By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "Game of Thrones," HBO's wildly popular medieval fantasy series, may have served up gory beheadings, scintillating sex scenes, fire-breathing dragons and an ever-expanding battle for the Iron Throne, but it has never won the most important crown of all: the Emmy award for best drama series.
Despite commanding a formidable fan base with 20 million viewers per episode, 16 million Facebook fans and 3 million Twitter followers, "Game of Thrones," based on George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novel series, has yet to win over Emmy voters.
The show premiered in 2011 and has been nominated four times in the best-drama race. But voters of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, deciders of the Emmy awards, traditionally shun fantasy in favor of realism in drama.
All that could change at Sunday's Emmy Awards.
"Thrones" has a leading 24 nominations, and all 18,000 members of the Television Academy can vote for best drama, compared with around 1,000 in the past, said Tom O'Neil, founder of awards tracker Gold Derby (www.goldderby.com).
"Everyone is voting online, so you will get more broad-based popular results that would benefit 'Game of Thrones'," he said.
The biggest competitors for "Thrones" are AMC's period drama "Mad Men," which concluded this year in a widely praised finale, and Netflix's political thriller "House of Cards," according to Entertainment Weekly TV writer Lynette Rice.
"Simply by virtue of lack of competition, it looks good for 'Game of Thrones,' but also this season was an extraordinary year for the show," Rice said.
"Homeland," "Downton Abbey," "Better Call Saul," and "Orange is the New Black" round out the drama series contenders.
The fifth season of "Game of Thrones" featured new lands and an army of the walking dead. But it proved controversial for its scenes of brutality against women, including a violent rape, burning a little girl at the stake and shaming a major female character with a naked walk though a city.
Emmy wins don't seem to be a primary concern for "Game of Thrones" fans.
Instead, after season five became the most-watched series ever for Time Warner Inc's HBO and concluded in June with the death of hero Jon Snow (played by Kit Harington), fans online are consumed with whether the character will return.
Speculation has ranged from sightings of Harington on set in Ireland to the actor's decision not to cut his shoulder-length brown locks, which have become a trademark of his character.
"Game of Thrones," has already won eight statues at last week's Creative Arts Emmys for visual effects, make-up, stunts, casting and other categories.
But its only major Emmy came in 2011 for best supporting actor Peter Dinklage, who plays series favorite Tyrion Lannister.
Dinklage is once again nominated in the category, while his co-stars Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister) and Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) will duke it out in the best supporting drama actress race.
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Jonathan Oatis)