Anyone can buy tickets this year for E3, a video game-fueled bacchanalia held in Los Angeles every summer. Or they could, until they sold out.
The ticket sales were a first for the two-decade history of the Entertainment Software Association’s big show.
About 15,000 people purchased access to the always packed show floors for the right to stand in line to play yet-to-be-released games, sit in on interviews conducted on a stage just for them and generally enthuse about the game industry.
It’s the latest iteration of the increasingly shifting shape of the E3 show and maybe a sign that it’s time to reexamine whether the physical show needs to exist at all and, if so, in what form.
Where some might see a move to dodge obsolescence or an attempt to keep the event that chiefly funds the ESA afloat, the people who run the show say it’s nothing more than the latest evolution in an always evolving celebration of video games.
“E3 remains relevant,” said Rich Taylor, ESA’s senior vice president of communication and industry affairs. “I don’t think its relevance was truly threatened.
“We’ve made sure it is relevant and essential for anyone who cares about video games.”
But looking back across the 22 years of shows, it’s obvious that many of the formative reasons the show was created no longer exist.
The chief, original reason for the creation of the show — giving retailers a place to check out upcoming games and make buying decisions — isn’t necessary because those orders come in well before the show starts. Presenting video games as an important thing to a world not entirely aware of them — once an oft quoted reason for the show by ESA leadership — also is no longer necessary.
Perhaps, the most telling evidence that the show simply doesn’t deliver what it used to is how some game publishers themselves treat it, with many either creating their own big events or simply relying on video streams to reach their audiences.
It’s time for the E3 show of old, of packing in retailers, pushing out press releases and loading up the week with announcements, to die. Whether something better can take its place will be answered in the response to this year’s show and the show-runners’ ability to make next year an even more public, more millennial-relevant event.
Embrace the public
E3 got its start in 1994 thanks to a Consumer Electronics Show that didn’t respect video games. Tired of the back-door treatment, a group of people came together to create a show that could offer retailers an “interpretive event that will help them make smarter buying decisions.” The first show kicked off in LA in 1995.
But buying now takes place well before E3 starts, according to Sony Interactive Entertainment America president Shaun Layden.
“We write all of our Christmas business in February,” said Layden, who also reiterated Sony’s continued support for the show. “By the time E3 hits, it is too late to have a meaningful retail exchange where you're going to talk about holidays. You've got to write that business earlier and earlier every year.”
Using one week of the year to educate the world about video games also seems antiquated in today’s culture. About 65 percent of American households have at least one person who plays games three hours per week, according to the ESA. The average gamer in the country is 35. The notion that the general public is unaware of video games, their impact or import is dated, at best.
And look how some of the biggest publishers treat the show. Years ago, Nintendo sort of gave up on E3. The maker of Mario, the Wii and Switch canceled its big press conference, a tentpole of the show. Instead it turned most of its attention away from glad-handing press and toward copious video streams, game demos in stores located around the country and branded game tournaments. Sure, Nintendo still shows up at E3, but last year the entire booth was devoted to a single game. This year sounds like it will be similar. Both Microsoft and PlayStation still have big press conferences, but even their tenor and tone has changed.
PlayStation’s Layden said the company makes sure to focus on the games and make it more of a media showcase than a press conference. That relatively new take — which leaves out things like sales numbers and other analytic tidbits — coincidentally coincides with both the rise of PlayStation’s own video stream of the event directly to its consoles and other devices as well as the creation of a fall event. The PlayStation Experience is a PlayStation-only celebration of games, and Layden said he enjoys getting up on stage there far more than he does at E3.
Even if one were to ignore all of those basic facts undermining the need for an E3, there’s also the growing slate of video game shows that now occur all around the world. The popular, and public, Penny Arcade Expo holds events in Seattle, San Antonio, Boston, Philadelphia and Melbourne, Australia. There’s the Tokyo Game Show and the mammoth Gamescom in Germany. And video games increasingly get thrown in the mix at comic and science fiction conventions.
So what exactly is E3 left to offer that is original and necessary?
The landscape of media has changed so dramatically that even providing a gathering place for the press seems unnecessary, though Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe head Jim Ryan tells me that E3 still manages to generate the most stories of the shows he attends.
So providing a platform upon which to deliver a gaming spotlight seems like the last leg of the old, the core E3. If E3 were to take on the model of a show like Gamescom (the 2016 attendance for that massive show was about 350,000) , opening the doors to not just 15,000, but 50,000 gaming fanatics, the show would both maintain its media spotlight and provide the sort of unfiltered access to all of those announcements that today’s generation expects and wants.
Fortunately, the ESA and its game publisher leadership seem open to evolving, and a public show could even help better fund the association — now they just have to be ready to do so before it’s too late.
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 executive editor of Polygon.