Interview: Michael Agbabian, Dwight D. Smith, Hannah Simon, and Joel Gourdin from WCG Ultimate Gamer
We had the pleasure of talking with WCG Ultimate Gamer executive producers Michael Agbabian and Dwight D. Smith along with the hosts of the show Hannah Simone and Joel Gourdin about the reality show that is like no other. Here’s what they had to say:
All the contestants, between the males and the females, do you see a different – I guess just a difference in their competitiveness based by their gender?
Michael Agbabian: Actually no. I actually think that the women on our show are quite competitive and in fact quite fierce in their wanting to win. A lot of them have that drive because I think the gaming community is predominately males so I think the fact that they are women and they’re sort of at the top of their game, no pun intended, I think that they really want to prove something.
And I think on this show they’re hoping to do that. So I actually think they have as much determination if not more so than the guys just because I think they want to prove themselves.
How were the contestants chosen? What was the process?
Michael Agbabian: Dwight, you want to do that one?
Dwight D. Smith: Yeah, this is Dwight Smith who’s the other executive producer. We did a national casting call and we had open auditions in cities across the country and solicited people through gaming sites and through different gaming organizations. And they were tested on various criteria. Obviously personality is a huge part of being cast on a reality show but on this particular show skill was also extremely important.
So they were put through multiple rigorous gaming tests where they were tested in their skills and abilities at games in all different genres. Because our show was looking for the best overall gamer we tested them in multiple genres at different times.
They were put through a pretty tough test and we also reviewed a lot of their gaming backgrounds; a lot of them have are professional gamers, they have won many tournaments and titles and things like that.
And, you know, I know we get a little glimpse in the first episode of everybody kind of in the house where they’re staying, how much of that is going to be a part of the show as far as some of the interaction because I know there’s a little tension between (CG) and (Dante) and if there’s more of that coming?
Michael Agbabian: There is a lot coming. I think people are going to be surprised at how much reality plays out in this series. It is a show about gaming certainly but there’s a lot that happens on the reality side. And not only in terms of like strategy and alliances and love interests and all that stuff but it really starts playing into the game play itself in terms of like outcomes of certain episodes.
I think it was quite, for us as producers, it was quite eye-opening to see 12 gamers in a loft and literally by day three just stuff was happening. I mean, it was just like – it just blew up. And, you know, there’s a lot of producers who always, you know, go off about oh my god this happens and that happens but there was stuff we just were not expecting.
And I think it’s going to be definitely – it plays out through the whole series. There are things that happen in the whole series, it’s not just (CG) and (Dante), there’s other things that start developing, other relationships, other alliances and all the way through the last episode I think people will be surprised.
Dwight D. Smith: Yeah, this is Dwight again. These 12 competitors are extremely competitive; it’s what they do, it’s what they live for and it’s what they do everyday. So that competitive nature seeps into everything in the house. And Michael was right, within hours of them moving into the house already alliances had been formed; within days there was romance brewing and conflict and constant drama and fights developing so the reality portion of the show was definitely a huge component.
Michael Agbabian: And all of, like I said, this is Michael, just in addition to that I think that a lot of the stuff happens very naturally. I mean, you know, there are, you know, sometimes there are shows where you sit there and go, well, you know, if there’s anything assisted here. I actually have to say that this show we just turned it on, the cameras, and things happened.
Part of it is because to add to the casting that some of these people know each other ahead of time; they’ve had a prior history. I mean, (CG) and (Dante) is a perfect example as I said, one. But the gaming world is not that big, I mean, in terms of, you know, there are people who are well know, you know, and they’re some sort of celebrities like (Foozy) is somewhat of a celebrity in the gaming world, (Robert), (Amy).
And so when people go into this house they – this loft there’s sort of history already which for us as producers, we weren’t aware of completely, and immediately, like I said, in day one it was like oh wow, this is kind of fun because you just kind of get into their world like almost immediately.
Joel Gourdin: This is Joel – Joel Gourdin speaking. I think what Dwight and Michael are really getting at is that the show is really – it has a huge human interest component. I mean these gamers, they have lives, they have full back stories, they’re really fascinating people. And they’re also really, really expressive as people, you know, these aren’t kids wearing black trench coats in a basement.
