In Real Life

Internet Killed The Video Star: The Extraordinary Journey Of Adam Sessler

If you know where to look, you can see the moment when Adam Sessler knew he was about to be fired. It was April 2012. The long-time TV host had been hearing rumours about his own departure for months. And while taping what would be his last episode of X-Play on G4TV, Sessler saw executives looming in the corner.

The cameras caught it. The snap of his eyes. The sudden turn of his neck.

Minutes later, Adam Sessler left the G4 studio. He never came back.

***

If you pay any attention to the world of video games, it’s hard not to find yourself drawn to the shaven head of Adam Sessler. Famous for his gravelly voice and outspoken views, Sessler has been one of gaming’s most public figures since he first appeared on television in 1998. Over the past decade and a half, he’s been talking about video games on various channels — ZDTV, then Tech TV, then G4TV — with brutal honesty that has endeared him to lots of gamers.

Last April, G4TV fired Sessler. A few months later, he announced that he had taken a job at Revision3, a company that produces web shows and calls itself “the television network for the internet generation”. His journey has been fascinating and unusual.

In February, when Sessler was in New York for the big PlayStation 4 event, I invited him to stop by Kotaku‘s offices. Decked out in a brown fedora, a pink scarf and the traditional garb of all video game professionals — a T-shirt, a blazer and jeans — the magnanimous TV host sat with me for a couple of hours to talk about his life, his career, and the strange, confusing circumstances behind his departure from G4.

He still doesn’t know why they fired him.

***

Adam Sessler was born on August 29, 1973 — the same day as Michael Jackson, he likes to point out — in El Cerrito, California, just outside of Berkeley. He went to private school until he turned 13, and then his parents sent him to El Cerrito High School, which was a bit of cultural shock.

“I grew up with a lot of people who didn’t look like me,” Sessler said. “I was definitely the scrawny white kid.”

People would bully and harass him. One guy, Sessler recalls, used to wear a ring with a Cadillac logo. “They thought it was really funny when they’d punch me in the shoulder just to see what the imprint would look like afterwards,” he said. (It looked like a Cadillac logo.)

“I’d just make up stories to try to convince everybody I was crazy, and then try to become more and more of a comedian, ’cause that was a really quick way to not get hit.”

So, following the high school path of many nerds and future stand-up comics, Sessler decided to take the route of class clown.

“I’d just make up stories to try to convince everybody I was crazy, and then try to become more and more of a comedian,” he said. “‘Cause that was a really quick way to not get hit.”

It worked, and Sessler stuck with it: in 1991, he entered UCLA hoping to major in theatre and acting. “Then I met the other people in the program,” he said, “and I’m like, yeah, I’m gonna go do English.”

Sessler went on to study literature. He wrote a lot of papers. And he played… not a lot of video games. “When I was in college, I didn’t play as many games, because I was too busy working on the novel I never wrote,” Sessler said, although he does recall one semester when his dorm neighbour got a Super Nintendo, along with Super Mario World and Super Street Fighter. For that single semester, Sessler’s grades plummeted. (He stayed away from games for the rest of his college years.)

“Games were part of my life,” Sessler said. “But I never even considered that there was some sort of career that could happen with that.”

In 1995, when Sessler graduated from UCLA, he found himself in the midst of a recession. Unable to find work, he flew home to San Francisco. When a friend of a friend called and offered him a job at a local branch of a giant bank, Sessler took it. He had no other options — and money had become a serious problem.

“I’m hired in the credit department, and I have no credit,” Sessler laughs. At work he’d get calls from Bank of America agents trying to get him to pay off his debts.

“I answered the phone, ‘Credit department, this is Adam,’” he said. “I could tell that they were coming after me to pay my bills, because there would be this pause of confusion, because they were the credit department.”

It was a miserable two-and-a-half years for Sessler, who spent a lot of time worrying that he’d be stuck on the finance career track for life. “When you’re young, and in your 20s, and you have that job, you don’t have enough life behind you to understand how much is ahead of you,” he now says. He started freaking out, worrying that becoming a banker was his destiny. Even as his co-workers warned him not to stick with a job he hated so much, he thought about giving up. He considered taking accounting classes.

Meanwhile, Sessler moonlighted as an actor on a San Francisco public access show called Chip Weigh Magnet Down. He found out about a new job through the kind of indirect happenstance that is behind so many big breaks. One of his colleagues had a boyfriend, who had a friend who told Sessler about GameSpot. GameSpot — then owned by media conglomerate Ziff Davis — was looking for a host for the video game show they planned to start on the new channel ZDTV.

Sessler was interested, although he hadn’t kept up with gaming — “I was young, it was the ’90s, I was in San Francisco,” he told me. “There’s more than enough things to do that don’t involve video games.” So he brushed up on a bit of history, and decided to memorise two names: Resident Evil 2 and Final Fantasy VII.

