There’s a neat visual trick when you visit the screenPLAY studios at Channel Seven. After exiting the first floor, you walk through what could be any ordinary office building towards a set of double doors. Those open to a much larger passageway with black floors and black walls, what you’d expect from a standard TV studio.
There’s another set of double doors, and I’m told that we’re heading to what used to be called the SWOMP – Seven West Olympic Meeting Place. But you don’t get that sense in the preceding corridor, a narrow set of black, glossy walls. It’s a touch cramped, almost mysterious. And then the doors to the SWOMP, now the screenPLAY studio, opens.
The set is huge. Absolutely huge. There’s even a disused cinema.
It’s not what you expect. And as Hex and Nichboy, former Good Game hosts, explained to me afterwards, that’s kinda the idea.
“I was super surprised that Channel 7 were interested in getting into games in a serious way,” Stephanie Bendixsen explained. Channel Seven had seen the growth in video games, esports particularly, and wanted to be involved. But Seven didn’t have a background in broadcasting video games, or digital-only content, and the former Good Game hosts were initially sceptical about Seven’s offer.
“It was kind of an ongoing conversation because, to be honest, I didn’t really think that it was something that Seven was capable of until they really were clear about wanting us to be really at the forefront of producing it and creating it.”
A show wasn’t sufficient though, not for Bendixsen, Nich Richardson or Peter Burns, a veteran producer who Seven also brought over from Good Game. And as it turned out, it wasn’t the case for Seven either, who approached Bendixsen and Burns mid-last year.
“The thing that was really appealing to me, was that [Seven was] really clear that it was a digital push as well,” Richardson said. “It wasn’t just a TV show … they were completely behind the idea that we were making daily digital stuff, we’re on Twitch, we’re on Youtube, we’re not gated behind Seven paywalls, Yahoo, that kind of stuff.”
Part of the appeal was also having full creative control, which gives Bendixsen and Richardson the agency to try ideas – or respond to feedback – as much as they see fit. But there was a key part of the puzzle missing: Seven still didn’t have a background in producing or supporting content around video games, or online-only content.
So the company tried an experiment at the end of last year. They sent a team to Blizzcon and shot a series of videos for Facebook. The videos covered cosplayers, spoke to key developers, interviewed Aussie streamers and YouTubers.
They didn’t patronise gamers, or ask them about the violence behind video games. They simply captured the spirit of the event, and the people behind it.
“There had been a couple of people internally [that were] like, ‘This is where we want to head,’ so we’re going to use this as a trojan horse to prove this can work,” Richardson explained. The videos were a massive success, with hundreds of thousands of views each, and shares and engagement well beyond anything 7mate had seen on its social media.
And so the strategy was formed: screenPLAY, as its now known, would be a gaming platform producing weekly broadcast shows for 7mate, while creating daily digital content for Facebook, YouTube and Twitch. The TV show would be shot the morning it went to air, offering more speed and flexibility.
It’s not something that the Good Game alumni hadn’t tried before, but life at a commercial network is vastly different from that at a publicly funded broadcaster. The core creative team working on screenPLAY is smaller than the team on Good Game. But that team was solely responsible for every aspect of the show: scripting, production, social media, everything, whereas screenPLAY can tap into a broader support network of social media managers, editors and so on.
“Maintaining those communities, pushing content to all those communities in ways that those platforms consume it is completely time consuming and exhausting when you’re managing it by yourself,” Richardson explained. “And we’ve got a team of people around it whose, it’s their job to make sure that stuff is all taken care of. So we just make the content and they make sure it gets pushed out where it needs to on way more platforms than we’ve been able to do before, simply from a human resources perspective.”
Seven represented an opportunity to achieve things that weren’t possible. So with that in mind, the Good Game alumni left to create something new, thinking Good Game would continue anew.
As readers well know, the ABC had other ideas. The decision was roundly slammed, including those who the public broadcaster whose departure had been used as a catalyst. Richardson was quick to criticise the public broadcaster for its lack of foresight, while Burns took to Twitter to call the cancellation of Pocket in particular as “absurd”.
Leaving a community behind was already challenging enough, especially when you have to rebuild from zero. “When you look at the ways things are moving now, people really respect that transparency you get through things like Twitch and Youtube, where it feels less constructed,” Bendixsen said.
“It’s exciting to be able to build something that has our own angle, our own take on something, and I have no doubt that the community will come because we’re making content with them, not just saying ‘Oh you have to watch this.’,” Richardson added. “It’s going to be an evolving process where we go, what are you guys interested in watching and how can we make it with you.”
But as much as screenPLAY will evolve as a show, it’s also an evolution for Seven. Local TV often treats online as an advertising platform for TV, a vehicle for bite-sized snippets of content pushing people to watch the main product. ScreenPLAY is different: the crew will create more content for online than they do for TV, and in some aspects, it’ll be the online show that feeds the weekly broadcast.
“At the moment, and this is, like we said because it’s an evolving beast and this is the plan at the moment and the plan will change I’m sure, but at the moment we’ve got a daily news wrap-up style thing with me and Steph which is digital,” Richardson said.
With the 7mate offering being shot the morning it goes to air, the hosts will be able to feed events from their online wrap-up into the show. Footage from livestreams can be trimmed down and repackaged into the television broadcast too, where appropriate. Pre-recorded segments will also be recorded that can be dropped in, much in the manner shown during the show’s inaugural livestream.
“The TV show will look slick; it’s going to be on broadcast TV,” Bendixsen outlined. “But when we rock up to do stuff in [the set], we don’t have hair or makeup or anything, we’re rocking up in whatever clothes, we’re sitting down to just chat with our friends. And that’s, for me, what feels so freeing and so awesome and it’s kind of what I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.”
