Friday, March 13, 2009

WCG: Ultimate Gamer Proves Gaming Reality TV Will Never Take Off

reality-tv While I’m not a huge reality TV buff, I’ve watched my fair share.  I bore witness to the Race Wars on Survivor, enjoyed the adorable lawlessness on Kid Nation, and nearly puked every time someone ate elephant balls on Fear Factor.  I’ve seen people get slapped for having Lyme disease on The Real World, and I stared agape as Tommy Lee went to college on well…Tommy Lee Goes to College.

But nothing, not even the fact that I contribute regularly to a blog about video games, prepared me for Sci Fi’s new trainwreck, WCG: Ultimate Gamer.  If you really wanted, you could check out the first episode here.  But please please please let me save you the trouble.

It’s terrible.

The show is cosponsored by the World Cyber Games and Samsung.  You’d think the Samsung sponsorship might be subtle, supported by targeted commercials but no, I heard or saw the word “Samsung” nearly ten times over the course of 42 mind-numbing minutes.  Anyway, apparently the winner will be placed on the WCG team or something.  This reminds me of that WWE show Tough Enough, where the winner was promised a gig in the WWE.  I think he made it a month.

Ultimate Gamer is one part Real World, two or three parts Survivor, with a dash of Yo Momma!  The Wilmer Valderrama influence manifests in Ultimate Gamers relentless use of rooftops.  The show starts with all the contestants standing on a dramatically shot rooftop, receiving instructions from some faceless female host and token gamer Joel Gourdin.  They would later return to this rooftop at least once twice.

Woven into the explanation sequence are a series of introductory confessionals, wherein most of the competitors state their desire to “break the gaming stereotype” – referring to the pale, nerdy, mom’s basement kind of guy.  Well, there may be only one of those on the show, but there’s an equally awkward cast of characters.  Dante (who has Final Fantasy hair) used to work with Ciji (who has a crush on Dante and is here “because of her daughter” ).  JD is pure, unadulterated frat bro, and there are a few sorority girls out to prove that “Like, girls can game too, guys!”  Then there’s Robert, who I think is some kind of vampire.  I’ll stop there because I can’t bear to go on, but rest assured there are more.  Twelve total.

Each episode looks like it will follow a simple format: put the contestants into a ludicrous “Real Life Challenge” that is vaguely analogous to the Sponsor Game of the Week, watch them bicker or eat ramen in their swanky digs, then pit them against each other in the Game of the Week.  After all that, eliminate one of the worst players.  Simple (and terrible) enough, neh?

This week’s game was Rock Band 2.  Let’s wait to address the awkwardness inherent in simply watching someone play Rock Band.  First, I’d like to point out one of Ultimate Gamers many faults: the game explanations.  Watching footage of Rock Band while Gourdin explains the ins and outs of simulating popular music was excruciating.  Jeff Probst’s ludicrous pregame speeches on Survivor make sense; he made up the stupid rules.  Listening to this rules rundown-slash-advertisement is akin what it would be like if Bob Costas gently explained the rules of football before every game.  Since gamers are the only people who might (and I stress “might”) watch this show, these segments are unnecessary.  Get rid of them.

But the show doesn’t even start with the Rock Band.  It starts with a “Real Life Challenge.”  This consisted of splitting the contests into four-member “bands.”  They were taught some song by The Donnas, dressed up in stupid outfits, and attempted to play it for real at The Music Box Theater in front of a group of extras live audience.  This whole segment elicited from me a huge “Gimme a break…”  Since the groups had backup musicians (a house drummer and some guitarists) helping them through the song onstage, I could only ever tell if the singer was messing up – which happened regularly.  If this whole thing sounds stupid, that’s because it was.  It also has nothing to do with games.

Then there was an obligatory sexual tension moment where two people realized they were friends.  And that was it.  Because they’re professional gamers, it was awkward.  Because it’s TV, it was blown out of proportion.  I felt dirty afterwards.

Then came the “Isolation Challenge.”  Perhaps making a nod to the gamer stereotype, the Isolation Chamber is in the basement of their hotel/apartment building.  However, it’s decked out like a room from The Matrix, or the day spa from Zoolander.  Again the gamers are broken up into bands, challenged to play Lit’s “My Own Worst Enemy,” a song I haven’t heard in years and is now lodged in my eardrums.  Thanks Sci Fi.  In this segment I realized something: there’s nothing fun about watching a group of strangers on TV play Rock Band.  You can’t tell what’s happening.  Because the show tried to artfully cut between bands, I couldn’t tell when bands were rocking hard or falling flat on their face.  It’s easy to watch your drunken friend rock out with a plastic guitar.  It’s another thing to suffer through strangers playing super seriously because there’s prize money on the line.

I will admit that Ultimate Gamer has decent elimination rules.  The contestant placing highest after both challenges gets to select someone to face the lowest ranking player in an elimination match.  I like that.  To everyone’s surprise, Robert the Vampire (assumed to be the best of the group) placed last and was pitted against JD the Bro in Rock Band duel – too bad JD is awful at Rock Band.  The elimination match takes place in some Samsung stadium, which is really just a soundstage packed with extras for five minutes of footage.  What a damn waste. 

Robert defeated JD handily, nearly tripling his score.  Again, the difficulty of watching Rock Band on TV reared its ugly head.  Compounding the issue was Gourdin’s awkward announcing.  I don’t need play-by-play for someone pushing plastic buttons.  It was like the American coverage of Olympic Badminton: “They hit it!  Oh, they hit it even harder!  Look at them hit that shuttlecock!”  To put it plainly: remember the awkward play-by-play from Nick Arcade?  This was worse.

If you haven’t gathered by now, I think WCG: Ultimate Gamer is awful.  If gaming is to work on TV, look to Korea – where its a sport, not reality TV trash.  You might counter by saying that most reality TV is trash.  But this doesn’t have the small-town charm of Kid Nation or the awesomely bad hosting of Jeff Probst.  This is a show built to exploit a Sci Fi Channel viewer’s interest in gaming.  A show that managed, in its pilot episode, to pick the least TV-friendly game possible (ironic, given Rock Band’s immense popularity) and deliver 42 minutes of crap.  Stay away.  Stay far away.