In the late 1980s and early 1990s, watching video games on TV meant something along the lines of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! or Nick Arcade.
A few years ago, watching video games on TV took on a new meaning with the explosion of Twitch streaming. Suddenly, we could watch others play video games—and we enjoyed it.
Nowadays, watching video games on TV means watching dramatic adaptations of popular narrative-based video games. Netflix's The Witcher seems to have opened the floodgates for TV shows based on video games.
Let's take a look at why this took so long to happen, what the state of things is now, and what we might expect to see in the next few years.
It All Started With... Anime?
Live-action TV adaptations may be more of a recent trend, but video game adaptations have been happening for quite a while—in the form of animated series.
Interestingly enough, there's also been a recent trend in anime being adapted into video games.
It's a bit of a push-pull relationship in two directions, with both media formats influencing the other. You could even say the current video-game-to-TV-series craze owes a lot to the Castlevania anime on Netflix.
But there have been other attempts that were different: In 2013, SyFy debuted Defiance, a unique game-and-TV-show combo. Events in the show would bleed over into the game, and vice versa. The show lasted three seasons, but the game is still available as a reworked version called Defiance 2050.
Yet, at the end of the day, the real drive behind video-game-to-TV adaptations is how desperately streaming services (like Netflix) need fresh content. And instead of risking everything on original series, why not look to what's already popular?
The Witcher 3 was a massively popular and successful video game, so it makes sense that Netflix would want to adapt it—especially because The Witcher 3 was itself based on a novel series with a rich world and deep narrative.
The zeitgeist around the show was rather short-lived, with people spending a few weeks talking about "Toss a Coin to Your Witcher" before moving on, but it was still enough to convince Netflix to give the show another season.
Safe Bets and Built-In Audiences
Even on streaming services, TV shows are risky. There's a lot of money involved, and nobody likes losing.
This is a big part of the reason why even more adventurous services try to play it as safe as possible. And despite the reputation of game-to-movie adaptations, game-to-TV adaptations are still a safer bet than brand new properties.
The key is to do what Netflix did: base the TV show on an established franchise with an engaged fanbase, and make sure it has enough structure and conflict for a compelling story.
When you base a show on a franchise like The Witcher, you can guarantee at least some portion of the franchise's sizable fanbase will watch your show. The bigger the franchise, the bigger the potential audience. Can you imagine the turnout for a live-action TV adaptation of Zelda, Metal Gear, or Diablo?
The sad fact is that these shows-based-on-franchises won't necessarily need to be good to be successful. Of course, it's always better if the show is high-quality and streaming services do aim for that, but fanbase audiences will tune in regardless.
It doesn't particularly matter if a show declines after a while either. Streaming services don't need these shows to last forever—just long enough to bring in new subscribers.
Upcoming Video Game Adaptations
A slew of new shows are coming to various networks and streaming services over the next few years:
We have a Halo TV series coming to Showtime starring Pablo Schreiber as Master Chief with Jen Taylor reprising her role as Cortana. Amazon is working on a Fallout TV show helmed by Westworld creators Lisa Joy and Jonah Nolan, though no date is set for that.
Then there's Sony, who recently said it has a total of three movies and seven TV shows coming based on PlayStation games. One of these is The Last of Us, which was confirmed to be coming to HBO just a few months ago.
As for the other six shows, it's anybody's guess—but looking at Sony's exclusives, it's possible that they'll include Ghosts of Tsushima, Days Gone, and God of War.
Netflix has a Carmen Sandiego adaptation coming starring Gina Rodriguez, plus an Assassin's Creed series on the way.
These are just what we know about now, and given what we've seen announced in the last year or so, it's easy to imagine there are many more on the way.
More Excellent Fantasy TV to Watch
Over the next few years, you probably won't be able to browse through any major streaming service without seeing something based on a video game at least once.
In the meantime, we still have a relatively small number of TV shows based on games, but that's just a drop in the bucket compared to other TV shows.
If you loved The Witcher on Netflix and can't wait for the next season to drop, there are plenty of other similar shows worth watching while you wait!