Turns out if you haven’t played Final Fantasy VII, it’s kind of a tough name to remember. At the audition, when the casting director asked Sessler what games he played, he answered: Resident Evil 2, and…

“I said something that was so not Final Fantasy VII,” Sessler laughed. “Everybody’s just like ‘Uh…’”

But in what Sessler calls “probably the best coincidence in the world”, it turned out the main audition director was also the woman who ran the public access station, and she loved his show. She’d found one sketch, in which Sessler does his best impresion of Irish dancer Michael Flatley, and she thought it was hilarious.

Sessler was standing there, thinking he had no chance after a gaffe like that. One of the directors looks at him and says “Um… they would like you to do the riverdance.”

“So I did it,” Sessler told me. “That’s how I got the job. It pains me, ’cause one of the most common questions I get from young kids is, ‘How do I get a job like yours?’ I don’t know! This should not have happened.”

***

Sessler’s first show aired on July 4, 1998. He and his co-host, Lauren Fielder, would produce and air 30 minutes of television every week. They would preview games, review games and bring on GameSpot editors, like Jeff Gerstmann (now head of the gaming website Giant Bomb) and Greg Kasavin (now a writer at Bastion creator SuperGiant Games) to talk about what they were doing on the site. It was GameSpot TV, after all.

The setup was strange, Sessler recalls. The hosts spoke in front of a silhouette of a chained link fence, flanked by TV screens full of flames — “It gave the sense that we were giving reviews at a back alley with burning trash cans,” Sessler says — and most of what they did just echoed GameSpot’s editorial coverage. In the first few years, Sessler guesses they were only reaching something like 10,000 people per episode.

“I got death threats. I remember one: someone saying if I got raped and murdered in a New York alley, justice would be done.”

But Sessler started to learn how to produce good television, and he started building up his video game chops with the likes of Banjo Kazooie and Spyro. They snagged some pretty solid guests, too.

“We got this interview with this guy named Gabe Newell,” Sessler said, “about this game called Half-Life that we were all excited about, having no idea… It was almost a naive point in time. The big game that we thought was going to be big that year was Sin.”

Then there was Columbine.

On April 20, 1999, when two students shot up Columbine High School and murdered 13 people, the country immediately looked for some sort of explanation. For many, the scapegoat was video games: both shooters were fans of games like Doom and Wolfenstein. And it changed the way Sessler and his team approached gaming.

“I got death threats,” Sessler said. “I remember one: someone saying if I got raped and murdered in a New York alley, justice would be done. I remember I was eating a burger when I saw that comment — and how that burger just changed its flavour. It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m a little more visible than I thought I was.’”

Word came from up high that they couldn’t show people shooting people in games anymore — not an easy task if you want to put on a TV show about video games. They could barely cover Grand Theft Auto III, for example. They had to find clever ways to talk about games without talking about one of the biggest elements of gaming.

In late 1999, an entrepreneur named Paul Allen purchased ZDTV. A year later, he gave it a new name: TechTV. Best known as the co-founder of Microsoft, Allen had a new vision for the shows on this network: nine hours of live technology broadcasting, every single day.

GameSpot TV became Extended Play, and there was a lot of turnover as the team tried to master live television. “It was fun, but it cost a lot of money and it really wasn’t generating revenue,” Sessler said.

Extended Play stuck around until 2003, when, in an attempt to figure out how to make money off shows about video games, TechTV hired a new producer, Greg Brannan. Brannan, who Sessler still considers a friend and mentor, decided to give the show a total makeover. They brought in a new co-host, Morgan Webb. They moved it to a later timeslot. They renamed it X-Play. The goal: cut out the kiddie stuff, and make it feel like a late-night talk show about video games, along the lines of Conan or Leno.

“Now, the ‘people shooting at people’ thing, not a problem,” Sessler said. “Now we’re using language we’ve never used before, almost trying to hype up the naughtier aspects of games. It wasn’t as… ‘Hey kids, games!’ It was now” — and he deepened his voice here — “‘Hey kids, games!’”

But at this point, Sessler thought the show would be a disaster. They hadn’t renewed his contract and he was working on a month by month basis, so every day he worried that he might suddenly lose his job.

“We do the first show — I hated it,” Sessler told me. “I just didn’t like what we were doing. I thought we were making fools of ourselves.”

Then he got a call from one of the producers. “The ratings came in. We blew up. We had blown out almost anything that had happened on the network before,” Sessler said. “The best way I can describe it is: we’d get these ratings sheets with certain colours made to describe each range. They had to come up with a new colour for us.”

Sessler looks fondly back at this era of X-Play, when it felt like they could do no wrong. Even when they got complaints from fans who didn’t like their sketches, people were watching the show. They had room to be creative.

