The gamer's network: Inside G4's unlikely return to the airwaves

The tech has changed, but so has G4.


What would a G4 reboot even look like in the year 2021?

That's the question that a sentient slice of ham tries to answer in one of the many amusing videos posted to the brand's newly-resurrected YouTube channel. The minute-long clip serves as a microcosm of the revival effort itself: a mixture of the sporktastic random humor that defined the content of the old Internet, and the interactive, 24/7 streaming platforms that constitute the new order.

"Well, I can promise that we'll have programming over a 24-hour period without all those reruns of the police people and the cheating people," longtime X-Play host Adam Sessler jokes, referring to G4's reliance on reruns of car crash TV staples like Cops and Cheaters to fill the time slots back in the day. "But to be honest, that's probably one of the reasons we stayed on the air for so long."

If you aren't familiar with G4, you aren't alone. Initially envisioned as an MTV for video games, the television channel had a sizable influence on a generation of gamers over its decade-plus of existence from 2002 to 2014, but it never quite broke through to the mainstream. As a video game obsessive living in a small rural town, the fact that my favorite hobby commanded its own television channel had a certain impact on me at the time: it was almost like validation.

But as the market for video game content on the internet continued to grow out of its nascent phase in the 2010s — and the mechanics of creating and hosting video content of games online became easier — the old G4 struggled to compete with the emerging YouTube scene. Thus, tethered to the creaking old media monolith of cable subscriptions, G4 faced a grim rebranding to the "metrosexual-centered" Esquire Network in 2014, but was ultimately just shut down instead.

“Being on television was a big deal for gaming.”

"One of the reasons that G4 struggled in the later years was because you didn't need TV anymore; that the internet had moved beyond that," Sessler tells Input via video call. "But in retrospect, being on television was a big deal for gaming. It signified that gaming is important enough to justify the cost of a television network. But by that same token, I have a 10-year-old godson who's going to watch this new G4, and I don't think he fully appreciates that there's a difference between cable television and YouTube."

From the bloodless perspective of pure metrics, a G4 revival seemed almost inevitable. After all, video games are a far more potent cultural force now than they ever were during the channel's initial run, and brands with name recognition love nothing more than coming back from the dead. Initially announced earlier this year, the new G4 combines the cable channel with digital programming on platforms like Twitch and YouTube, aiming to reach gamers where they already are. But as Attack of the Show host Kevin Pereira sees it, while there is no shortage of streamers, critics, and — if you'll pardon the vulgarity — "content creators" vying for your attention, he sees G4 as a possible beacon in a sea of noise.

"In the initial run of G4, I think we did a lot of things that were ahead of our time," Pereira tells Input. "We were some of the first people to put social media on a television screen, for example, even before Daniel Tosh. But I also think we could've done some things better, particularly when it comes to diversity. When I look around the building right now, I definitely think that we've created a community of people with different views and who fill different roles, and we're going to do a better job of presenting that diversity of thought."

The revamped X-Play is perhaps the clearest example of this more communal approach. The show was (in)famous in its day for eschewing the 100-point scales of popular gaming sites for a more straightforward five-star approach, as well as giving notable anime-tinged games like Kingdom Hearts less-than-positive feedback. Now hosted by Sessler, Corey "The Black Hokage" Smallwood, Jirard "The Completionist" Khalil, and others, the show has opted for a panel format, with each personality weighing in on the aspects of the game that they find the most compelling. Most episodes end with a lightly-edited discussion between the hosts that reveals the latent preferences and disagreements that lie beneath the surface of the hidebound review scores that the industry so cherishes.

"I think that there's a flexibility to these things that didn't exist all those years ago," Sessler says. "I can admit that I'm not as well-versed in the realm of multiplayer as Hokage, and that Jirard is more proficient at games than I am. The old monolithic approach where I would say, 'X game is the best of the year,' and everybody else would have to get in line with that, that's over. And I don't miss it."

While old favorites like X-Play and the pop culture program Attack of the Show will appeal to those who grew up with the original G4, the channel will feature quite a few new faces — some of whom are more familiar with its legacy than others. Fiona Nova is one of the new co-hosts of this incarnation of Attack of the Show. As a 25-year-old who grew up outside the U.S., when Nova was asked to help revitalize the channel for the streaming era, she had just one question: "What's G4?"

However, as her role developed, Nova says that she began to understand why G4 had such a huge impact on those gamers who grew up watching it. Like Pereira, she notes that the network's fusion of games, pop culture, and social media was ahead of its time, but because G4 didn't change with the times, it now has to play catch-up and offer an alternative to the usual array of streamers and YouTubers competing for clicks.

“G4 is creating its own avenue for people who want to keep up with the culture of gaming in one place.”

"Personally, I think there's a big audience of people who are out there looking for gaming content, but they find following one streamer to be too daunting or too limiting, and they want something more professional," Nova says. "So yes, there's definitely competition, but I think we're making content that we want to see, and I think G4 is creating its own avenue for people who want to keep up with the culture of gaming in one place. Each single person on our staff has their own thing. I think for those people, it'll feel like home."

Though she was initially hired in a production capacity, Nova has since transitioned to a hybrid role that includes on-camera work on Attack of the Show as well as other G4 programs. These include Dungeons & Dragons Presents: Invitation to Party, which is the first D&D actual play show to air on cable television. Nova says that while she's new to D&D, she's enjoyed the process of learning to improv with her fellow players, and adopting to the imagination-first directive of tabletop gaming. ("It took me so long to realize that I can just do whatever I want," she tells Input. "Coming from video games, you expect the guard-rails to be built in. With D&D, it's just all about what you can come up with on the spot.")

It remains to be seen if G4's all-out digital blitz of comedy and personality can capture an audience that's already overwhelmed with gaming content. Early indications seem positive, at least in the short-term. One indicative comment on the channel's Call of Duty: Vanguard review said, "watching this makes me feel like a kid again!" But others praised the review without invoking the spirit of the old G4. If the brand can find legs past the easy rush of nostalgia, then there's a lot of eyeballs out there that it's likely to capture.