“The one thing that we’ll probably do less of is long-form, in-depth game reviews. I had so much fun doing that kind of content, but it was so phenomenally time consuming, it was all I could do. And we want to be able to be a lot freer, to be able to be involved with the community so much more.”
The prospect of paid reviews, and having content paid for in general, was one of the biggest concerns. Bendixsen said it was the first, second and third question she asked Seven; Richardson added that they were taken aback by Seven’s sensitivity.
“Over the last six months we’ve been really careful and with the help of everyone here, who has been really good, really understanding. Surprisingly understanding of us going, you don’t understand, the gaming community is the most ferocious community when it comes to the idea that people are getting paid money to say something.”
And as it turns out, there are benefits to being freed from the ABC’s public charter. For one, it allows the show to take up press trips and cover events that are heavily branded, things that would have been troublesome with the public broadcaster’s restrictions against advertising.
“We have more access to things, more flexibility to go, ‘OK, we can go over to the Dota International or the [League of Legends] World Championships, we’re heading to Russia for World of Tanks things’,” Richardson noted. “There’s a much broader element of, we can go to the place where this stuff is happening and not just looking from the outside.”
It’s especially important in covering esports, an industry that is mainly powered by advertising. And that’s part of the play for Seven as well: the majority of people under the age of 35 are involved or have some involvement with video games, a part of the market Australian commercial networks simply don’t service.
“That’s part of the reason that [Seven] commissioned the show, because they went, we’re not in this space, and this is a space we need to be into, because everyone under the age of 35 is somewhat in this space. So for longevity, we have to be in here … and thankfully there’s been a lot of people [at Seven] who are super, super receptive to that, and keen to understand,” Richardson added.
Launching their own venture, starting from scratch, is already difficult. But the show has an extra element of pressure from other commercial networks keen on getting into the gaming and esports space themselves. If screenPLAY works, it could convince other networks to launch their own offerings, opening the door for even more fresh faces and airtime for Australian gaming.
That’s a massive responsibility.
Something less understood, even amongst long-time gamers, is the appeal of esports. But it’s one of the core pillars for the broadcast show, and it was one of the first elements Seven pitched to Bendixsen when they first approached her. The established presenter has plenty of history with games, but not esports, and she freely admits that. Richardson is jovial about his own experience: he’s interested in the sector, but specifically MOBAs and CCGs like Hearthstone, and that’s not really sufficient for the sort of coverage they need.
So to solve that, they’re bringing local experts in.
The new faces won’t be revealed for a few weeks yet, but Richardson did note that screenPLAY had signed up two people from the Australian scene. One of them was an experienced shoutcaster, although Richardson didn’t reveal which game. The other was “affiliated”, the definition of which was left open.
The daily digital content and livestreams will also open doors for other faces to appear on screenPLAY. “Whenever we want a special guest, a Youtuber to livestream with us or chat about a gaming topic that’s popular at the moment, we have the space to do that now,” Bendixsen said. The cinema in the set, for instance, is a handy place for local developers to show off their games, and the hosts told me they were excited about using the show as a platform to promote Australian games, teams, and faces.
“I think that we have a duty of care to make sure that it gets the loudest voices that it can,” Richardson told me. “And it’s interesting stuff and, again, it comes back to the thing, the approach to esports, it’s the same with Australian gaming – when you can put faces to games, of developers who live around the corner from you, or the city next to you or where you grew up, then you inherently become more attached to those games and those people.”
“We inherently champion games and the community and the industry surrounding it because it’s all we are,” Bendixsen quipped.
I chatted to Bendixsen and Richardson for an hour, and the most prevailing thing I could see was excitement. There was relief as well – a lot of work has been done behind the scenes, things that no-one on the crew could talk about. There’s a level of frustration with that, especially for people who spend their lives in the public eye. When you disappear from focus, people fear the worst.
That was amplified when the new show was announced, not least in part because Channel Seven has a history of producing news pieces on gaming that bear little to no relation to the reality of video games. Earlier this year, Seven’s nightly NSW broadcast aired a piece about the state police minister condemning a GTA mod.
“I hope that will be the case going forward, they’ll come to us whenever they have a news story [about games] that they want to cover,” Bendixsen said. “The ABC as well has made the mistake of sensationalising things in a way they shouldn’t haven’t been when it comes to video games, so I’m really hoping we can be the go-to people for that.”
Richardson noted that while everyone in Seven’s Sydney studios were aware of screenPLAY was in production, the nature of television meant that other departments and shows wouldn’t fully understand exactly what screenPLAY was until it aired. “I think once we get the product on air and we start making it and everyone in the building sees it, [other shows] can go, ‘I understand what you’re doing and how we can incorporate you when we need to cover this stuff.’ And if they don’t, I’m going to be pushing for that anyway.”
Commercial television hasn’t had someone or something to champion video games. They’ve not had something that represents that segment of Australia. But as that segment grew to encompass almost the entire country – 68% of the Australian population plays some form of video games now – Seven has felt compelled to find an answer.
For Seven, screenPLAY is that answer. It’s a play on the future, a bet that esports will continue to grow, that gamers will never fall out of love with games.
For screenPLAY, the idea is to build a community. “You saw at the end of last year, a small group of people can have a giant voice when they’re all really passionate about something,” Richardson said, referring to the response from Pocketeers after Good Game Pocket was cancelled.
“If we can say, in a year’s time we have viewers who identify themselves as viewers of our content, not just people who watch it but they’re part of the family, then I think we’ve succeeded in doing what we set out to do, which is make a home for people.”
Not the kind of show you’d expect Channel Seven to make.