Is Summer Game Fest the Best Thing to Happen to Gaming—or the Worst? (2024)

A hush fell over the crowd as the theater went dark. “There’s nothing more powerful than imagination,” a familiar voice boomed from 137 speakers suspended around the cavernous room, just as an ominous trailer began playing on a massive screen. One minute later, the owner of that voice stepped onstage in an absinthe-green suit with wide peak lapels: Nicolas Cage.

“I’m so happy to be invited to your very, very cool club,” Cage said to a roar of laughter and applause. He wasn’t talking to members in Soho House West Hollywood’s screening room but to a raucous crowd of video game professionals at the fourth annual Summer Game Fest in the YouTube Theater.

“When I make movies, one of my favorite genres is horror,” Cage continued. He was onstage to promote his cameo in a survival horror game called Dead by Daylight that had already sold more than twice as many copies as the megahit Elden Ring. “I play this heightened, exaggerated version of a film actor named Nic Cage,” he said, before coughing and apologizing for his seasonal allergies. More than 27 million people watched this moment via Summer Game Fest’s online stream—at least 2 million more viewers than ESPN would draw during the College Football Playoff National Championship between Michigan and Washington seven months later.

For the video game industry, Summer Game Fest has quickly become a combination of San Diego Comic-Con and the (now defunct) Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3): the single most important place for gamers to watch new trailers and for studios to show off their wares. With $180 billion in video game revenue last year according to Newzoo—more than global box-office and music sales combined—Summer Game Fest is arguably one of the two most important pop-culture events of the year now, alongside its sister event in December, the Game Awards, which has started drawing more viewers than the Academy Awards.

But unlike Comic-Con or E3, Summer Game Fest and the Game Awards are owned, operated, and hosted by one person: Geoff Keighley, a 45-year-old Canadian journalist and Muppet enthusiast with a penchant for tailored dinner jackets.

Is Summer Game Fest the Best Thing to Happen to Gaming—or the Worst? (1)

Geoff Keighley (left) and Nicolas Cage address a raucous crowd of video game professionals at 2023’s fourth annual Summer Game Fest in Inglewood’s YouTube Theater.

Keighley began his career blogging about video games before covering them as a freelance reporter for Kotaku, GameSpot, and other publications. But much like Paul Rudd, Keighley doesn’t seem to be aging and has maintained the same youthful voice, presentation style, and haircut since hosting his first video game show on Spike TV two decades ago. Beyond that, we don’t know much about him or his company. “Geoff’s a black hole of information,” one industry insider told me. I emailed Summer Game Fest to ask Keighley questions for this story but didn’t receive a response.

Today, while most people in the industry believe Keighley’s twin events are a force for good, others have raised concerns about Summer Game Fest and the Game Awards’ high entry fees, opaqueness, and celebritization, as well as Keighley’s silence on issues that have impacted game workers, like the mass layoffs that have decimated studios in 2023 and 2024.

With this year’s Summer Game Fest right around the corner, on Friday, June 7 at 5:00 P.M. Eastern, I asked more than a dozen video game professionals for their unfiltered opinions on Summer Game Fest, including what they’d like to see changed.

Dating back to the mid-’90s, E3 had been America’s unrivaled mega-conference for video gamers and professionals. But in 2020, when the pandemic forced E3 to shut down, along with nearly every other in-person event on earth, Keighley streamed the first iteration of Summer Game Fest from a spare bedroom in his Pacific Palisades home. “Someone needed to step up,” says Greg Miller, a former IGN editor turned CEO of Kinda Funny, a pop-culture video and podcast network. “That first year of Summer Game Fest brought in a whole bunch of eyeballs and exposed people to games they might not otherwise have given the time of day.”

Over the past four years, especially in the wake of E3’s permadeath in 2023, Summer Game Fest’s influence has grown exponentially—even though Geoff Keighley remains the only name listed (as chief executive officer, secretary, chief financial officer, and sole director) on his company’s most recent LLC filings with the California Secretary of State. I also emailed Summer Game Fest to ask how many people work there in addition to Keighley but didn’t receive a response in time for publication.

