If you tune in to watch the BAFTA Games Awards on Thursday night, Ellie Osili-Wood is the host that will guide you through it. As the presenter of this year’s edition of the prestigious ceremony, she’ll preside over an evening of celebration that looks back on a very unique year for gaming.
Osili-Wood’s lifelong love of games stretches back to the 1990s. As she told RadioTimes.com in an exclusive interview ahead of the BAFTA Games Awards 2021 ceremony, “I think Sonic was the first game I ever really played, or that I ever really completed and felt a sense of ownership over. And I’m really lucky – I grew up in a huge family, lots of siblings, lots of extended-family cousins, and people who called themselves cousins. And they all played games. So I’ve got lots of really lovely specific memories: being taught Street Fighter by my London cousins; and then my uncle played Abe’s Odyssey with me, after having me help him build a computer for the first time; and I’ve got another set of cousins that all used to take each other on at Sonic.”
Picking an all-time favourite game is tricky, though. “It’s such a difficult question,” she says. “I think, for me, the kind of really uniquely immersive nature of games means that it’s kind of like asking somebody their favourite day, you know? Because you’ve got lots of different days that you love for different reasons, because you felt different ways. And I think that for me, there are loads of games that are important to me for loads of different reasons.
“You know, GTA San Andreas is a game that was very important to me as a Black person. Not to say it was the perfect portrayal of a Black person. But it was the first time I saw lots of elements of my community really beautifully represented on screen. And I absolutely loved the barbershop and things like that. So that’s a game that I really love. I literally could walk around San Andreas the same way I could walk around London – I know it, literally, street by street.” Osili-Wood goes on to mention the first Call of Duty: Modern Warfare as “a hugely exciting game” for her, with Return of the Obra Dinn being “a more recent title that got added to my favourite games list.”
As for her journey into the gaming industry as a journalist, presenter and host, Osili-Wood says, “It’s actually not been too much of a long and winding road. I started out at the BBC – I was on the BBC journalism trainee scheme, and I ended up becoming a political journalist for the BBC.” She soon started covering the Arts for the Beeb as well, and she “really pushed to be able to cover games” as part of that. Later, she branched out as a freelancer, launched her own YouTube channel and was picked to host The Daily Download TV show for GINX Esports TV.
“That was kind of the turning point to being able to make games a much bigger part of my career,” Osili-Wood explains, “So then there were lots of opportunities after that, and now it’s something that obviously I do quite a lot.” That’s something of an understatement – you might recognise Osili-Wood from the events she’s hosted for PlayStation, Pokémon, Ubisoft and many other big-name brands in the industry. She was named by GamesIndustry.biz as one of the 100 most influential women in gaming.
This is her first time hosting a BAFTA awards show, though, and Osili-Wood does seem thrilled by the opportunity. “I mean, it’s astonishing,” she says. “You never think that you’ll be hosting a BAFTA award ceremony, so that alone is a really incredible moment. And I’m hugely honoured that they’ve chosen me to host this year, because, long before I became involved with BAFTA, I loved the work that they do with games.”
Osili-Wood, who also sits on the strategy-shaping BAFTA Games Committee, adds that BAFTA “has always treated games as though the craft was something to be celebrated – that there was artistic excellence within games and that went without saying. It’s something I’ve always been incredibly excited about. And I think that they bring a prestige to the industry that perhaps we don’t get, and that we should. And so, to be able to host a BAFTA Games Awards ceremony is a dream. It’s a dream come true. And they’re an incredible team to work with. They’re people who care so deeply about games and about sharing what makes video games so incredibly special. And so I’m absolutely thrilled and can’t wait.”
On the topic of 2020, Osili-Wood says, “it’s been an unbelievably hard year. We could never have imagined the position that we would be in. It feels like something out of a video game.” As well as feeling like a bizarre plot from a game, the last year has provided a lot of opportunities for the gaming industry itself. Many of us flocked to our consoles during lockdown, after all.
As Osili-Wood puts it, “to take something of a silver lining from all of this, I think it has been incredibly inspiring and exciting and rewarding to watch people discover why we love games so much. I think for me, games have always been this enormous part of my life. They have fundamentally shaped who I am as a person. I feel like I have lived lives through games in ways that, you know, I don’t feel exactly like that with books or television or film. There’s something so special about the way we are immersed in video games.