But the bliss didn’t last very long.

“We’re at E3 2003,” Sessler said. “Happy days. And then word gets to us that Paul Allen has put TechTV on the block. He doesn’t want it anymore: he’s losing money. It’s like, we’re finally doing what we want to do, and that lasts about a year.”

By the same time the following year, Sessler and his team knew G4 was taking over. And when G4 took over, they gutted X-Play and laid off a lot of staff.

“It was… I wouldn’t say handled well,” Sessler said. “Unfortunately, it did not endear us to our new employers at the outset. I think that’s something that, had it been handled better, a lot of things may have been different.”

X-Play fans weren’t too pleased either. And because the show’s set lights had burned into the LCD monitors, imprinting a slight outline of a TechTV logo that you could see when they ran game footage, fans thought the X-Play team was subtly crying for help. (They weren’t.)

G4 wanted them to relocate to Los Angeles too. In late 2004, not long after Sessler met the woman who would go on to become his wife, he had to move down to southern California. She stayed in San Francisco. On weekends, he’d fly out to be with her, then fly back to LA on Sundays — or, Mondays, really, because he’d wake up on Sundays and decide that he wanted to sleep in, so he’d reschedule his flight to Monday morning at 6am.

“It was just this kind of anxiety-ridden affair,” Sessler said. “I think that’s what’s made me hate travel.”

But Sessler thinks X-Play did their best work during those first couple of years in Los Angeles. “We were kind of not wanting to become G4, so it really fostered a ridiculous amount of creativity.”

Then there was the musical. The most lavish production they ever put together, X-Play‘s musical episode cost over $US1 million to shoot — and nobody watched it, Sessler said.

“That’s when things start to shift,” he said. “We were not failing by any means, but at this point, G4 just can’t seem to grow.”

“I had never heard people talk about Britney Spears concerts in earnest, and they had never heard people talk about Spider-Man trailers in earnest.”

They were then moved out of their Santa Monica studio and dumped in the Comcast building, home of the company’s other channels, like the pop culture junkies at E!. The groups were interspersed throughout the same office, and the people at E! did not get along very well with the people at G4. Sessler and his team were very loud, for example.

“If you wanna see something cruel, you put a bunch of G4 employees amongst E!,” Sessler said. “I had never heard people talk about Britney Spears concerts in earnest, and they had never heard people talk about Spider-Man trailers in earnest.”

Suddenly, things felt different. There was more tension. More drama. “It was just the sense that things had gone from whimsical to something a little more serious,” Sessler said. “We felt the financial aspect, that this was a business. There was much more at stake now than there had been before.”

On top of that, streaming video had just become a thing: services like YouTube were making it possible for anyone to dump trailers or run video reviews at any time. No TV, no networks, no ratings. It felt like something was shifting.

The disadvantages of television became ever-so-clear during E3 of 2006, when X-Play arranged to cover Microsoft’s press conference and broadcast it live. There were… issues.

“It didn’t occur to me — I don’t think it occurred to anybody — that the press conference is gonna keep going into the ad time, and the ad time just had to happen,” Sessler told me. “It’s suddenly dawning on us as they’re showing the Mass Effect trailer, and in the middle of it, commercial. Fans are furious.”

To make a bad problem significantly worse, Microsoft’s conference was running late, and G4′s taping was tied to the East Coast. FCC regulations called for a station identification break at midnight Eastern time, no matter what. They’d have to cut off their broadcast even if it meant cutting off the end of Microsoft’s press conference.

The end of Microsoft’s 2006 press conference happened to be the reveal trailer for Halo 3.

“And so I’m there watching, and I hear, ‘Adam, you need to send us to break in the middle of this,” Sessler said. “I’m like, ‘I’m not gonna do that. I’m not gonna be the person responsible for denying people exactly what they came here to see.’ I start getting really angry. Somebody caught this and it went up on YouTube the next day. You can hear me screaming. It was a disaster.”

Over the next few years, X-Play‘s ratings just got softer and softer. Sessler and his team had to fight very hard for exclusive content — always an unreliable process — and they found it increasingly difficult to get audiences to wait until evening for what they could see online any time for free.

They tried going five days a week. It didn’t work. The show became less funny, less interesting. And when some sort of content — say, an exclusive trailer, or a big preview — didn’t work for whatever reason, Sessler would freak out.

“That’s the thing — that’s what’s tricky about television, which is very different from the Internet,” he said. “You can only have half an hour, and you have to have half an hour. So when someone says, ‘Hey, we can’t do this,’ that cost to a website is nominal cause nobody’s gonna know the difference. The cost to the show is, we have an empty three minutes.”

It would take another few years, but the end of G4 seemed inevitable.

***

On April 19, 2012, Kotaku got a tip from an anonymous source that G4 had no plans to renew Adam Sessler’s contract. They were letting him go.

