Nestled high on the Dish Network’s channel list is Gameplay HD, a 1080p channel where videogames take priority over videogame reviewers, professional gamers get treated like NFL athletes and cut-scenes run like feature-length films. I initially found the network via ESPN, who aired a shortened version of The Madden Challenge, a 24-man Madden tournament with a $10,000 purse, on Superbowl Sunday. From there I got into contact with Mark DeAngelis, Gameplay HD’s creator, to ask him about his philosophy of televising games. Here’s what he had to say, as he shouted over the sound of fire trucks rolling out of New York’s Station 1 (their offices are on the same block).
The Escapist: Give me a rundown on Gameplay HD’s history. When did you get started, and what have you been doing up until now?
Mark DeAngelis: I’m a first-generation videogame head. I’m a hardcore gamer. I was hardcore PC, but I’ve been corrupted. I’ll now play anything that has moving video images on it. For instance, I bought my 6-year-old and my 4-year-old DS Lites for Christmas, and I’m playing Strawberry Shortcake. And it’s a lot of fun! Right now we’re doing this thing with a snorkel, and you gotta follow around this big fish with big fangs to get more strawberries. It’s hysterical. And it’s really cool to see the girls progress in their skills, because I believe videogames, if monitored and controlled and balanced, like anything in life, can be a good thing. And there’s countless hours of fun that I have with my children on the couch playing LEGO Star Wars and Spyro.
Somewhere along the line in my gaming career, I played StarCraft. I fell in love with the cinematics. … I always felt that it was a shame that after I played that game – and StarCraft is an anomaly because I still continue to – but most games, they have these beautiful, multi-million-dollar cinematics and they get put away on the shelf and no one gets to see them. So, flash forward “X” amount of years and I end up getting into television and film, producing commercials, independent features and television. And then flash forward another 14 years, I had the opportunity to pitch a new channel concept to the Voom network.
It was gonna be a high-definition channel. Lots of kudos to G4 for being a pioneer out there, but I always felt a little underserved to a degree, or I feel like they missed some of the things I wanna see as a videogamer. … I said, ‘Listen, I wanna make a channel that makes the videogame the star, and the tournament player and the community player, not who’s talking about games.’ That in a nutshell was our philosophy.
It’s not much different than MTV when they started off with the music videos. … I’m a huge fan of the graphical design, the environment, the artistic work that goes into these games; it’s just stunning and jaw-dropping. When I play Halo 3, there’s a lot of my time that gets taken through the cinematics and the storyline. … I always thought there was room for more passive entertainment. I mean, it can be exhausting to go for eight hours in Call of Duty 4. At some point, you gotta sit back and chill. … And videogames have a lot of assets you can create based on those videogames that are entertaining in that format.
TE: You could string together a lot of the story elements from a number of games and create something worth sitting down and watching.
MD: Exactly, and taking that premise, there’s three major buckets for Gameplay HD. One of those is original programming, and within that is a series called Cinematics. And we go in there and we take out the cinematics with a little bit of gameplay if it needs it, because sometimes it needs it to weave the story together, and present it as a movie of that videogame.
There’s other original programs we do, like Raw Play and some review shows, and lots of documentaries. We did a six-part documentary on the making of Forza Motorsport 2, for example. We’re doing a Ninja Gaiden 2 series right now where we’re in Japan with [the creator], and making a documentary about his next game.
And then we have another bucket: tournaments. We have produced over 90 hours of tournaments. I feel like we’re still learning a lot, and we’re still not quite there with the perfect television tournament. But I think we’ve gotten really close, especially with Madden. … I think as younger generations get older, they’re gonna expect to see [videogame] tournaments on television.
And there’s two types that we cater to and promote. One is sort of a professional side, where I think it’s pretty cool to have these kids training to compete in these games at the highest professional level. … And then on the other side, we like to open it up to the community, because that’s what the videogame world is all about. It’s not just being isolated in your hous and playing a game. That’s not true; the bulk of players play in some sort of multiplayer fashion, and having that online play is really important. So we have another series called The Gameplay Tournament Open, where we partner up with the GGL and a developer and we have a competition. … And kids in the country get to compete online, and the finalists get flown into our studio in New York and get to see their mugs on TV and get to compete against other kids across the country.
TE: Could you tell me a bit more about the Madden Challenge? I saw that on ESPN on Superbowl Sunday. What role did you play in that?
EA was somebody we really wanted to work with; they have a lot of great franchises. It took about a year to really get in with the people that we needed to, and each understand what the other wanted to do. In some cases it was easier with other publishers, like with Microsoft and that, but EA took a little bit more finesse, but once we did, once I locked in with Doug Scott and Michael Hearst, it just became a really fun, exciting relationship.
Our first foray with them was a Battlefield 2142 tournament we shot. What we brought to the table was it was studio-based, and we had virtual cameras inside the field. We had real, professional cameramen standing with camera pods and camera sticks, standing off-set, but firm-wired into the videogame. So we’d have the players on the battlefield, but we’d have these unrestricted video cameras that could float … in 360 degrees of direction. That is the key element for future television tournaments. There’s a couple, but that’s one of them.
