Another E3 event has come and gone, a hybrid collection of online streams and interview panels patched together under the Entertainment Software Association’s (ESA) long running expo brand. While arguments can be made for and against whether E3 2021 was a success, the bigger question revolves around its future relevance for an industry that continues to evolve and shift away from what we’ve come to know for so long. Let’s cast our minds back to 2019, the last in-person E3 expo that marked what many believed to be the end of the road for the ESA’s major event. Sony pulled out entirely, joining EA in avoiding any participation and in turn causing a seismic shift in fan and industry expectation of what an E3 can and should be. That bombshell announcement was unfortunately coupled with a major data leak that had attendee personal information easily accessible from the ESA’s own website, causing irreparable damage to the ESA’s reputation in the eyes of the media and various social media influencers.
“As the industry evolves, Sony Interactive Entertainment continues to look for inventive opportunities to engage the community. PlayStation fans mean the world to us and we always want to innovate, think differently and experiment with new ways to delight gamers. As a result, we have decided not to participate in E3 in 2019. We are exploring new and familiar ways to engage our community in 2019 and can’t wait to share our plans with you.”
2020 wouldn’t be any better, with the planned in-person event cancelled just a few short months before taking place, thanks to the increased concern over the coronavirus outbreak around the world. The ESA considered an online event in its place but cited various disruptions caused by the pandemic made it almost impossible to run the event online in time with the usual June schedule, and confirmed the event would return the following year. And return it did, across a handful of June days and entirely online, with various familiar brands including Xbox, Nintendo, Ubisoft and a host of other studios and developers taking part. Doing their best to bring the industry together, every major industry stream across the event were streamed on E3’s own channel with a host of gaming press veterans hosting panels and interviews in-between.
However, as the industry has now completely shifted. Various other live streams including Geoff Keighley’s Summer Game Fest were held in and around E3’s former schedule last year, whilst the likes of Ubisoft and Capcom have joined Nintendo, Xbox and Sony in creating their own brand identity online. That led to a clash of ideas and presentations either side of E3 proper, especially with Keighley’s opening night event held just a day prior to E3’s first day of streaming. However you look at it, there was a general sense of excitement and appreciation for another big week of gaming news. There’s nothing quite like the industry and its numerous fans coming together at all hours of the day (i.e. 3am in Australia) and tweeting up a storm as one announcement drops after another. Where were you when Elden Ring finally revealed itself? What were you thinking when Nintendo revived Metroid Dread?
That’s just one major reason why E3 still has a place within the industry. Very few gaming events can hold an audience across multiple days, let alone revive that general feeling of euphoria when a long rumoured game finally comes to light, or a surprise reveal causes chaos on Twitter. The hype might not be as epic as it may have been some years ago, at the height of Sony’s ‘Shenmue, Final Fantasy’ combo in 2015 or even Keanu Reeve’s ‘you’re breathtaking’ two years ago, but it doesn’t take much to spark the life back into it in an industry that continually tries to one-up itself. We forget, but back at the beginning the Electronic Entertainment Expo was a simple trade show when it first came to be in 1995.
Hosts of E3 2021 – Kinda Funny’s Greg Miller, IGN’s Jackie Jing & G4’s Alex “Goldenboy” Mendez (Credit: ESA)
Its purpose was to bring attention to new hardware and software specifically to retailers and press. It’s a far cry from what it has come to be known for, an industry wide presentation for a mass audience with giant displays, epic trailers and celebrities galore. Time has evolved it into something bold and colourful, a giant advertisement for the upcoming slate of titles pushing into the holiday season and beyond.So where does E3 go from here? If all goes to plan, the world will be largely back to its event driven, plane flying self at some point next year, leading the ESA to potentially return to Los Angeles to run the event as it was. But will the audience interest be there? Will fans be comfortable not only in spending big to make the event, but being around countless other people in a cramped exhibition centre?
That leads to an interesting thought. If nothing else, E3 is more than just an event, it’s a brand. The biggest brand names in the world have become the norm in social circles, you mention them in conversation without even thinking half the time. You’ll have a Coke, you’ll Google it, maybe you’ll ‘Netflix and chill’, the biggest brands are fused with the general thought process of life. The same can now be said of E3, a moment in time where the industry reveals its secrets for the future every year. The question remains, does E3 have a place in this modern online world, and the answer is two-fold. If another event does go ahead next year, much needs to change to evolve the production and schedule to allow a further incorporation of the independent developers that played a large part this year. Your Guerrilla Collective showcases, your Freedom Games events, they were as important this year as anything Xbox or Nintendo revealed.
There are so many more elements at play, many of which are present this year (Steam Next Fest, the ID@Xbox indie demos) and both Sony and EA are holding future streams later this year. But if 2020 proved anything, it’s that spreading things out into random dates and cutting streams short to keep other announcements for later (hello, Ubisoft Forward) doesn’t make for as good a presentation as having it all in one place, across a single week, for the entire industry to be there as one. If E3 were a brand, perhaps there’s a way to evolve it into something bolder. This year is testament to the fact that people love this moment in time, good or bad, and the Summer Games Fest is a more entertaining (if still a tiny bit flawed) presentation. Whether it’s combining the show floor with online events, going online only or a combination of the two, holding the event under the banner that is ‘Electronic Entertainment Expo’ still has a broader, universal appeal.
Ultimately, E3’s future isn’t an easy question to answer. There are so many variables, so many things that can go right or wrong and so, so much more that constantly evolves as technology progresses. There’s still a place for the event, whether in a physical space or simply as a name for everything to fold in together like a nice, neat package, so it isn’t quite going away any time soon. How far the games industry and the ESA are willing to work together to make it happen, one way or the other, will define it all.