Press Pass: The Most Important Game Critics at E3
In a little over a week, thousands of journalists and game critics will be among the tens of thousands of industry members descending on the Los Angeles Convention Center for the Electronic Entertainment Expo. But 29 of these critics enjoy a special position in the throng. They're the judges in the E3 Game Critics Awards (GCAs), and they're among the most important tastemakers and kingmakers on the show floor.
Marketers treat this as a badge of honor on game ads and packaging.
While the GCAs aren't directly affiliated with E3 itself, they've become the de facto independent standard for evaluating the show's hottest playable games since their start in 1998. Winning a GCA sets a game apart from the hundreds of games that come out each year, and helps drive the kind of hype and pre-release coverage that can lead to greater interest and sales when the final game eventually comes out. Indeed, winners of the GCA's 16 categories are often among the best-selling games of the year, and marketers use the "Game Critics Award Winner" badge on game advertisements and boxes as a mark of the game's quality.
So perhaps it's no surprise that the GCA judges get some special attention at the show itself. "The judges have the best access that there is," said VentureBeat's Dean Takahashi, who represented the San Jose Mercury News as a GCA judge for five years through 2007. "They can get into any of the behind-closed-doors sessions. [Before I was a judge] I got into rooms where they'd say, 'Sorry, we're only showing this to a few people.' But if you had the badge saying you're an E3 judge, they'd say, 'Oh, there's something we want to show you!'"
That special access for judges even extends to the weeks before the show, when many publishers offer judges-only access to the games that will be on display at E3 itself. For the publishers, it's a way to make sure their games get due consideration in the judging. For the lucky critics, the early access can help streamline coverage of the show itself. "Seeing the games early was incredibly helpful," said Stephen Totilo, deputy editor at Kotaku, who represented MTV Multiplayer as a GCA judge in 2007 and 2008. "Even the smaller E3s are a cacophony of noise squeezed into too-short meeting times. Having more time in calmer environments with any games was hugely helpful."
But some expressed discomfort about the special access judges receive. "Now, we have situations where some press are allowed to see some games, while some aren't because they're not judges," said Bitmob's Dan "Shoe" Hsu, who represented Electronic Gaming Monthly as a GCA judge before leaving the magazine in early 2008. "How come, all of a sudden, a game's ready to be seen by the press, but only if you're a part of this special organization? That seems strange to me, and even though I like having the access, I don't think I should be treated any differently just because I have a vote in something."
Bitmob's Dan Hsu has some reservations about the increased access enjoyed by GCA judges.
The award organizers, for their part, try to remain neutral regarding who has access to what games. "The Game Critics Awards doesn't dictate what publishers show or to whom," said Rob Smith, editor-in-chief of PlayStation: The Official Magazine and co-chairman of the Game Critics Awards. "Publications should be receiving preview access to E3 games based on their reach and editorial importance, not because of their membership in the Game Critics Awards." Indeed, some publishers open their pre-show briefings not just to judges but to other prominent members of the press at their discretion (others, like Microsoft, don't offer pre-show access at all, possibly for fear that news will leak out and limit the impact of announcements at the show itself).
But that's cold comfort to some former judges that no longer enjoy the perks that come with the position. "As a veteran freelance journalist in this industry, I was surprised at how many doors closed when it came to pre-E3 events once Geoff Keighley cut me from the judges list this year," said freelancer John Gaudiosi, who represented The Washington Post and The Hollywood Reporter for the GCAs through 2008. "I always thought the purpose of pre-E3 events was to help reporters, especially freelancers, get access to games and developers before the big show in an effort to more accurately cover the event. I know that's what I always used these previews and judges events for, and they've been priceless."
(Smith said that Gaudiosi's removal from this year's GCA judges list involved a dispute with Reuters, which refuses to endorse its writers as judges for awards. "We sympathize with his situation, but any decision to be allowed access to pre-E3 events is explicitly that of the publishers," he said. "If publishers wanted him to see their games for editorial consideration, they could have invited him.")
The outlets on the GCA judging panel are a who's who of the game journalism world.
The judges for each year's GCAs are chosen exclusively by Smith and co-chairman Geoff Keighley, host of GameTrailersTV and executive in charge of videogame publisher relations for Spike TV. Smith said the pair tries to get a single critic from each of "the major North American videogame print, online and TV outlets," a decision he says is the "most objective way to ensure that the panel accurately reflects the current makeup of the leading games media outlets."
Indeed, this year's list of participating outlets reads like a who's who of major mainstream and specialist outlets covering games. It's a list that's become more exclusive in recent years, though, from a high of 38 judges in 2006 to a low 29 judges this year. Much of the change is due to contraction in the videogame journalism market. Outlets like Electronic Gaming Monthly and Computer Gaming World no longer field GCA judges because, well, they no longer exist. Some mainstream outlets like CNN/Money, Time and The Washington Post don't field judges anymore because they no longer cover games in a significant critical capacity (though, encouragingly, The Wall Street Journal has been added to the judges list this year).
For the judges themselves, though, the rules for judge selection can lead to some strange situations when journalists move from outlet to outlet. Totilo and Kotaku Editor-in-Chief Brian Crecente were both judges in 2008, but only one of them gets to vote now that they both work at Kotaku (Totilo says he "already miss[es] being a judge," and that "any less time I have with upcoming games and developers makes me a bit sad"). Takahashi said he went to a pre-show judges event in 2008 assuming he'd be able to get in, only to find out that he was no longer welcome after leaving the San Jose Mercury News for startup VentureBeat (Takahashi said he's "disappointed I'm not on the [judges] list, and I'll suffer for it, but I can't say anything was done unfairly to me.")
There are rumblings that other organizations may be interested in setting up competing E3 awards, with voting open to a much wider audience of E3 attendees. But there is something to be said for keeping the voting in the hands of a few hand-picked critics. "Ever watch the Oscars and get upset that the movie you like didn't win Best Picture? The assumption often is that not enough of the Oscars judges have taken the time to watch enough eligible movies to make the best pick," Totilo said. "So they go with the movies they know. That's human nature for any judging endeavor. But the way the GCAs have been set up helps minimize the risk that the 'wrong' games will win awards. That's done by letting the judges look at games in a wider window than the E3-week timeframe."