clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

E3's bizarre, bombastic media events

Why are these egotistical showpieces still going on?

Fans line up for Bethesda’s 2017 showcase
| Christian Petersen / Staff / Getty Images

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

I attended my first E3 back in 1995 and have sat through dozens of media presentations. To me, they're like a secret language of anxiety and folly. Below, I’ve shared my thoughts on this year's installment.


Last week, my colleague Brian Crecente wrote a cogent piece about the practical and commercial point of E3, and how it might face an uncertain future.

After a few days of slogging around E3’s media presentations, I’m intrigued by a slightly different question: Why the hell do we do this to ourselves?

I’m especially interested by the so-called media events staged by companies like Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Sony, Bethesda and Ubisoft.

These quasi-press conferences require enormous expenditure, mass discomfort and long waits. The amount of new, valuable information they contain is negligible, especially considering the wealth of alternative methods, as demonstrated by Nintendo Direct and various other strategies used by companies all through the year. They are essentially a live screening of video commercials.

Game Director Stephane Beley unveils The Crew 2 during the Ubisoft E3 event.
Christian Petersen / Staff / Getty Images

There was a time when these events were basic press conferences in which new products were announced and droning executive speeches were given. Reporters took notes and filed stories. Generally, the only people applauding were company employees, paid stooges and industry allies. The press was there to do a job, not to participate in the hype, at least in the moment of delivery.

Times have changed. These events are now fan festivals, in which companies assert themselves, define themselves and actualize their fantastically overheated corporate egos.

The audience is unabashedly enthusiastic about each and every pronouncement. They cheer, clap and celebrate. They are fans, and there's nothing wrong with that.

That many of them are YouTubers who project their fandom through commercial social media channels does not nullify their fandom and their right to express their passions. That some of their projections might be a bit of an act, designed to further personal commercial interests, is something for their own followers to deduce.

Fans wear Vault Boy balloon hats at Bethesda’s E3 event
Christian Petersen / Staff / Getty Images

At modern E3 events, the audience is co-opted as the spectacle. Cameras swoop over the seated hordes, searching for shots that exude enthusiasm.

Middle-aged execs shuffle onto the stage to make some anodyne pronouncements, grin at the ecstatic reception, and then shuffle off while flashy marketing videos do their work.

The events are a physical conjoining of brand and fan, a stickiness that can't be replicated by online presentations and distant trailer drops. The audience manifests itself as the flesh and blood of the millions at home, watching livestreams. That the press is also there is barely relevant.

Gaming companies do not want to relinquish this sorcery, this incandescence. They view it as necessary to their being.

These companies are all ideas. They are each a promise. And promises are more readily accepted in the flesh than at a distance. At E3, you're only as good as your next game. You're only as hot as the energy you generate from revelation.

Fans at the Bethesda event
Charley Gallay / Stringer / Getty Images

This gets to the heart of the question of why we are here. E3 needs to exist in order for the game industry to exist. I don't mean to say that the games business would disappear if E3 were canceled. I mean that the game industry as it currently views itself — as an arresting spectacle — would no longer exist. For most of these companies, most especially those that hold shows and rallies, that is an intolerable notion.

Their hang-up goes back to the prehistory of E3, when it was a sideshow at the Consumer Electronics Show. The game industry now is profoundly greater than it was in the early 1990s, but there remains a deep terror that it might once again be co-opted into something bigger, most especially the behemoth of mass entertainment, of Hollywood, television and all that. As games become more like movies, this fear is not entirely irrational.

There are scant practical reasons for the game industry to trek here every year, to lumber towards Los Angeles like ancient caravans. This is a trade show, but not much in the way of trading actually happens. The retail buyers, who once strode these halls like mandarins, are back in their offices, looking at spreadsheets and eating brown bag lunches.

Xbox fans wait outside The Galen Center.
Christian Petersen / Staff / Getty Images

So the reason for all this is partly psychological. It is a proving, an annual rite of worship in which the game industry — a made-up entity with no real physical presence — is held up to be celebrated.

As individuals, a lot of game industry people come here to literally worship the walls of blaring screens that separate them from the object of their veneration. But those screens are also mirrors, and they show the faithful that they belong.

At a company level, the brands that throw big events are all trying to tell us something. Obviously they are hawking products. They are also spinning some half-believed pablum about innovation, consumer empathy and passion.

If you're interested and if you look carefully, these events are great opportunities to see the real personalities of these companies at work. They are all good at what they do, and they are all staffed by smart people. But they are also dysfunctional and damaged in ways that are, frankly, a delight to those of us who watch from the outside.

Every company at E3 unconsciously reveals truths about itself. Most of us are oblivious to them, but the ones most oblivious are the companies themselves. I know this because I’ve experienced it, the hard way.

Back in the '90s, I once worked for a games magazine company. At the height of our success, we splashed on a large, conspicuous E3 booth. We decided it would be a fabulous idea to show our consumer in his own home environment.

So we built this cool bedroom and stuffed it with entertainment kit and we surrounded it with glass. We had some good-looking lad sit there, in this hideous E3 goldfish bowl and act out the fantasy of playing games and eating trendy snacks and reading magazines.

We literally put our idealized customer in a cage, like a zoo animal.

Within a few years, that company was long past its best. The internet came. A new generation arrived. We were too slow. Too complacent. Too establishment.

