I think to myself as I watch Mark Fischbach—better known as Markiplier to his nearly seven million subscribers—conducts the crowd to rising and falling applause, a mass at the bottom of the Moody Theater in Downtown Austin, TX that appears to be comprised of at least four million of his following.
And that, somehow, was almost the most noteworthy thing I could take away from the SXSW Gaming Awards this year. It wasn’t like last year where there were obvious faults with the maiden voyage of the award show. Instead, this was just a perfectly adequate display of what direction this redheaded stepchild of SXSW would like to go.
Improvements were had all around. Not that Justine Ezarik and Smosh were terrible last year but either they lacked the material or the chemistry to successfully pilot the show to a smooth landing. This year swapped out the three-person-duo (Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla were basically one person with their bits) with Janet Varney and the aforementioned Fischbach.
Varney, best known for her role as Korra in The Legend of Korra, bantered and weathered the storm of the Markiplier horde as well as anyone possibly could. And Fischbach, who makes a career of flying by the seat of his pants with his mouth paving the way, has ample personality to spare. I don’t know if the teleprompter told them to futz around after each award, but it felt pretty natural. Painless, even.
There was an almost obligatory musical performance by a video game cover band (Critical Hit in this case). Their performances were perfectly able to elicit mixed moments of surprise and nostalgia as they added the bare minimum of theatrical flair and a heavy dose of orchestral flavor to Tetris and Halo‘s theme songs, but nothing in from the list of nominees like the Oscars spews out each year.
Of course there were hiccups: mismatched name placards to nominee B-roll, erratic trophy delivery, and hell, I’m pretty sure they didn’t even show Dragon Age: Inquisition during the Game of the Year segment even though it won the award. That, however, is mostly inconsequential.
All of that is material to the growth of the show, sure, but only just. It combines to a hand-wavy sort of notion of “hey, we’re growing up!” But the problem is that it really hasn’t. The hosts mostly avoided the heavy-handed, pandering jokes of Spike’s Video Game Awards shows of the past, but hitting the bar for decency doesn’t necessarily count as growth.
When you look at the actual awards dished out, there’s promise. The choice for winners and nominees is part of it. Unlike Geoff Keighley’s The Game Awards in December, there is no specific category for indie games; instead, SXSW Gaming Awards puts indie, triple-A, and everything in between in the same bucket and everyone votes.
Nidhogg sits right alongside Titanfall in Excellence in Gameplay; The Vanishing of Ethan Carter goes next to Far Cry 4 in Excellence in Visual Achievement; and indie games absolutely ran train on Excellence in Art. This is a genuine sign of getting with the times, that the divide between what we traditionally consider indie and big budget is becoming harder and harder to define and forcing us to consider if maintaining the facade is even worth it.
But consider also the categories we’re given. As slight as it might seem in literal differences, the contrast is remarkable. There was an award for Tabletop Game of the Year as well as Excellence in Convergence, an award designed specifically for games that bridge the gap between other mediums and forms of entertainment.
This led into Most Valuable Online Channel, an award recognizing (admitting?) that half of the game industry is now watching other people play them. Or maybe not even that. Of the five nominees, only TotalBiscuit comes close to an analytical slant of video games. The majority of the other four are comprised of making funny faces, yelling at “bad” games, and just generally people being personalities rather than people talking about video games.
That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. We’ve seen that personality is becoming a bigger and bigger component of what people value in opinions. The thing is that so rarely are opinions expressed in an actionable way in these YouTubers like Rooster Teeth and Smosh Games. One of the featured videos for TheSyndicateProject, in fact, is Tom “Syndicate” Cassell eating a ghost pepper.
So this brings into question what direction is SXSW’s gaming awards actually facing. Is it towards some framework of integrating the current state of the gaming union like crowdfunding and DLC awards and leveling the indie/triple-A segregation? Or is it moving towards appealing to the hooting gaggles of fanboys and YouTuber stalkers?
This is the same impasse faced by film award shows like the Oscars. It should be craftsmen and women recognizing the accomplishments of each other during the preceding year, which is, at the most base and fundamental level, terrible television, but they still televise it every time. The show has to make a decision to move towards assuaging the audience at home or the people that spend their lives thinking about acting techniques and thematic coloring in cinematography.
The SXSW Gaming Awards is trying to move forward. The problem is it’s trying to move forward in two different directions. Or at least that’s what it’s going to be soon enough. The people that show up are the ones that yell at Fischbach in the middle of a show, not the ones that even win the awards. (From one of acceptance speeches: “I didn’t touch a single line of code but thank you.”) But are those the people that you want to keep? Neither one is wrong, but it’s a choice that will have to be made eventually.