Is Summer Game Fest the Best Thing to Happen to Gaming—or the Worst? (2)

“Geoff’s a black hole of information,” one industry insider says of Geoff Keighley, who owns, operates, and hosts Summer Game Fest.

“E3 was usually dominated by Nintendo, PlayStation, and Microsoft, but Summer Game Fest and [its in-person media event] Play Days have opened the floor for so many more creatives and developers to participate,” says Jasmine James, a senior PR account manager at ÜberStrategist, which represents studios as large as Bungie (Destiny 2) and as small as Serious Bros. (Imagine Earth). Participating studios in this year’s Summer Game Fest include heavyweights like Bandai Namco (Elden Ring), Epic Games (Fortnite), Sega, and Ubisoft, which are willing to pay a premium for the gaming equivalent of a Super Bowl commercial.

“These shows are really ****ing expensive,” one insider says, referring to both Summer Game Fest and the Game Awards. According to pricing details shared with me by multiple marketing professionals who requested anonymity, running a trailer during Summer Game Fest’s main show this year cost $250,000 for one minute, $350,000 for one and a half minutes, $450,000 for two minutes, and $550,000 for two and a half minutes. They also say that last year’s edition of the Game Awards featured the same pricing tiers.

If you add up all of the one- to two-and-a-half-minute trailers aired during last year’s Summer Game Fest, those price levels could translate into a $9.65 million haul for the main show alone. Of course, last year’s prices may have been different, and I don’t know how to account for shorter, 30-second trailers, nor the longer segments in which Keighley invites a developer onstage.

I think Geoff does a good job shining a light on indies. Could he do more? Of course he could, but at what point does the vision for the show become mine instead of his?

For many smaller and independent studios, these sums are astronomical—sometimes far more than their entire marketing budget for an individual game. “The current pricing tiers make Summer Game Fest an unattainable goal for most indie developers and publishers,” a PR professional who represents indie games told me. But several marketing and PR folks at larger studios say these trailer premieres are worth the spend. “As far as general brand awareness, the impact is pretty huge,” one of them says. “The caveat here is that it depends on the placement and trailer length. Longer slots perform better and seem to drive more coverage, whereas short trailers don’t capture quite the same attention.”

Another marketing professional I spoke with pointed to the fact that this year, Summer Game Fest is also selling tickets for fans to attend the main showcase in the YouTube Theater, saying, “That’s another stream of revenue for Geoff, so … could he then lower the cost of entry for smaller clients to be featured in the main show?” Earlier this week, first-party tickets were still available for $41 on Ticketmaster. But even if Summer Game Fest sold out the theater’s entire 6,000-seat capacity at that price, it would net only around $246,000—less than it makes from a single one-minute trailer—and the true number will likely be far lower thanks to seats reserved for invitees.

However, Summer Game Fest is more than just Geoff Keighley’s live stream. “I appreciate Summer Game Fest a lot more outside of the main presentation,” says Ash Parrish, a video game reporter at the Verge who attended the Play Days media event in 2022 and is heading back to Summer Game Fest this year. “The most memorable games I’ve played—the kinds of games that remind me why I love my job—are the ones that don’t often get the huge spotlight of the big stage and are part of the smaller presentations like Day of the Devs,” she says, referring to Summer Game Fest’s indie-only aftershow.

Is Summer Game Fest the Best Thing to Happen to Gaming—or the Worst? (3)

Will Geoff Keighley give a nod at Summer Game Fest 2024 to the thousands of workers who’ve lost their jobs this year?

Speaking of Play Days, it’s a three-day “invite-only media and influencer event” where studios can purchase a “full hands-on pod” for $150,000 or a “meeting cabana” for $50,000 this year. “I fell in love with games I would have never considered, like A Little to the Left, Time Flies, Escape Academy, and Schism, just by walking around [and] getting hands-on with demos and talking to the developers,” Parrish says.

Attending this in-person event is free for invited members of the media, but some of them wish Summer Game Fest was a little more transparent with access. “A lot of upcoming journalists and creators ask me how they can get invited,” says Danny Peña, founder and cohost of the Gamertag Radio podcast, who’s attended Summer Game Fest in the past. “When I first started out, I went straight to the official E3 website and applied for a media badge, but I’ve never seen anything like that for Summer Game Fest,” he says.