We were able to do these beautiful coverage of multiple cameras across the battlefield. We were also able to save these games and go back and re-shoot things as we needed to. It didn’t change the integrity of the battle, it just gave us the ability to go replay the battle and have it unfolding from different camera angles, so we could create the ultimate product for the consumer at home. … And that’s the critical thing, especially with first-person shooters, is they move so quickly, you gotta shoot them so the consumer at home can understand.
That really set the tone for us at EA. They really loved our style, our passion. [Eight] months ago, they called and asked us if we wanted to do the EA Madden Challenge. It’s never been produced fully for television in the way we wanted to, so we said, “Yes, we think it’s a phenomenal product.” It’s one of those transitional products that is highly popular but can also be understood on a massive scale, not just by hardcore gamers, because it’s football.
And there’s a lot of really good quality inherent in the players and the opportunities [the Challenge] is creating for them. One thing you’ll notice is in Madden, a lot of the players come from urban centers, streets, tough places, and it’s really given them an opportunity to have a career and meet new people and make partnerships and to participate on teams … and give them an opportunity to make some money.
Just to say one more thing, the players seemed really rough and tough, but I really think a lot of them were good kids. And they were really smart about this game, man. They were turned on; they really put a lot of energy into it. They focused, they practiced, they trained. They talked a lot of sh–, man, but that’s part of the game. You hear that in the Superbowl! I mean, look at the Giants. They were getting panned for talking so much stuff. I was psyched, and the kids brought a lot of energy to it. I can’t wait to do it again on the next level.
TE: It’s a strange scene. The Madden Challenge was a spectator sport of a spectator sport. These guys probably don’t play football, and probably won’t professionally. Do you see gaming as a spectator sport, like football or baseball?
MD: I think it’s a serious, professional competition. These kids trained no less than any professional athlete, or golf player, or poker player on the less extreme. Anything that requires a kid to break down, read playbooks – I mean, he’s really coming at it from two angles in Madden. He’s coming in from a coach perspective, a general manager perspective, a tactician, and some physical elements of manipulating the paddle and the buttons and the players on the field.
That’s the nut that’s gotta be cracked. And that’s the thing that we’re after, and that’s the thing we’re getting closer and closer to. You’ve got the living blood person with the virtual game. And I think there’s a way, if you can bring out the personalities of the players, which I think we did an excellent job of, and if you get a chance to see the six-part series we created, you really get know these players on a new level; understand their strategies, understand their mistakes, see their reactions. And then you get to go to the game, and I think next year, that’s what you’ll see even more: A real clear delineation between the two, but that works together, if that makes sense.
TE: One thing I noticed watching the Madden Challenge, there wasn’t a lot of games being shown. It was more clipped together, like highlights.
MD: The problem for an hour compression of three hours is that fact. We had 24 competitors in the semi-finals, in the first two shows. When you got four players on stage, you’re really forced into a highlight situation. When you get down to eight players, where it’s one-on-one, you see a hell of a lot more gameplay.
We were asked to make the show in that direction, so we were forced to do a more highlight feel. I’d love to show you [episodes] four, five and six where you get much more gameplay. That’s the thing, and I agree, in our post mortem we’re going to put a lot more gameplay into it. Even though it’s only two-minute rounds, it still can feel a lot richer in that.
TE: With G4 and ESPN, G4 has X-Play and Morgan Webb. ESPN has Sportscenter and Chris Bermann. Do you have a face of the network yet?
MD: I think I needed to come out and prove that we were gonna be different than G4 … making sure that videogames were the stars. We’re now creating content that will start giving us the faces. We have another series called Nikki the Knife. … Nikki is a professional gamer … he’s also the host. He’s got a lot of knowledge, but he’s got that, like – he’s 20, man! I remember when I was 20. How many cares in the world do you have? You worry about everything and nothing at the same time. So he can show up at all these events, whether it’s a new E3 or a GDC, and he floats around the floors, interviewing players and kids and developers.
It’s a real blast; it’s a half hour. There’s this funny part, where you got this Pac-Man machine, and you got the world-class player of Pac-Man, and [Nikki] takes him on and he gets his ass kicked, and his pride is all wounded! And then he’s over with the Frag Dolls, who are trying to recruit new girls to play, and this is a little weird, but he gets dressed up as a girl. That’s what you do when you’re 20! It’s a real fun show, and I think over the course of ’08, you’re gonna start seeing more and more faces that will blend well with the content we have.
TE: Walk me through your prime time, from 8:00 to 11:00 on a Thursday. What am I gonna see?
MD: We’re very niche and boutique, so you’re gonna have an opportunity to see a lot of our types of programming through any given night. You’ll see some cinematics, you’ll see some Raw Play.
Raw Play is an interesting concept. If you ever wanted to see a game and experience it before you bought it, it’s a great thing to do. And if you never had a chance to play something, it gives you that experience. Some of the gameplay is so compelling to watch within itself.
You’re gonna see some game spotting shows that will give you some really good riews and insights in the gaming world. You’re gonna see some great documentaries, all kinds of games. You’re gonna see lots of tournaments from across the globe … everything from Counter-Strike to Halo to PGR. You’re gonna see a lot of videogames.
If you’re just jonesin’ for a 50-inch high-def experience, if you wanna sit on the couch for five, 10 minutes and get pumped up, turn on my channel.
Joe Blancato is an Associate Editor at The Escapist. He can probably beat you in Madden ’97.