I think WCG Ultimate Gamer is really going to show everybody that gamers are not just that type of person anymore. This is kind of for everybody, you know, the show is for everyone to explore gaming, yes, but also to get an insight into this sort of community that revolves around this medium.
And I think the contestants that Dwight and Michael chose, they’re remarkable. I remember the first episode when we were out on the rooftop and all the contestants came out and I saw them for the first time. I remember taking Michael and Dwight aside and saying these people look phenomenal. I can’t wait to see the rest of the show. So it’s really, you know, I think that’s a key component of the show is the human interest.
I’m just curious, what’s the most challenging part of pulling off a show like this?
Dwight D. Smith: Oh boy. You know what, for me, I would say initially the most challenging part was a perception from people that watching video games is not interesting on television. And when we sought out to create this show we really thought to completely break that perception. And I feel like we did it; I feel like we changed a lot of things in the show that you would expect from a video game show.
We made these large-scale physical challenges. We made playing video games a spectacle. We have Samsung Arena which takes gaming to a whole new level where they’re playing, you know, video games on these 20 foot giant screens. So it was really kind of taking a perception of what video games is and kind of blowing it up into something that was an exciting spectacle.
Michael Agbabian: I think, the second, that’s definitely – this is Michael. One of the other challenges – Dwight’s totally right, that was (a lot) in terms of breaking perception. And then I think, you know, also engaging viewers into a game that they themselves are not playing like getting them invested in the game, getting them invested in the person playing the game.
But also just on a technical level we do different games every week and every game is completely different, there’s different scoring, they have different technical requirements, there’s different – it’s just different completely, a fighting game is different than a racing game which is different than a sports game.
So the challenge just among the producers is that every week is like a new show. It’s not like a show where, let’s say like a dating show where, you know, you kind of have a similar format every week with different dates and different locales etcetera. I mean, this show every week is kind of completely different which as producers was particular challenge because you couldn’t rely on, you know, it’s like, okay we’re going to just do this again and again; you kind of have to reinvent it every week.
So I think that for us was also a big challenge. I think we succeeded but I definitely think it’s unique to this series because we’re dealing with games that are all different and function differently.
After watching the first episode and seeing the gamers tackle the real guitar I’m just curious about what you’re going to get them to do for Halo III and Virtua Fighter V, like, are they going to have to beat the crap out of each other?
Michael Agbabian: Well on Halo – I’ll take the Halo and Dwight can take Virtua. Halo we do a rather large, I would say large-scale paintball challenge. We took a lot of care to meticulously try to recreate the game in real life. And, you know, I think we – again, I think we succeeded of course I’m bias, I’m one of the producers. But I think that it’s really exciting. It almost feels like a movie to me, like an episode of like 24 or something. It kind of has that – it’s this ticking clock and you have teams against each other and we have some, you know, some special effects and things like that.
So I it does – I think it works well with the game itself because Halo is really hard to interpret in reality. I mean it’s kind of impossible. So the only thing we could do is – what we did with every challenge which also is the case for Virtua Fighter is we boiled down the skill of what’s involved in each video game to a true human skill like whether it’s, you know, fighting, you know, in terms of hand/eye coordination or in terms of target practice or whatever. We honed it down to what is the real human skill and then built a challenge around it.
And with Halo it was paint ball, it was, you know, obviously being accurate with your targets and using your head and trying to get to a certain goal and I think it plays – I think it plays really well.
Joel Gourdin: One word: bomb.
Dwight D. Smith: Yes there was a – it did definitely go beyond paintball; there was a bomb involved with explosions and…
Joel Gourdin: Bomb.
Dwight D. Smith: …security codes and all sorts of other aspects to that challenge as well. Michael’s right, that one was done on a very large scale. In terms of Virtua Fighter I’m sure many of our contestants would have liked to take a swing and punch at each other. But that was not what happened but it was done as a very physical, aggressive martial arts-inspired challenge that also had an element of strategy to it which made it a really interesting competition because it was a thinking game as well as a very physical game.
