I’ll start this off with an admission of one of my guilty pleasures; I love reality shows. I was hooked to that style of programming with the first episode of Survivor, and have enjoyed watching dozens of them in the last 10 years.
Now, I don’t love reality shows just because they are reality shows (in many cases, I enjoy watching them despite their genre). Some are good, but I’ll admit that most are bad. My favourite reality shows have very little to do with “reality”. The point is to take ‘real’ people, but put them in an absurd environment that brings out natural comedy, drama, and romance. That is why “challenge” based shows are the best. Survivor, Amazing Race, Ultimate Fighter, and the first 2 seasons of The Apprentice are what I consider to be great reality shows. The really bad ones are Big Brother and its imitators, and most of the Fox Network’s attempts at reality shows.
So now you know that I love reality shows, and being a reader here, you already know how much I love gaming. Therefore, the new Sci-Fi Network show WCG Ultimate Gamer must be perfect for me, right? Well I checked out the first three episodes, and this is what I think (contains mild spoilers).
The idea behind WCG Ultimate Gamer is to find the best “overall” gamer by pitting them against each other in games covering various genres. Most of the contestants specialize in one type of game – there is the Fighting Game specialist, the Starcraft guy, some FPS gamers, and even a Madden gamer (yeah… he was the first to leave the show). As long as they can avoid being last in any given week, they will have been determined to be an “Ultime Gamer” and get an automatic entry into the WCG finals in China, where hopefully they will end up playing in the genre they really specialize in.
The formula of reality shows probably started with Survivor, and has been copied many times. Start with a challenge of some sort, reward the winner, punish the loser, and have the contestants decide who will be “voted off” in some way. That is the basic premise of a challenge based reality show, and WCG Ultimate Gamer follows it pretty closely.
Each episode starts off with a “Real Life Challenge” which takes that week’s “Video Game Challenge” and puts a twist on it. Rock Band had the contestants go on stage and sing a song while pretending to play real instruments in front of a live crowd (although it looks like they intended to have them actually play the instruments – they brought in guitarists to train them – in the end they decided to just have them mimick playing, while one person sang the song. It was probably easier to do this challenge than it would be to actually play Rock Band on stage). For Virtua Fighter 5, they had to break plates in an obstacle course within a certain amount of time. For PGR4, they had to learn how to do a brake-drift in real cars.
The “Real Life Challenges” are done in teams or pairs. The reward for winning is twofold; the final rankings are based on the combined performance of the Real Life and Video Game Challenges, and if you finish first in RL, you will get a private training session with a WCG champion in that genre.
This is the one area where they make gamers seem like something more than normal every day geeks. The WCG champs come in to train these people – who in most cases are terrible at games that they don’t “specialize” in. They should really show more of the actual “pros” who come in, because watching them play is the one time in each episode where you actually see some impressive gameplay. At least that’s how it’s been so far.
The problem with these “Real Life Challenges” (and even the Video Game Challenges) is that the scoring system (if there even is one) is not clear at all. The contestants are apparently judged by professionals in the Real Life fields, but there is no telling why one person on any given team finished behind another. This was especially the case in the silly plate-breaking challenge. They took turns, going in pairs, breaking plates that were tied to monkey bars and such. How do you determine who was “better” at breaking plates? In some cases, they had to stand on each others’ shoulders to reach the higher plates. Who scored better at those times?
Then you have the Video Game Challenge rankings, which for some games might be easy to determine. PGR4 should be easy – rank them from fastest lap to slowest lap. But they never gave the lap times (to the contestants or the viewers), and the “Combined Rankings” put people all over the place in the final rankings. The Virtua Fighter 5 was even more awkward. The challenge was to basically beat as many CPU characters are you can (all taking the same course). Most people died on the same character, so how were they ranked? Points? Time of survival in the final round? Add that to the ridiculous plate-breaking challenge, and they may as well have picked a random person to finish last.
The person that finishes last has to face someone else in a one-on-one challenge at Samsung Stadium in front of a crowd. Their opponent is chosen by the first place winner (so winning is sort of a ‘double-edged sword’ as you will surely make enemies depending on who you choose). The battles can be lop-sided, if someone who is decent at the game but did poorly at the Real Life Challenge and ended up in last. Or they can be very good, such as the Virtua Fighter 5 battle. Both players were amateurs at the game, but their match was very close and very entertaining.
A cast of interesting “characters” can make or break a reality series. Over the last decade, many stereotypes have been made; there’s the “nice guy” and the “annoying heel”, as well as the “black bitch” (Tyra Banks’ words, not mine) and the “flamboyant gay guy”. I’m sure you all thought of reality stars just now as you were reading this. However, a reality show shouldn’t fall into the trap of being too cliche with their stars. The key is to get interesting, attractive people who will interact with each other in an entertaining way.
