Q&A: The MindZ behind MTV's Game0RZ Week
Executives Dave Sirulnick, Alex Porter, and Carol Eng talk about the youth network's weeklong attempt to win over gamers.
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MTV has been courting the youth demographic for years with music videos, risqué comedy, and reality shows aplenty. Soon, the cable network will begin an all-out onslaught to snare a new demographic: the gamer.
On Sunday, MTV will kick off the first of its "theme weeks" targeted exclusively at gamers. Bearing the 133t-speak moniker "Game0RZ Week," the seven-day event will see games dominate the agenda on virtually every MTV property, including the more music-centric MTV2, college-life channel mtvU, and broadband streaming video channels mtvU Über and MTV Overdrive.
MTV will enlist both established programs as part of its Game0RZ Week onslaught. Besides the obligatory TRL tie-in, the network will air a new episode of True Life that follows three young gamers as they make their rounds on the pro circuit, including Halo 2 champ T-Squared and frag-girl extraordinaire Alice Lu of the GX3 (Girls Got Game) crew. The Sims Life upends the True Life formula by profiling people who spend much of their waking hours playing Electronic Arts' wildly successful life simulator, The Sims.
MTV News will have two more-serious game-related programs: "Gaming Cost Me My Girlfriend," on how hardcore gaming habits destroy relationships, and "Racism and Online Gaming," which examines how bigots use the anonymity of services like Xbox Live to hurl racially charged epithets.
There will also be some interesting programming MTV created specifically for Game0RZ Week, including Are You Game?, which asks Need for Speed Most Wanted and NBA 2K6 players to race real cars and bounce real basketballs, respectively. MTV will also cover a major gaming tourney, the Cyber Professional League World Tour championships in New York City.
Given gamers' attractiveness to advertisers, it's pretty obvious why MTV is staging Game0RZ Week. But the question is, why now? Is it simply to tie in to the launch of the Xbox 360? Is gaming now finally being recognized as mainstream by the media? GameSpot talked with three MTV executives--senior vice president of MTV2 programming Carol Eng, MTV.com senior editor Alex Porter, and executive vice president of MTV News and Production Dave Sirulnick--about the genesis of Game0RZ Week.
GameSpot: What was the impetus behind the whole Game0RZ Week? It seems to be timed to be right around the Xbox 360 launch. Was that the primary reason for it?
Dave Sirulnick: No. Basically, on MTV, we've been doing theme weeks for many, many, many years--theme weeks around movies, around music, around breaking new artists, et cetera. We thought that it was time to certainly spread into doing a theme week for video games. As far as picking this particular week, it's not unlike Spanking New Music Week, which is when all the biggest releases of the year come out--it's generally tied towards the end of the year to the big holiday season. We knew that the same thing happens in the gaming world. It's when both a slew of new game titles come out, so we chose November. Knowing that the 360 was coming out, we worked with Microsoft to make sure that we lined up.
GS: Well, the Xbox 360 was unveiled on MTV...
GS: So it's kind of a continuation of that?
DS: Exactly, exactly.
GS: How did the arrangement with the Cyber Professional League (CPL) come about?
Alex Porter: After a quite a lot of research and digging around, we came to the conclusion that CPL was the most interesting tournament to work with, and we thought we'd give it a try. Obviously, a half hour of programming doesn't really cover it properly. So, we're going to simultaneously stream the tournament on Overdrive--the semifinals as well as the finals. So if you're a more hardcore gamer who really wants to see the play-by-play, you can have that experience. On air, you can watch a kind of one-on-one on the CPL and competitive gaming, generally. The Internet and the broadband experiences are where we're going to get a lot of the gamers who are really more interested in digging deeper into the gaming experience. It felt like this is the right year to do this, to try to see how it works. Obviously, CPL is very popular--they do well all around the world.
DS: We wanted to get with somebody who has a lot of expertise in the area and work with them, and so far it's worked out really well. And hopefully it'll continue.
AP: This is, in fact, the largest game tournament ever in terms of a cash prize. It's a huge, huge event, the culmination of their world tour. It's a really, really big deal. I mean--so, it's just cool. It's going to be right here in New York. It all sort of worked out really nicely.
GS: Some of the MTV News items you've got here seem very interesting. In particular, "Gaming Cost Me my Girlfriend"--the "video game widow" is a common joke. How did the subject come about?
DS: Well, the MTV News department, every time we do a theme week, they examine it from a very specific news angle. I run the news and documentaries department as well. The docs department was doing this true-life episode about three different gamers, hardcore into it, who were playing in tournaments. So, the news guys said, "OK, well, that's not what we want to do. That's already getting covered." They saw that there was a Sims special, and they knew that was getting covered. So they said, "Let's take a news angle on it," and they found the gaming-as-homework folks and the guy that "Gaming Cost Me my Girlfriend" is based around. As you said, it's kind of a running joke, but they were able to extend it further by not just doing the piece where they actually went to Kansas State [University], where there is actually a recognized club [of girlfriends against games]. You know, it's a bunch of people who have taken it one step further. They're not just sitting about and grousing. They're a support group, if you will. So, that's what MTV News does best is find the interesting angles on a subject. They sort of feel like, "Wow, it's covered to death. It's covered all the time. What can we do that takes it one step further?"
