The SciFi Channel is adding another show to its lineup in an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of both reality TV (including relatively inexpensive production costs) and video games. The result is WCG Ultimate Gamer which has a dozen gamers – male and female – living together and competing in a series of real-world challenges based on video games as well as scored video game challenges. The first episode will air 10:00 p.m., Tuesday, March 10, 2009, and the entire series will consist of eight 1-hour episodes.
The show offers a fair amount of gamer pride, a little dress up (at least at the beginning) and plenty of hoke you’d expect from a reality series.
It’s So Real
If you’ve watched Top Chef, Top Design or any other Top-ish reality series, the format will be pretty familiar. In walk a group of contestants, picked from who-knows-what pool of possibilities, who are then posed to optimize dramatic camera angles. The hosts come in, explain the premise and basic rules and direct the contestants to their new abode, in this case a loft in downtown Los Angeles. The serie’s winner will be named “Best All-Around Gamer,” win $100,000 and represent the WCG at worldwide competitive gaming events including the 2009 Grand Final in China (where they would have to win to be named “Ultimate Gamer”).
As each contestant is introduced, you get a cheesy mugging pose-down next to a graphic of key stats that includes their preferred game genre.
The bulk of the show consists of a) showing contestants in their forced habitat and talking to the camera, hopefully creating some tension and screen-worthy conflicts or romance b) a real-world challenge c) a video game-based challenge and d) a final face-off between two gamers so that one can be eliminated, kicked off the show and otherwise exited from temporary fame.
Between the challenges, the contestants are given time to practice back in their living area offering moments of forces tension between prideful gamers with conflicting personalities and who play at different speeds, styles and skill levels.
The real-world challenges are based on a video game to be played later in the show’s second challenge. In the season opener, they are split into three groups, learn how to play actual instruments and perform on a stage for guest judges (the Donnas). Later the, losing team plays Rock Band 2 to determine who who compete in the elimination round.
Are You Serious
The show’s tag-team hosts, Hannah Simone and Joel Gourdin, certainly try to generate a sense that the show is trying to take itself seriously, as does the attempt at real-world competitions. However, the real-world task in this first episode is a bit silly, akin to an air band, and it’s hard to watch this without laughing. It also doesn’t help that the show begins with cheesy mugging pose-downs.
The producers (Michael Agbabian and Dwight D. Smith) did manage – likely on purpose – to avoid recruiting too many hard-core gamer cliches as contestants, so don’t expect to see a single sloppy or overweight couch potato in the lot. There is a mix of slightly-above to well-above average lookers which is often the goal for a reality TV series, offering just enough enough eye candy to keep some viewers coming back in case the competitions are a drag. (It is nice to have Gamers represented by this group). You will find your usual array of reality show personality types and, at least one better, a nice variety in age.
It all becomes a bit less unbelieveable when watching the real-world challenge, at least in the season opener. Each person supposedly learns how to play a real instrument (drums and guitars) and one person sings the lead vocals well enough to perform on stage. You get to see them practicing but they sorta gloss over the actual ability part. Anyone who plays an instrument will tell you that it takes years to learn.
The real-world competition was likely included to help to break up the video game competitions and practice sessions which are not always very exciting to watch, especially if you’re not next at the controller.
There are a few odd elements that also cut into the show’s credibility. First, most split screen moments are shown in comic book-style panels which means one portion is usually smaller than the rest or awkwardly cropped. Second, the winning or losing in the first round seems pretty arbitrary, especially for team efforts without a clear scoring scheme for people performing diverse (and partially ridiculous) tasks. That may clear up as the show progresses, either with more uniform tasks or less competitors. Third – and I cannot quite decide if this is odd or cool – the final challenge takes place in front of a live studio audience in an arena set up much like American Idol or Who Wants to be a Millionaire: swooping colored lights, ginormous screens and stadium-seated audience members.
The gaming round to decide who will be heading to the final challenge also takes place in an all-white room a la Grandma’s Boy which, I also cannot quite decide if it is really lame or completely cool. As a viewer, I’m leaning toward the lame side although, as a gamer who would love a sci-fi style room dedicated to a massive TV and game systems, I cannot deny a certain amount of “wow.”
Eject or Continue?
With most reality shows, things don’t really get rolling until the third or fourth episode. Unfortunately for Ultimate Gamer, four episodes is half the entire series. The personalities will be what helps to drive the show for reality show, which won’t really be coming from the tag-team hosts. Fortunately for that audience, there does seem to be enough of a conflict of personalities to keep things interesting, especially considering that it’s a mixed co-habitation situation.
Unfortunately, with so few episodes there might not be enough time for the contestants’ personalities to come through as more than a few overly prideful gamers. Also, the real-world competitions, as competitive gamers will tell you, have nothing to do with real gaming ability. There is certainly a need for physical dexterity and good health but being able to pluck out a few notes or snipe someone with a paintball gun won’t rack up the headshots in Halo. There are even times when the contestants seem to be collectively rolling their eyes at the hosts and the task at hand.
The show’s main saving graces are that it is a reality show so it’ll take an episode or two more to really get annoyed or enamored with it and we get to see gamers competing on TV, for money. For now, it’s a very skeptical continue.