Hannah, now I remember when I was a kid I was always being told, you know, stop wasting your time, this is not going to be a career, who cares if you got highest score in Asteroids. Why do you think it turned to become like a spectator sport and now these guys are pulling in like hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Hannah Simone: It’s incredible actually I know Joel and I have spoken about this before that a lot of kids are told put down the video games, you know, go outside. And now the contestants that we had on this show can make careers, a living wage, playing video games. And it was incredible to witness people at the top of their game especially when they get into Samsung Stadium and one of those people is going home and they are really pushed to perform and to show their best.
The level of skill blew my mind. This is a show that completely breaks down all the misconceptions and stereotypes around gamers and really shows how they can be so strategic and really work their personal relationships and build on their technical skills because they want to win. At the end of the day when you play a video game there’s nothing for coming in second.
Joel Gourdin: True. Well there might be an achievement – depending.
Joel did you – I’m guessing you must be in your glory with a show like this. Did you already know any of these gamers from Attack of the Show or XPlay?
Joel Gourdin: You know, that’s a cool question because I did and I was concerned about that when I got brought onto the show. I actually – before we started, Dwight and Michael probably remember, I actually – I actually told them that I did know a few of the gamers. Specifically I knew the Frag Dolls, you know, in my time in video game media I had met a lot of those girls. And of course a few of them were brought on the show. So I, you know, I needed to know if that was a conflict of interest before we began shooting.
And really it was treated very delicately by the producers. Essentially I basically had to pretend as if I didn’t know them. I mean really it sounds silly but really that’s what we did and then I, you know, we finished up the show, we wrapped the show and I remember going up to (Amy) and being like, hey, I’m your friend again and we both laughed.
So, you know, it’s just, you know, I hadn’t talked to her in, you know, four and a half weeks even though I was seeing her more than I’d seen her in the last, you know, year. But that was just the reality, you know. And only (Amy) and (Allison) really – did I really know pretty well so.
Michael Agbabian: Also to add to what Joel’s saying, you know, the way our scoring works it, you know, it is basically completely based on how they do in the game itself.
Joel Gourdin: Right.
Michael Agbabian: So it doesn’t – it wasn’t really, you know, I mean, Joel was not judging anybody or affecting anybody’s outcome. So it was, you know, it didn’t affect any scoring or any eliminations in any sort. So that’s why, you know, everyone was able to basically be on the same set. Had Joel obviously had a say in who gets eliminated that would’ve been a much bigger concern.
Joel Gourdin: Yeah, exactly.
Michael Agbabian: So, yeah.
Hannah, this experience for you seems very different than the other things that you did on Much Music and the HG TV show. I was wondering if you could talk about the experience of hosting a reality intense competition gaming show like this and how that compares.
Hannah Simone: Dwight and Mike are going to laugh at me. I’m a reality TV junkie. I’m completely, completely obsessed with reality TV shows. In fact throughout the shooting of this show I would constantly turn to them and say, okay, I’ve got to talk to you from my couch because I got so – the amount of reality that plays out in this show with romance and with conflict and with alliances and with strategy pulls you in.
The back stories of some of the people, I mean, we have a young mother of a little girl that really needs to win this competition and it will change her life. And she fights every single day for, you know, different reasons than the kid from Oklahoma that wants to do things differently in his life. And I was completely involved.
I mean when I hosted on Home and Garden Television that was a show that was about, you know, people too. I’ve always tried to stay in shows that really focus on people and their back stories and what was interesting to them. And Much Music was actually quite similar. It was talking to people who were passionate and at the top of their game and great artists.
So it was – it’s definitely a change of genre but it was so exciting for me to actually be in the mix and watch real reality evolve completely unfettered and naturally. And I was blown away; episode one all of those things that happened with (CG) and (Dante) we had no idea. But it blew me away; it was one of the most exciting experiences of my life.