We couldn’t verify the news, so we didn’t run it. On April 25, we heard the same thing from a second source. We prepared a story and reached out to Sessler’s people for confirmation. That afternoon, Sessler’s agent sent out a note:

Television personality Adam Sessler and TV network G4 are parting ways, with Adam’s last episode as host of G4′s “X-Play” airing on the network today, Wednesday, April 25. Adam has been hosting the show since it first aired as ZDTV’s “Gamespot TV” in July 1998 and he also served as Editor In Chief of games content at G4. His current projects include starring as himself in the Summer 2012 movie “noobz” and consulting with a film production company on theatrical feature adaptations of video games. Adam intends to stay in front of the camera and continue as a key voice within the games industry. He also sings and is available for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

What Sessler didn’t say at the time is that he had been hearing rumours of his own departure for almost three months before that. Since the beginning of 2012, he’d be approached by friends and colleagues at G4 and even other companies. “Be careful,” they’d tell him. “Something’s going around saying you’ll be out by April.”

“That was really jarring,” Sessler told me. “I’ve been around the block — I like to think that I have thick skin. But that is not something you like to hear — especially ‘cause it was me. I always thought the show would end, and I would end with the show. But now it’s just me.”

He flew out to the DICE summit in Vegas that February, then found out G4 didn’t want him to do anything there. He then found out that they didn’t want him to cover GDC that March.

“I was going into work every day and it was like, ‘Is today the day?’” Sessler said. “I confronted people who were saying, ‘We don’t know anything.’”

At this point, Sessler was ready to leave — he wasn’t happy at G4 anymore, he told me — but he thought the show would end with him. He wanted to leave with dignity, not get ousted from the ship he helped build. He felt like they owed him more than this.

Back to April. Sessler was on set, taping a show. Just a few minutes before it ended, the head of talent told Sessler that her and the vice president of production were coming downstairs to meet in his dressing room, Sessler told me. And suddenly he knew what was about to happen.

His eyes snapped. His head turned.

Some savvy fans noticed it. They realised something strange had happened. But they had no idea they were looking at the moment Adam Sessler knew he was about to be fired.

“I asked [the execs] how it was that this rumour had been going on for months,” Sessler said. “I just thought it was disrespectful that they couldn’t maintain the professionalism to just keep this thing — you know, it was just humiliating. And then it occurred to me that it was only me, and I was going to be gone. And I walked out of that building and I never returned.”

Even today, Sessler doesn’t know how the rumours started, or why G4 got rid of him, as he pointed out in one amusing tweet last month.

I reached out to a few different G4 representatives for an explanation, but I never heard back. Maybe it was inevitable — later in 2012, Esquire announced that they had purchased G4, and they would be rebranding it the Esquire Channel. No more video game coverage.

“Jobs end,” Sessler said, “but the way it was handled after all the years I put in, and that sense of public humiliation… It’s sad, because I have so many fun memories of all the things I did there. But it’s such a bitter taste at the very end of it.”

Things are better now. Sessler was approached by a few different outlets, but he eventually decided on Revision3, where he got a swanky “executive producer” title and the freedom to talk, interview and rant without having to worry about ratings, air time or meddling TV executives.

I asked Adam Sessler to send over some photos, and he sent me this GIF, created by a Rev3 staffer. It’s… hypnotising.

And like the rest of the media world, Sessler is starting to adapt to the future.

“I didn’t know the internet that well,” he said. “Now I’ve started to learn about it.”

“What sort of things have you started to learn?” I asked.

“I can just be more personable,” he said. “When I’m conducting an interview, I don’t have that thing in the back of my head that this is gonna be cut down to three minutes. I like asking the questions that aren’t about the game — more about the philosophy of the game, the challenges in trying to make the game the way it was. I can just feel like, getting excited, doing these interviews. It’s how I want it to be — not having that time restriction.”

More importantly, the internet gives Sessler and the rest of the crew at Revision3 — a talented group of personalities including Max Scoville and Tara Long — the creative freedom to fail. To make stupid decisions.

“Failure’s an easy thing on the Internet,” Sessler said. “If you put something up and it sucks, you just don’t do it again. On TV, you spend so much money, so much resources, you’re kinda called to the carpet about that.”

For Sessler, it’s liberating. He worked in television for 14 years, constrained by that medium’s inherent limitations. Even the one big advantage of television — exposure to a national audience — is getting less relevant: Sessler’s videos on Rev3 regularly net 60,000, 80,000 and even 100,000 views.

“When you’re working in TV, trying to change things is like trying to get an 18-wheeler to do a U-turn on the freeway,” Sessler said. “Here, it’s like, we can be reactive, and we can be quick.”

On April 22, G4 will be no more. But Sessler’s still around. And he’s ready for whatever’s next.


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