TBS’ surprisingly fun and strong competition King of the Nerds concluded last night, giving its winner $100,000 and the ability to sit atop the Throne of Games. (The winner did not get to keep the throne, alas.)
Its final three were all women and all gamers, which the winner–22-year-old Canadian gamer Celeste Anderson–attributes to helping them make it to the end. Also helpful: She is a fan of social-game reality shows including Survivor and Big Brother, and I don’t mean that in the way that Survivor defines “fan.”
Celeste told me a few minutes ago that, going into the game, “We had absolutely no idea” what to expect except that it’d be a team-based competition with head-to-head eliminations. “We all went into it blindly,” she said. But as “a huge reality TV fan,” and “a huge fan of Survivor, Amazing Race, Big Brother,” she had a strategy.
“I wanted to see what type of competition I had, and I saw that that everyone had much, much different skill sets than I had,” she told me. “I knew instantly that when I walked into the game, … [I'd have to] play the right social game.”
That experience was transformative for her. “I went through a really tough time about two years ago, and I was tired of feeling not so confident with myself,” Celeste told me. “I walked in and I compared myself. I wasn’t a NASA engineer; I wasn’t a neuroscientist; I didn’t even feel like I fit in completely.” But what happened was that, “under a lot of stress,” the King of the Nerds competition made her face “the various things in my life that I was so scared to challenge myself in.” That includes public speaking; she said that, in high school, “I would cry before I had to give a speech.”
That three gamers ended up as the final three wasn’t a coincidence, Celeste said. “With gamers especially, it’s a very competitive atmosphere. I knew I had a slight advantage because I had been very competitive my entire life,” Celeste told me. She never went into a head-to-head Nerd-Off competition.
The show ended with a Survivor-style jury, not a final competition to test their skills. And there was, oddly, no defined criteria; as Virgil said, “We’re allowed to decide what we value.” The other players voted for Celeste 6 to 3, and it seemed to break roughly with whether they thought personal growth or knowledge and skills were more important. Her speech about how she’d grown as a person was moving and clearly effective–and very much a Survivor-style speech. She told the jury that “I had to deal with being a nerd who was shy and insecure” but added “how happy I am to accept being a nerd and being a representative for you guys.”
That the winner was decided by a popularity contest, essentially, was a surprise to its contestants. “I definitely was expecting a skills-based competition,” Celeste told me. “I was really confused about it. Everyone was wondering why this was the last challenge.” But she said they quickly realized that their goal was to choose a role model and representative for the often-ridiculed nerd community.
Celeste’s competition, Genevieve Pearson, gave the show one of its best moments and lines–”stupid Kevin Smith,” she cried after a challenge in which he was a judge–was not as well-liked, it seemed, or at least hadn’t done the work necessary to convince everyone that she was the best representative. And just like on Survivor, there was a bitter jury member: pink-haired Danielle, who took her loss at the final three stage hard, saying she deserved to be there because she’d won more challenges.
Despite moments like that, and footage of the contestants being critical and catty toward one another, Celeste said that “we all bonded” but would sometimes unload in interviews “if we felt hurt” because they were “super-stressed,” even though “we all like each other. … Everyone was so kind and sweet,” she said.
Earlier in the finale, the show eliminated Ivan with a “Maze of Terror” Segway race and found its final two with a Jeopardy-style competition, though while the questions were arranged like a Jeopardy game board, but in lockers–yet another small but smart detail on a show that often had thoughtful production design and hit-or-miss challenges. It was full of humor and great hosting, but ultimately, the show succeeded because of its exceptional casting.
The show is now casting for season two, and I think it’ll be a challenging job to find such a perfect cast, and people like Celeste: actual nerds who are smart, competitive, honest, and thoroughly entertaining. And it wouldn’t hurt if they were also reality TV fans.