Joel Gourdin: Ken, one of the most exciting experiences of my life – this is Joel by the way – was hosting the show with Hannah because she is the – she is the hottest nerd you will ever meet in your entire life. The girl is so bright and so clever and I can’t even tell you. She is so authoritative on our show and I just hope that everybody gets a chance to see how funny and awesome Hannah is. It’s going to be great.
Hannah Simone: Thanks Joel.
Joel Gourdin: I love you babe.
Hannah Simone: Call me later.
Joel is a follow-up to you: I know you’ve got a budding acting career going on or maybe I shouldn’t say budding but you’re definitely getting into acting. How does doing a show like this, how does that play into your bigger plans, does it help getting your just I guess your recognizability up or…
Joel Gourdin: Well, you know, for me I think, you know, I’m one of those people that I really believe in not really fighting the past so to speak. I – my father is a physicist and, you know, I grew up in a household that’s, you know, every geared towards studying and math and science.
And when I discovered theater at a pretty young age and went into the arts my parents really supported it but I always had that left brain mentality and I was always playing video games, always playing card games, always, you know, playing any sort of thing that exercised my brain so to speak. I guess video games do, right? Sure.
Michael Agbabian: Sure.
Joel Gourdin: Sure. But, you know, when I found myself in Hollywood and I found myself hosting, you know, even though I had a degree in theater it was just something that I really enjoyed, like Hannah said, hosting is something that is very human and it’s very spur of the moment. And it’s that sort of different creativity. And in terms of video games well I am that person that, you know, people said, oh, you’re not – you can’t make a living playing video games.
And my brother works for a video game company in San Francisco and I found myself doing a lot of hosting around the video game medium. So for me does this show, you know, further my acting career? I’m not sure, you know, I consider it all one big – one big idea, one big thing that I’m just pursuing. And yes I have my acting projects and yes I have my hosting projects but it’s just kind of a matter of do I like the show or not.
And WCG Ultimate Gamer really spoke to me because Dwight and Michael were so passionate about the idea of bringing video games to the masses, letting people know that video games are not just nerdy, they’re a really, really expressive medium that everybody should and can get excited about.
And when I heard – when I heard that their vision was that focused I really wanted to be a part of this show.
Hannah, you already touched upon this briefly, the fact that there’s a lot of misconceptions about gamers. My question is about the misconception that they’re couch potatoes who don’t get any exercise beyond lifting a control. How did the players – how did they do as a group in the big live action reenactments?
Hannah Simone: That was what was so incredible about it like I had no idea, I mean, I knew what the challenges were coming up, the real life challenges and they were trying and testing and taxing. I mean, you see the first episode where, you know, you have to learn to play a guitar and get up on stage and perform in front of a group of people and put on, you know, red pumps and a big afro and have confidence. You know, I don’t know of a lot of people…
Dwight D. Smith: And learn a song.
Hannah Simone: …stereotype – who look at the stereotype of a gamer and think that that’s something that they would easily slip into. But what I think it surprised me the most was watching these people at the top of their game is that they’re all about putting on a show; they know how to perform. And we would see that at Samsung Stadium when they would walk out and there’s, you know, hundreds of people screaming and cheering and they would just revel in it and love it and it would push them and motivate them to go harder.
But I was so surprised at how when they had to walk out on stage, I mean, that would make me nervous and they would just strut out scream, are you ready to rock, and then just kick it. I was like, oh, I work too much music, I’ve seen some shows you know. I’ve seen Beyonce walk out assuage her fears but that (Allison), you know, she was handling herself pretty well.
I thought it was absolutely incredible how well they showed what video gamers really look like and are capable of.
Dwight D. Smith: Which, for me too, it’s like these guys are competitors at anything; they want to win. They have that mentality that carries over from video games into anything they do that’s competitive. So it doesn’t matter whether they’re playing the video game or they’re playing a paintball competition or they’re learning to drift cars, they want to win period; end of sentence. I mean, that’s all that matters to them.
And as you saw from watching the show there are all physical types on the show. We have (Jeff) who is a power lifter who, you know, bench presses some insane amount of weight. So we have other people who are incredibly physical…
Michael Agbabian: (JD).
