Getting gamers together for a marathon across multiple games and genres is always a tempting idea and a cracking way to spend a weekend. Games are fun. Games are better as a social experience. Having a wide variety of genres makes that experience better. So it should make for a good TV show, right?
No. It doesn't. That was the lesson provided by WCG Ultimate Gamer, a train-wreck that took video games, found one of the worst possible ways to broadcast them and then put the participants in increasingly ridiculous scenarios to make everything look even worse.
Samsung and the World Cyber Games brand — back when it meant something — was enough to convince SyFy to air two seasons of abysmal programming. You'd have thought — or hoped, really, given the continued growth of the gaming demographic — networks would have moved onto something more palatable, a format that doesn't deliberately rely on division among the contestants and stunts to keep things lively.
Despite the theme never quite taking off, the latest digital multi-channel network under the wing of Endemol Beyond USA. Endemol Beyond is part of the Endemol Shine Group, a production conglomerate, and it's the group that was responsible for recruiting YouTuber Michelle Phan earlier this year to lead their Icon Network.
One of Endemol Beyond's initiatives is the Smasher Network, which launched this week. It's focusing on content around competitive gaming — not eSports per se, although big names and personalities from the world of eSports will undoubtedly get dragged over.
That's certainly been the case in Legends of Gaming, one of Smasher's initial web series. Like the headline suggests, it's a collection of gamers that get grouped together in a zero-sum battle.
It's the American extension of a show that has been run with British and German gamers — in separate series — to reasonable success. Taking the concept overseas, then, is a fairly natural evolution of things.
And you'd think that the web TV format of the show would avoid having to concoct unnecessary banter and conflict among the contestants to fill time, as well as giving the contestants a more stable environment. All good things.
There's just one problem: the format's awful. A large part of what makes gaming a great for spectators is the avenues for interaction — it's why so many streamers have a career now, because they build communities around themselves through weeks and months of constant contact with their fans.
Legends of Gaming can't offer that. It's still a TV show, albeit chopped into much smaller segments, so everything has to be cut and pasted into a highlight reel.
Contestants — and the host, Toby Turner — are inevitably coaxed into over-the-top reactions, raised voices that almost border on screaming for the entirety of the episode, awkward quips and cringeworthy post-game interviews. And that's not touching on the worst crime — the bastardisation of the games themselves. I don't know anyone who would pick up a deathmatch-oriented shooter, like Doom 3, and run with a frag limit of 10 for four people.
When you have gamers so wildly out of their comfort zone that they're fighting the controls more than their opponents, yet still trying to muster some semblance of a victory instead of maximising the hilarity of their failures (thanks to the game show format), it's hardly prime entertainment. The end result is games whose greatness inevitably becomes compromised, Twitch and YouTube personalities who spirits and comedic value is dulled.
I don't even want to think about the prospect of Jonathan "fatal1ty" Wendel, one of the original Quake 3 stars and one of the biggest successes professional gaming has ever seen in the last 15 years, sitting there watching people struggle to run around a map coherently. Look at the man: Wendel looks like he can barely tolerate the proceedings.
Earlier iterations of Legends of Gaming ditched the reality TV-style atmosphere and just put the competitors in a room, whether it be a 1v1 FIFA battle or a co-op shooter. Having the talent not rely on wildly over the top reactions or poses also made proceedings feel more like you were spectating an actual game between people who were at least friendly.
But don't expect Smasher to take Legends of Gaming into anything approaching watchable territory. Instead of doing anything actually interesting with competitive gaming — like some of the documentaries produced by VICE, Red Bull or the many Kickstarter-backed efforts that you can watch on YT — or the talent, Legends of Gaming's American effort is just shoehorning their personalities' fans into a asinine train-wreck. Competitive gaming, and gaming in general, is so, so much better than this — but Smasher doesn't seem to know that.