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E3 this year will admit thousands of fans

This year's E3 will include a first for the 20-year-old annual international gaming convention in LA: limited public access.

While E3 has traditionally been an industry event which doesn't officially allow consumers onto its game-packed floors, this year the show is allowing 4,000 to 5,000 of some of gaming's biggest fans into the Los Angeles Convention Center halls to wander as invited guests.

"This year, for the first time, there will be prosumers in the halls," said Rich Taylor, senior vice president of consumer and industry affairs for E3 organizer The Entertainment Software Association. While fans have been let into the show in small numbers over the years through contests, the ESA says this new policy is a first.

About 4,000 to 5,000 non-industry people will be invited to the show, Taylor said. The passes, good for full access to the length of the show, will be handed out by ESA member companies which are exhibiting on the floor. The number of passes a company gets is based on the size of its booth, and thus monetary contribution to the show.

"Member exhibitors each have an allotment of some passes that they are permitted to distribute to their valued customers," Taylor said.

The extra passes means a roughly 10 percent bump in the number of people attending the show this year.

The decision came during an ESA board meeting discussing E3. Each year, Taylor said, the board meets after E3 to discuss what went wrong, what went right and what can change. The decision to open the doors to a limited number of the public was spurred by several things, he said.

"There's a number of factors," Taylor said. "There was a desire by a number of exhibitors and board members to connect with people directly.

"In this age of vast social media,  having some of those voices in the hall to report their reaction and enthusiasm is seen as a big plus."

That doesn't mean, he added, that the show values traditional press reaction and coverage any less.

Rumors have circulated for months that the ESA was considering allowing the public to purchase tickets to E3 for a single day. That would follow the sort of approach used by both Gamescom in Germany, which has a press day and four public days, and the Tokyo Game Show, which has two public days and two business days.

But Taylor said that even if the board wanted to open the show to the public, on say Friday after the show has historically ended, there are "natural constraints" in place, including abutting shows at the convention center.

"The thinking was to expend to include the prosumers and then evaluate how it went after this year's show," he said adding that he wouldn't get into the things discussed by the board versus what was decided by the group.

The decision to expand the show to the public, even if it is just 4,000 to 5,000 of them, comes at an interesting time for E3.

Not only is the show hitting its 20th anniversary, but the current contract to hold E3 in the Los Angeles Convention Center expires after 2016.

"Right now the contract is through 2016 with LACC," Taylor said. "That's where it sits right now."

He said the board is evaluating what to do next in terms of location and will do "whatever is in the best interest of the show and attendees."

While the board expands its direct outreach to the public and ponders whether to renew its contract with Los Angeles, E3 the show faces growing competition among the seemingly constantly expanding slate of other video game shows.

Where E3 used to be one of the only convention in the world focused solely on video games, that's no longer the case. Today there are more than a dozen video game conventions — much more if you count shows that include video games among other interests like TV, movies and comics — hosted around the globe.

And the nature of gaming, which once was limited to consoles and computers, has changed drastically over the past 20 years. Now games are played on everything from dedicated consoles to computers, to browsers, watches and phones.

But Taylor says despite the rising ubiquity of video games, perhaps because of it, E3 remains an incredibly important and relevant showpiece for the industry. And, while the ESA gets about half of its budget from the annual show, Taylor said that the purpose of E3 is not to fund the organization but to "provide a platform to our members and others who make our industry great and dynamic. The funding the ESA receives is a nice side effect, but it's not the driver.

"E3 is more relevant and necessary and more popular than ever before," he said. "We have 365 days of video game news and developments and announcements, but E3 is the one time of the year that so many leaders come together and you see what you're going to be playing for the rest of the year with new releases and product unveilings.

"It's like asking if football needs the Super Bowl or soccer needs the World Cup. I think people understand there are a lot of tournaments and games that happen but there is only one World Cup."

And nothing speaks more to the value of E3 to both gamers and the industry itself, he added, than the show's attendance.

The show hit its attendance peak in 2005 with 70,000. A year later, that number dropped to 60,000. In 2007, E3 was completely overhauled and moved to Santa Monica with attendance deliberately reduced to 10,000. The next year's attendance was reduced once more, this time to 5,000.

In 2009, the show returned to the LA Convention Center and attendance leapt to 41,000. The following year, attendance was allowed to increase to more than 45,000, but the ESA said there were no plans to allow it to hit the huge numbers of the 2005 era of E3.

Over the following years, attendance has slowly crept up, but still remains less than 50,000. Last year's show had 48,200 in attendance and Taylor believes this year's will be about the same, plus the addition of the public attendees.

It's obvious that E3 isn't dying, Taylor said.

"The numbers speak for themselves; the continued growth, the global consumption," he said. "The time to announce or unveil something is at E3. When you step back and look at the landscape at the end of the year, where did the big news happen? It all happens in June in LA."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding editor and News Editor of Polygon.

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