GS: In terms of the "Racism in Online Gaming" program, can you give me a specific incident of bigotry that's occurred on online gaming?
AP: It's all over the Web. I mean, you go on Xbox Live, and everybody talks about it, and yet the press has never really covered it--or at least I haven't seen the story. But it's a great story. And MTV News takes a little bit more of a newsier view of these things. It stands outside it a little bit and looks at the culture at large--and its pros and cons.
DS: Also, it rounds out Game0RZ Week entirely because then when you look at the total of what we're doing. You've got an online tournament--as Alex was saying, the biggest tournament going is the CPL tournament. So, if you're a really into it hardcore gamer, you've got that to watch. We've got the Sims special, all about the Sims and the people who play the Sims, and what they're doing, and the choices they're making. That's obviously a much broader kind of interest level. We've got the True Life, which is a really interesting documentary. We've got all the stuff that Carol can talk about on MTV2. We've got the stuff we're doing with Xbox . We're doing the live stuff on Total Request Live, where we're giving away Xboxes, and we're featuring a lot of new games on those shows. Overdrive has various trailers for all kinds of games, as well as extra information. So, the concept for us when we do a theme week is that we want to be--we want to try to hit as many different places as possible.
DS: We wanted to be able to hit people from both ends of the spectrum, and, hopefully, people find what works for them. We know that the casual Madden fan, maybe they tune in for a few minutes to the CPL tournament because they see a little bit of it. Now the hardcore gamer that knows something about this, maybe he'll watch it for longer. We're hoping that the deeper gamer who certainly knows a lot more about gaming can still watch the Sims special and get a good takeaway from it, even though that may not be their thing.
GS: Now, getting to the Are You Game? concept. That's pretty interesting. Tell me about exactly how these people will face the "real-life" version of the video games Need for Speed and NBA 2K6. So they're actually going to race cars and play basketball?
Carol Eng: Yeah, that's the idea. Since it can't really revolve around more of the fantasy games, it is going to revolve more on the more sports realm.
GS: I guess you can't really go slay monsters with swords or cast spells in real life.
CE: Right. We take hardcore gamers who have a friendly rivalry in a game, which they play hours and hours of. We test their mettle, and whoever wins has the opportunity to show their opponent how to do it in real life. So, we do use Need for Speed Most Wanted. We take them out to a track to show that while one guy might be a great gamer, that doesn't necessarily mean that he can actually drive well. The same thing with the basketball game, NBA 2K6. We actually pair them with rookies from some pro teams, trying to mimic the game and bring it to real life.
GS: All right. And so how did that go?
CE: That is the question, isn't it?
GS: Tell me about the pro gamers you profiled.
DS: One is a woman from Alhambra, California, Alice Lu, who competes with her team in a tournament in Paris. It's all about her and then her teammates GX3, and being a girl gaming group in a very male-dominated field. So, it's all about how she plays Counter-Strike, how she prepares, how her and her teammates get on, and how they go to Paris. There is a young African-American guy from Harlem who plays a game--he's sort of an underground gamer. He goes to a lot of the underground clubs in New York City to play for money, and he gets signed up to become a professional gamer. We follow him to his first tournament in Los Angeles, and he's kind of like the wide-eyed, like, he can't believe that playing video games is actually getting him...
GS: Money and attention?
DS: Yeah, exactly, because he was a guy who just played--he just played to make a few bucks and just to prove to his friends that he can do it really well.
AP: Oh, yeah, he's the Super Smash Brothers champ.
DS: Yeah. Not the champ, but he's...
AP: He's very good.
DS: Yeah, exactly. So he's on his way up. So he's just joining the ranks of pro gamers. And then there's--there's this guy you probably have heard of--T Squared? His real name's Tom Kelly. He plays Halo 2 and is top three or four champs. He's not the stereotypical gamer. He's a very cool guy. He's not the guy that you would pick out of a crowd and say, "He's the gamer." And his whole thing is that he's trying to prove to the world--not to other gamers, but to the world--that you can have it both ways. That you can have a girlfriend, that you can have sort of a life outside of gaming, that you don't have to be considered what the stereotype of a gamer is and still have enough time to practice and play and be a champ.
GS: Your corporate sibling, Spike TV, is filming its 2005 Video Game Awards this weekend...
GS: Well, are you guys doing anything with them, or are you guys keeping your efforts separate?
DS: It's pretty much separate. I mean they have decided that that's the way they want to go--is do an awards show--and that's great. You know, I hope it works for them.