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'X-Play' brings TV network
for gamers into the big time
By Eric Gwinn (Tribune staff writer) Published August 24, 2004
Adam is the dork who likes to poke fun at himself. Morgan is the velvety-voiced beauty with a brain that doesn't quit. Together they are the hosts of "X-Play," a TV show about video games that has redefined TV shows about video games.
You may be surprised to learn there are TV shows about video games. In fact, there was a whole cable network devoted to gamers, G4, that recently merged with the electronic-lifestyle cable network Tech TV. The resulting G4techTV is available in 44 million cable and satellite homes nationwide, including the Chicago area.
The network's most popular show is "X-Play," which outwardly follows a familiar formula: Two hosts empty a thesaurus to describe the latest video game, as footage of the game glows on screen. But no show has the magic of "X-Play."
The reasons: Adam Sessler, a UCLA grad who studied English lit and language theory; and Morgan Webb, a Cal-Berkeley grad who majored in rhetoric and can build her own computer. They are to video games what Siskel and Ebert were to movies. Even viewers who don't care about a game's frame rate or polygon count tune in to catch Sessler and Webb's self-deprecating shtick, oblique existential asides and Kool-Aid colored T-shirts (Sessler) and hair (Webb).
What other show has a guy in a bear suit explaining why video sync is important to smooth gameplay in PC games?
What other video game show tosses in references to Voltaire or a travelogue with a cigarette-smoking fish?
"I'm so glad I don't have to work for a living," Sessler says. "There was trepidation when we first started: Can we make this work?"
While Sessler had some comedy experience before stepping onto the set, it was Webb's first crack at hosting a show. She studied with a voice coach to ease her transition from being a Tech TV correspondent for "The Screen Savers," while the crew of 12 or so reviewers/writers/producers/editors searched for ways to connect to an audience beyond hard-core gamers.
As the show evolved, the hosts and crew found their groove.
"Everyone likes to see someone mock something," Webb says. "We try to put in a lot of political references, and we get real subtle sometimes; most people watching the show aren't going to play all the games we talk about."
"X-Play" culminates the progression of video game reviews. In the 16-bit world of the early '90s, magazines such as Electronic Gaming Monthly gave gamers the lowdown on whether titles were worth buying. In the late '90s, Web sites such as Gamespot offered immediacy and as many interviews with developers as hard-core gamers could stand.
At the turn of the century, cable TV picked up the baton. Magazine publisher Ziff Davis, which owned Gamespot, created the ZDTV cable network and the TV show "Extended Play," with an earnest and straightforward Sessler as host. Eventually, ZDTV became Tech TV, and the minds behind "Extended Play" wanted to reach beyond hard-core gamers, so they turned Sessler loose, re-christened the show "X-Play" and brought in Webb in 2003.
"Adam and I have a lot of fun together," says Webb. "We have that brother-sister vibe."
Buzz is building around the show, centering on the attractive Webb. Last spring, Playboy.com's visitors voted her the most appealing Tech TV host, and she'll be in an upcoming issue of the lad mag FHM, having appeared in gym shorts and socks in the July issue of Maxim. In the male-dominated world of console and PC video games, she sets the show apart.
"Would you rather watch a pasty-faced developer or look at Morgan?" said editorial coordinator Shane Satterfield. "It's a simple concept."