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If there’s a theme for the nominations in Valve’s Steam Awards this year, it’s how growing competition in digital gaming storefronts has changed the landscape for the Bellevue, Wash.-based game giant. Some of the best games of the year are conspicuous in their absence from Steam, and from the awards as a result. In their place, some surprise contenders are up for honors.

In past years, the Steam Awards lineup usually looked a lot like any other end-of-the-year best-of list, with big triple-A titles reliably snagging nominations and trophies. However, in 2019, with increasing pressure on Steam from other online storefronts, the Steam Awards nominations have become interestingly unpredictable.

For example, two of the biggest games of the year, Remedy’s Control and House House’s Untitled Goose Game, are both exclusive to the Epic Games Store on PC. Both games have been reliably collecting an assortment of awards and nominations from shows such as the Golden Joysticks and Game Awards, but neither can be found on Steam at all. As recently as last year, they would have been on the service, and would likely have been crowd favorites for the Awards.

Epic has become notorious for “poaching” various releases from Valve, leveraging its mountains of Fortnite cash to shoulder-check its way into the digital storefront marketplace. A lot of games are Epic exclusives at time of writing, including some surprising names.

In addition, many other companies that formed the backbone of Steam’s mainstream catalog in 2018 have founded their own online stores, and brought their releases to Steam later, if at all. In addition to Epic, Steam is facing competition from Microsoft and Discord, while big companies like Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, and Activision use member perks or exclusivity to keep users on their own in-house digital storefronts.

The Steam Awards nominees, then, are a strangely useful way to gauge the impact of this competition on Steam itself. While some categories, such as Game of the Year, ended up with fairly obvious nominees, there are a number of dark horse contenders that have snuck into the running. While you can explain a few of the lower-profile nominees by pointing at Steam’s international audience, it’s hard not to think that in any previous year, many of them would have been crowded out of their categories by higher-profile games.

Examples include Ring of Elysium, a multiplayer game by the Chinese company Tencent that isn’t out of Early Access yet; GreedFall, a French RPG that was popular in Europe but got a chillier reception in the Americas; and the general higher visibility of independent games in general, such as Katana Zero, Mordhau, Gris, and Astroneer.

This shouldn’t be seen as a complaint, of course. Anything that allows indie studios to stand side-by-side with big mainstream hits like Resident Evil 2 and Jedi: Fallen Order is generally a good thing. However, when you compare the Steam Awards nominees from as recently as 2018 to 2019’s lineup, you can see the changes brewing. Steam is still quite relevant in the current landscape, but it’s no longer operating in a position of near-total dominance.

Valve has been running the Awards since 2016, celebrating the best releases on Steam for the calendar year. Valve selects the names of all eight awards categories, and has established a simple ground rule: all nominees in any category (except Labor of Love, which honors “games as a service“) must be games that were released on Steam at some point in the last 12 months.

This year’s categories were a little more serious than past years’ have been, with five nominees each for Game of the Year, VR Game of the Year, Labor of Love (a game that has continued to be revised and supported well after its official retail release), Better With Friends (a general multiplayer category), Most Innovative Gameplay, Outstanding Story-Rich Game, Best Game You Suck At, and Outstanding Visual Style.

The actual nominees for the Steam Awards are all strictly determined via fan voting. The initial call for votes went live this year during the blink-and-you-missed-it Autumn Sale, which ran from November 26th to December 3rd. The announcement of the finalists on December 18th coincided with the first day of this year’s Steam Winter Sale, which will run until 10 AM PST on January 2nd.

Hometown heroes for the Pacific Northwest in the 2019 Steam Awards include Bungie’s Destiny 2, which I assume got in through a loophole, since it only officially launched on Steam this year; Hopoo Games’s Risk of Rain 2, a follow-up to the 2015 indie hit that landed on Steam Early Access this summer; MegaCrit’s Slay the Spire, which left Early Access in January and has since gained a strong fan following; the new Definitive Edition of Microsoft’s strategy classic Age of Empires II; the Coalition’s new entry in the Gears of War series, just called Gears 5; and System Era’s Astroneer.

As one might expect, a lot of Valve’s own titles from this year are also up for consideration for awards, including DOTA Underlords, Counter-Strike, and DOTA 2.

Anyone with a Steam account can log in and vote in the Steam Awards up until 9 AM on December 31st. The winners will be announced shortly afterward, at 10 AM PST the same day. Voters will be given one random Steam Trading Card from this year’s set of Winter Sale cards for every vote they cast in the Steam Awards.

This year’s nominees are as follows:

Game of the Year

  • Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (From Software/Activision)
  • Resident Evil 2 (Capcom)
  • Star Wars – Jedi: Fallen Order (Electronic Arts/Respawn Entertainment)
  • Destiny 2 (Bungie)
  • Devil May Cry V (Capcom)

VR Game of the Year

  • Beat Saber (Beat Games)
  • Blade & Sorcery (WarpFrog)
  • GORN (Free Lives/Devolver Digital)
  • Borderlands 2 VR (Gearbox Software/Take 2)
  • Five Nights at Freddy’s: Help Wanted (Steel Wool Studios/ScottGames)

Labor of Love

  • Warframe: Empyrean (Digital Extremes)
  • Rainbow Six: Siege (Ubisoft)
  • Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (Hidden Path Entertainment/Valve Software)
  • Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar)
  • DOTA 2 (Valve Software)

Better With Friends

  • Risk of Rain 2 (Hopoo Games)
  • DOTA Underlords (Valve Software)
  • Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition (Forgotten Empires/Tantalus Media/Xbox Game Studios)
  • Ring of Elysium (Aurora Studio/TCH Scarlet Limited)
  • DayZ (Bohemia Interactive)

Most Innovative Gameplay

  • Baba Is You (Hempuli Oy)
  • Slay the Spire (MegaCrit)
  • My Friend Pedro (DeadToast Entertainment/Devolver Digital)
  • Oxygen Not Included (Kiei Entertainment)
  • Planet Zoo (Frontier Developments)

Outstanding Story-Rich Game

  • A Plague Tale: Innocence (Asobo Studio/Focus Home Interactive)
  • Disco Elysium (ZA/UM)
  • Far Cry: New Dawn (Ubisoft)
  • Gears 5 (The Coalition/Xbox Games Studio)
  • GreedFall (Spiders/Focus Home Interactive)

Best Game You Suck At

  • Mordhau (Triternion)
  • Code Vein (Bandai Namco)
  • Hunt: Showdown (Crytek)
  • Remnant: From the Ashes (Gunfire Games/Perfect World Entertainment)
  • Mortal Kombat 11 (Netherrealm/WB Games)

Outstanding Visual Style

  • Gris (Nomada Studio/Devolver Digital)
  • Total War: Three Kingdoms (Creative Assembly/Sega)
  • Astroneer (System Era)
  • Katana Zero (Asklisoft/Devolver Digital)
  • Subnautica: Below Zero (Unknown Worlds Entertainment)
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