Dwight D. Smith: (JD) who is like an uber, you know, aggressive alpha athlete guy. And many people on the show who were incredibly physically fit and ready to just get in there and do whatever it took to win.
Joel Gourdin: I honestly believe, Dwight, I think (Jeff)’s measurements – wardrobe was saying that (Jeff)’s measurements he had something like a 56″ chest and a 30″ waist.
Michael Agbabian: Wow.
Hannah Simone: The other thing that surprised me to is how fast they could learn something that they’d never had to do before in their life. We have a driving game that comes to life and one of the competitors had never driven a car ever. And I’ll tell you that that competitor didn’t come in last.
Joel Gourdin: Yeah.
Michael Agbabian: One other thing I would say to add to all that is that what’s interesting too is that they, you know, as much – as good as they are and as fast learners as they are it was also interesting to watch them crack which I think is something you’ll see – you may not see it as – well you saw a little bit in episode one but you’ll definitely see it in later episodes. You know, these guys are fish out of water, I mean, there’s a lot of stuff in this show that they are not used to, they’re not expecting.
I think what’s going to surprise a lot of gamers specifically is the isolation chamber. The isolation chamber which is the second of the three major challenges in every episode. I mean, these gamers were under a unusual amount of pressure in game play when they got into iso and it was surprising to all of us because we all watched their performance.
And some of these guys who were like superstars, you know, all of a sudden get into this chamber and because of just the weight of what they needed to do to get out of elimination or to succeed at the game they kind of cracked and some of them admit it. They were like I didn’t do as well as I had hoped or I have never done as badly. Some of them do better than they expected but again it was kind of this fish out of water putting them into scenarios that they’re not used to.
And which I think is another very human side to this show which is it’s – even though it’s maybe their specialty like they’re really good at racing they get in there and, you know, the pressure gets to them.
Joel Gourdin:Absolutely, Michael, I mean, really WCG Ultimate Gamer is like taking a pro football player, saying great, great, throw a football for me; well done, now get in the pool and swim 10 laps, you know?
Michael Agbabian: Yeah.
Joel Gourdin: This man weighs 300 pounds…
Michael Agbabian: Right.
Joel Gourdin: …he’s barely going to be able to move. And, yeah, I mean, the athlete really is frustrated by this; suddenly they’re not the best, they could possibly be the worst. They could possibly be out of the competition for what, you know. It’s like just because they are, you know, not suited to this. I mean, great, you can play Project Gotham, can you play Dance Dance Revolution? You know, and it is a very difficult show to win.
Michael Agbabian: Yeah.
Joel Gourdin: And I think that aspect should speak to everybody, not just gamers but everybody. It is very hard to win this show.
Michael Agbabian: Yeah, I agree with that.
For each of you on the panel what’s your favorite video game of all time?
Joel Gourdin: All right, I’ll let everyone else think. For me it’s a no-brainer – hello – for me it’s a no brainer, Street Fighter II and now Street Fighter IV without – it’s always been my favorite game, you know, since I was what, 11 or 12 and plunking quarters into a – arcade machine in a pizza parlor in my hometown.
It’s the Pac Man of my generation and it’s only gotten better with this new game. It’s my favorite game of all time; with a close second from Rock Band probably.
Dwight D. Smith: I’m going to go with Rock Band.
Joel Gourdin: It is fun. It is good.
Dwight D. Smith: I love Rock Band. I like Gears of War a lot too but Rock Band to me is just an amazingly fun game.
Hannah Simone: Yeah, I was going to say especially after a recent experience… I would have to go with Rock Band. And I’m striving to become the best at drums because I realize how important it is to the rest of the group.
Michael Agbabian: Admittedly I’m not a gamer at all and so, I mean, my favorite would probably also probably fall under Rock Band only because that’s the only one I’m half way decent at.
Joel Gourdin: Michael’s also a good drummer; he can put down on the drums.
Michael Agbabian: I’m a decent drummer. But, yeah, there’s so many games I would love to be better at, I mean, I remember playing Pac Man when I was younger and some of the other, you know, like Donkey Kong and some of the old games that unfortunately I’m pretty out of this – some of the newer games.