Most of the insiders I spoke with also wish Summer Game Fest’s main show would devote more time to indie games, especially when it comes to the longer segments in which Keighley interviews developers. “I’d like to see more of a level playing field so that more indies and even midsized developers get a chance to go onstage,” one of them says. Of all the games featured during Keighley’s main show in 2023, 46 percent could reasonably be classified as indies—roughly the same percentage as 2022 but way up from 2021, when only a handful of indies were present.

“I think Geoff does a good job shining a light on indies,” says Miller. “Could he do more? Of course he could, but at what point does the vision for the show become mine instead of his?” Miller cohosted the eighth annual D.I.C.E. Awards this year, which are presented by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences every February. Alongside Keighley’s Game Awards, D.I.C.E. is a contender to be the Academy Awards for video games, but it’s much less commercial than Keighley’s event.

I respect that [Keighley is] under a lot of pressure and that no matter what he does or says, half of Twitter will be yelling at him.

Case in point: In February, Miller made headlines for directly confronting Embracer Group executives with a joke during the D.I.C.E. Awards after they laid off more than 1,400 game workers last year. Miller and cohost Stella Chung also addressed the industry’s layoffs in their opening monologue, asking executives to “do better caring for our workers.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Keighley’s silence on this issue during the Game Awards two months earlier drew a lot of criticism, including a sharply worded editorial from Parrish headlined “Geoff Keighley let video game developers down.” Some of the people I spoke with wondered if Keighley will address the layoffs at Summer Game Fest this year, especially since studio downsizing has only gotten worse in 2024.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” a game worker told me. “Whether [Keighley] wanted it or not, he’s now the de facto voice of gaming, and he’s benefiting from it financially. I respect that he’s under a lot of pressure and that no matter what he does or says, half of Twitter will be yelling at him. But I think he could do a lot more to be a force for good in the industry.”

Another professional in the gaming industry says, “Geoff doesn’t necessarily have to voice his own opinion. He doesn’t have to endorse any particular views [on serious issues], but he could let more developers go up onstage and raise the issues that matter to them.”

In a very recent example of a wasted opportunity to do just that, dozens of members of Keighley’s Future Class program signed an open letter asking Keighley “for a statement to be read out in our name during The Game Awards Ceremony” last December—a statement that called for a long-term ceasefire in Gaza alongside support for Palestinian human rights. But according to reporting by Wired’s Megan Farokhmanesh, no one at the Game Awards even responded to the Future Class members who sent the letter—despite the fact that Future Class participants were selected by Keighley’s event organizers as individuals “whose voices elevate, diversify, and further our artform.”

Miller isn’t sure how a discussion of the gaming industry’s issues, much less international humanitarian ones, could fit into a Geoff Keighley production. “I wouldn’t be caught dead up there not doing that, but my brand for 17 years has been saying what I feel and sometimes being wrong, sometimes being right.” But Miller also says Keighley takes feedback seriously and is constantly seeking input from peers and fans. “I’ve never met a guy who is more in the comments than Geoff. He reads everything. When I make an offhand comment on one of my shows about [his events], he’ll remember it and ask me questions about it later. He’s trying to make the best show that serves as many people as possible.”

The video game industry has reached a historically dramatic crossroads in 2024 as ballooning sales, bloated executive compensation, and pop-culture crossovers like HBO’s The Last of Us and Amazon Prime Video’s Fallout coincide with mass layoffs, low pay, and poor workplace conditions for game workers—many of whom are forming unions for the first time.

Given that context, will Geoff Keighley give a nod to the thousands of workers who’ve lost their jobs this year at Summer Game Fest 2024? Will we see more indie games featured than ever before? Will he give developers the time and space to speak about the challenges facing the industry, or the world at large, if and when they wish to do so?

If Miller is right, all we know for sure is that Keighley will read the comments after the credits roll—and that there’s a nonzero chance Nicolas Cage will show up again with postnasal drip.

Is Summer Game Fest the Best Thing to Happen to Gaming—or the Worst? (2024)

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