After three episodes, WCG Ultimate Gamer seems to be doing a decent job of building at least some of their characters. There are already a couple love angles (although one ended after the girl was eliminated in episode two, and I’m not sure how far the other will go, as only one of them is single) and there is a notable feud between Dante and Jamal (although if you ask Dante, the whole world is feuding with him). Some people stand out, and those who don’t are at least attractive and interesting to watch play games (again it’s only three episodes in, so I’m sure it will get better). The producers did a good job of putting together a cast of interesting people, making sure to include some Outcasts, some Jerks, some Emotional Guys, and some Eye Candy. But when it comes to gaming…
I’ll be the first to admit that I am not that great at video games. I’ve been playing games as long as I can remember (and I mean that literally; some of my first memories are playing Grand Prix and Frogs n’ Flies on the Atari VCS. That, and playing with He-Man action figures), but I was never good enough to the point where I could ever hope to go pro. I am probably a bit above average, at least in PC FPS games, but that’s about it. Otherwise, I am capable enough to complete most games I play on medium or hard difficulty.
But watching some of these people play games, it’s almost painful. From barely being able to finish a song on Medium in Rock Band, to just looking feeble against the CPU in Virtua Fighter 5, to just crashing back and forth into walls in PGR4, it’s clear that it’s going to be tough to find a truly “Ultimate Gamer” among this group.
Granted, a good reality show should have people overcome odds to achieve greatness in the end. That makes for a great story in fiction and in real life. However, you can’t have everyone looking like a loser until the final episode! That’s the major problem I had with Hell’s Kitchen. The show makes everyone look like incompetent fools, and complete idiots, to the point where I don’t even want to see any of them succeed. I just stopped watching about halfway through the season.
The players in WCG Ultimate Gamer aren’t that bad, but most of them are average at best, at least in the games they don’t specialize in. Again, that’s where the WCG pros come in. The winners of the Real Life Challenge get to receive one-on-one training from the pros, and these are the few moments where someone stands out as a really good player. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between.
The overall production of WCG Ultimate Gamer is actually not that bad. I was worried at first; within the first 5 minutes of episode 1, you are subjected to a barrage of over-stimulating flashy graphics and aggressive techno-rock music as the cast is quickly introduced at a rapid-fire pace. Thankfully, the rest of the series seems to be toned down to a normal level, and it definitely looks like a high-budget slick production. The hosts are good, and don’t come off as seeming like complete jackasses when it comes to games (Canadian viewers will probably recognize the gorgeous Hanna Simone from Much Music). The “Isolation Chamber” looks really cool – almost Matrix-like – despite its goofy name, and the Samsung Stadium where the final one-on-one challenges take place looks like it would be a fun place to watch gamers go at it – hoping that there is no live play-by-play, because it is quite bad in this show (actual quote from the PGR4 match: “we’re looking for high gears.. and high speed. They do correspond”).
Reality shows tend to use ‘tricky’ editing to tell the most entertaining stories. Some do a better job at this than others (the worst offendering being Fox), but it’s always there. WCG Ultimate Gamer’s producers are doing a good job of keeping it subtle. For instance on yesterday’s episode, Dante was trying to figure out who he was going to pick to participate in the elimination challenge. In his ‘confessional’ interview, he briefly mentioned Chelsea, at which point they immediately cut to a scene of her having a “discussion” of who he should send. He may or may not have had her in mind for more than a second, but it looked like she used her charm and looks to get out of a bad situation (much like she did when she wanted to chose a bed that someone else had already apparently chosen). I don’t mind this type of thing at all; if reality shows were 100% reality, they would be completely boring.
Looking at this show as a Reality Show fan, and a hardcore gamer, I have to say it is surprisingly good. I fully expected it to be like the typical “mainstream” coverage you see of videogames, with plenty of XTREME ATTITUDE and endless product placement of crappy junk food. But it’s not like that at all. You can tell that they wanted to approach this in a way that actual gamers would enjoy, as well as people who don’t want to feel like complete idiots when they watch TV. It’s not perfect by any means, but worth watching every week. We’ll see if it gets better down the road, or begins to get repetetive.
If you’re curious, the winner gets $100,000, some Samsung merchandise, and a gig as a spokesperson for WCG. The WCG 2009 Grand Final takes place in Chengdu, China which is not that far from Hong Kong. I’ll see if I can get there to check it out this November.
- They don’t treat their audience like morons, or pander to them.
- “Real Life Challenges” keep things fresh, if a bit silly.
- Mostly interesting cast and storylines.
- Gaming footage isn’t too edited (but could be better). They seem to be honest for the most part.
- Some of the “Real Life Challenges” are just stupid and prove nothing.
- Scoring seems arbitrary, and a lot of info is hidden from the viewer.
- The play-by-play is atrocious.
- Some of the cast have yet to show any personality (I expect more from a man named SWOOZIE).
- Acne in HD.