“And so, to witness people coming to that, for the first time, is so special. It’s just, as I said, incredibly rewarding to witness people falling into these worlds, when all they were looking for was kind of pure escapism – they were inside their house for the 100th day in a row and they just needed to be somewhere else. And to watch them kind of grab a game for that initial reason, and then just discover what a unique experience they are, and how immersive, how exciting, how entertaining in a way that only games can be, has just been astonishing.
“And I just hope that we really capitalise on that. As an industry, I hope that we make people feel welcome, if it’s their first time playing games. I hope that we keep innovating, and publishing new perspectives, writing games that encourage people to play who never considered themselves a gamer, because we’ll never have an opportunity like this again. I mean, fingers crossed, we’ll never have an opportunity like this again.”
One of the big games of 2020, which has no less than 13 BAFTA Games Awards nominations, was Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part 2. Speaking of the game’s incredible impact, Osili-Wood enthusiastically describes it as a “technically stunning game” that represented “the pinnacle of Naughty Dog’s incredible talent for storytelling,” whilst also winning hearts because it “offered perspectives in a way that we kind of hadn’t seen before in games. So we had trans characters, we had LGBTQ characters, we had people with stories that we don’t get to see in AAA games very often.”
Another game that earned a lot of love in 2020 was Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which Osili-Wood describes as “wholesome in the truest sense of the word. It’s this beautiful little world. There’s this sense of escapism that appeals to millennials in a certain way, which is, they get to build their dream home – they get to own a home with reasonable mortgage rates, they get to garden, they’ve got outdoor space. It’s the kind of life I think a lot of us wish we were living in real life, pandemic or no pandemic. And then it’s just a really, really lovely place to hang out with people.”
We should expect to see some less-famous games given a chance to shine at the BAFTAs, too. For Osili-Wood, “that’s what’s best about BAFTA – because it’s about industry expertise, it means that it highlights titles that perhaps weren’t enormous smash-hit successes, but were, in fact, examples of artistic excellence within games. They bring together a hugely varied pool of jurors who have an enormous range of perspectives, are incredibly diverse in a number of different ways, to represent all the different sectors of our industry. And so you get this really broad view of games, and then a very specific view of games in the same way – these people are people who can delve into different sectors. Some people know the game that has the most incredible soundtrack you’ve never heard. Somebody can tell you about an incredible new artistic style that we haven’t really seen in games before. And so they pull out these fantastic gems.”
And the audience at home have also played a part in deciding what will happen on the night, with the EE Game of the Year Award being decided by a public vote. “It’s a really lovely way for for people to get involved,” says Osili-Wood, “because I think BAFTA can sometimes be one of those institutions that we all grow up with, and it’s so prestigious, and it can feel far away. And I think one of the things we’ve really been trying to encourage people to realise this year is that BAFTA is for everybody. BAFTA really encourages participation, it wants to hear your voice, it wants to know what you think, it wants to shape its strategy around what people want BAFTA to be. And so I think that this is a really excellent example of a really exciting way for people to have their say.”
This is the second edition of the BAFTA Games Awards to be a fully online event, following on from last year’s live-streamed ceremony that was hosted by Dara O’Briain. And that year in between, where we’ve all mostly been stuck at home, has certainly seen the gaming industry flourish in a lot of ways.
Osili-Wood notes: “You do kind of think of our industry as one that is is very online, and so it’s a world we’re very familiar with. And I think we could see that from the ceremony last year. The BAFTA Games Awards felt very at home online. It didn’t feel like such a jarring jump for that ceremony. And so I think we spent a year learning what works and what doesn’t – BAFTA’s put on loads of really fantastic events this year, obviously all online.
“And so we’re taking the learnings from that and really building the ambition, I think, for this ceremony. We want it to be fun, we want it to be engaging, we want it to be different from the myriad online ceremonies you might have seen this year. And of course, we just want it to be a celebration of togetherness, and the way in which games have bought us together, the way in which we have had a year to celebrate everything games mean to us.”
The BAFTA Games Awards 2021 begin at 7pm on Thursday 25th March.
The Awards will be live streamed on all major social platforms including BAFTA’s Facebook, Twitch, Twitter, YouTube, and for the first time, Steam.
Looking for something to watch? Check out our TV Guide.