Joel Gourdin: All right, I’m changing my close second from Rock Band to something else so the whole thing isn’t just Rock Band, Rock Band.
Michael Agbabian: Yeah, please Joel.
Joel Gourdin: I’m going to change my close second to Left For Dead and give a prop to a game that no one else is. There you go.
Michael Agbabian: I really (think) that’s awesome by the way.
Dwight D. Smith: I like Left For Dead.
Joel Gourdin: It is pretty dirty.
Dwight D. Smith: It’s a great game.
Joel Gourdin: It’s pretty dirty.
Dwight D. Smith: Yeah.
What is the longest sitting that you’ve ever had playing video games? Have you ever just sat there and played for like 14 hours? I know you have.
Joel Gourdin: What are you doing? What are you doing to us here because I’m the one who’s going to answer that…
Michael Agbabian: Joel, yeah, Joel’s going to…
Joel Gourdin: I have probably played video games – I’ve probably played video games for like 14 hours straight. I’d say without a doubt. Yeah, definitely.
With your friends or back in college or…
Joel Gourdin: You know, definitely with friends, yeah, socially but, yeah, I without a doubt have played video games for 14 hours straight.
I’m going to take a step back and maybe ask you to just kind of answer a general question and probably Michael and Dwight. Talk about how you decided to create a video game reality show. What led you to get into this?
Michael Agbabian: Well, this is Michael. I can take the first half and I guess Dwight can take the second. We actually – Dwight and I will admit we’re not gamers, I mean, we’re not certainly not nearly at the level that Joel is and mostly – most of our contestants.
We were actually – had the opportunity – we were approached by WCG to create a show and we found it to be, you know, we thought this would be a very interesting challenge. And for us, you know, Dwight and I in the things that we’ve done in the past have always tried to take on different challenges and sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don’t but we always like to try something new.
And I think video gaming, as Dwight said before, always has the perception that it’s not going to be interesting to television and we hit that constantly. So WCG also and Samsung and everybody allowed us to create this format that brought video games to a spectacle level. And to be honest that was our pitch. I mean, our pitch was how do we take this multi-billion dollar industry that dwarfs television and film combined and makes it something that should be huge and should be amazing?
So we, you know, we’ve done a lot of formats and we’ve worked with a lot of formats in our past shows and we said we really just need to create a format. We need to create something that’s identifiable that has something that every week people can expect; it’s not a docu-series, it’s not a documentary or something, it has just defined challenges.
And, you know, we created this thing that we think is quite spectacular considering that most people play video games on like, you know, 20″ screens at home to blow it up and to have that opportunity to blow it up for us is really exciting. And we took that challenge and, you know, we ran with it. And we were fortunate enough that WCG, you know, came along and said yes we agree with this vision and ultimately SciFi said we agree with this vision too.
And, you know, we wanted to make it dark. We wanted to make it more sort of Dark Knight which was kind of this sort of feel that we have for the show. We think video games are kind of this cool medium that it’s not warm, it’s not fuzzy, it’s kind of cold hearted in a lot of ways. And we kind of wanted to sort of take that into this sort of reality world and say we want to own this space.
Dwight D. Smith: I think also to when we were creating the show it was around the time that Grand Theft Auto IV had come out and everybody knows the grosses on that were massive. And at the time, you know, there were so many news stories about how huge video games are but nothing was really being done on televisions to, you know, center a show around that on a huge level.
And so we saw a huge opportunity there in an area that was not being tapped into and decided to really kind of get in there and take advantage of that.
Michael Agbabian: Also I wanted to add – this is Michael again- that we, you know, video gaming for television in general doesn’t – has not worked for the masses because it’s very much centered on the gaming itself. So it was very important for us to broaden it and to bring in reality elements that work to make it broader appeal.
You know, I think people will be surprised that in a video game show that, you know, there’s very little – there is video gaming definitely but it’s not what you have probably seen in prior years on other networks. I think it definitely plays more like a reality show that has video gaming at its core instead of it’s a video game show.
Interview By: Emma Loggins