The glass box was empty.

How obvious it is now that we were unconsciously pleading with our readers, the people who paid our wages and maintained our life of privilege, to not go anywhere, to stay just as they were. Such pathetic hubris.

If I'd understood all that then, I might have saved myself a lot of bother. But who really understands themselves? Definitely not companies, and most especially not companies that make their livings in the realms of fantasy and self-glorification.

Let's take them in turn, based on this year's parade.

Live from the EA conference.
Christian Petersen/ Staff

Electronic Arts

Electronic Arts shows are vaudevilles for a rolling menagerie of under-brands like Madden, Star Wars and Need for Speed. The company takes on these masks to keep the kiddies amused, and does a pretty good job. “Here is FIFA.” Bloody marvelous. “Here is Battlefield.” Hurrah.

It’s best to not look too closely as the magic of annual iterations unfolds. Fairly or unfairly, EA once acquired a reputation for greed and cynicism. There are many people who firmly believe that this lot would cheerfully sell all our kids to the child snatcher, if it could buy another year with the NFL.

EA’s execs have worked hard to counter this, but it’s difficult to completely look like a paragon when so many of your games are basically slightly better versions of the thing you published a year ago.

EA probably deserves more of a reputation for risk-taking, hosting games like Unravel, while taking Battlefield back to World War I. But it’s tough to get a break, when you’re EA. Even Anthem, BioWare’s big play at this year’s show, has a definite Destiny vibe, seized upon by commentators

There's a nagging suspicion that EA isn't sure where it ends and the masks begin. We worry that it’ll show up with not quite enough goody bags to go around. A lot of people like EA. Hell, some of them even love EA. But trust is still an issue with this company, and likely will be for years to come.

Microsoft

At the Xbox event, "guests" were herded into groups, ordered to comply with security directives, disallowed from free movement. On the way in I was required to stand on a line, like a prisoner. I was channeled into a specific section of the theater. No, I was not free to go elsewhere.

Microsoft’s Phil Spencer
Christian Petersen / Getty Images

Microsoft is a control freak. It presents itself as the ultimate in modern technological and consumer-fronting efficiency. And yes, it does do great things, not least making (as we were repeatedly reminded) the most powerful console ever made.

But this artifact is a poor substitute for the real power it still craves, the ownership of lives in the way of an Amazon, an Apple or a Google. That can never really happen. Because Microsoft just can't stop itself from ramming its head up its own arse, at just the moment of blissful consummation.

Here is a company that stands in front of the world to declare a product with the potential to be truly transformative, and it comes with a price that sounds like one long comedy trombone.

If this were a one-off, we could call it a misstep. But these guys keep doing the same thing. It's cultural. Their dorky glasses are so smudged with the fog of zeal that they can't see the gorgeous beau beaming at them. Self-sabotage is in Microsoft's DNA, and we saw it again this week.

Bethesda

Bethesda makes lovely games, transformative worlds of magic and discovery. But as we saw at its grotesque E3 self-celebration, this is not enough. Bethesda wants to be cool.

Charley Gallay / Getty Images

So it throws a party, with booze and a marketing man who says "fuck" on stage. It lays on knowing irony with a shovel. Tragically, it plays '80s favorites remixed with modern beats and invites a hip pop band to do their thing.

This is the most Dad game company in the world. They invite you to be wild and young, but then they check your bag on the way out, just in case you were thinking of swiping the cutlery.

Bethesda wants to be a hot brand, rather than just a highly competent producer. I find it to be an excruciating spectacle. It amazes me that anyone buys it, but they do.

Ubisoft

Ubisoft has a different kind of worldview, born of its beginnings as a family concern. This company is all about coming together and being nice. If you can say, in a languid French accent, "our community is very passionate" you're halfway to being a Ubisoft employee.

Yves and Shigeru chum it up.
Christian Petersen / Getty Images

Their leader Yves Guillemot is a sweet man who believes in inclusivity. His employee base is unusually diverse. His games are often geared explicitly toward sharing and being. He has that French feeling for accommodation and compromise.

But for all the on-screen love hearts and dainty free cakes handed out at Ubi's conference, we ought never forget that most of its games are about murdering people. Few companies have done more to celebrate the act of bludgeoning, slicing, shooting and strangling. Like many other companies, they satiate the public’s gruesome taste for death and violence.

Ubisoft incorporated the family ethos into its business dealing, and when you see the team on stage together, you might almost believe that this is something other than an international corporation that, I am fairly certain, doesn’t spend a whole lot of time considering the social evils buttressed by violence-as-problem-solver.

Sony

Sony is a company that knows how to throw a party. At its event last night, there were no lines, no barking security goons and plenty of refreshments (at least in the media area).

The company reps were friendly. The stage show was likable. Shawn Layden makes for an agreeable host. I feel sure he makes an excellent dinner companion, one who orders a very decent St. Emilion and absolutely insists on sharing the New York cheesecake.

The games on show looked, y'know, fine, even if a series of trailers lacks an essential unifying vision.

But there was one moment that gave me pause. During the Call of Duty: World War II section, the company set off some on-site effects. Bullets. Explosions. In a theater. In 2017. I'm not a nervous person. I don't think I'm a particularly sensitive person. But I found these both extremely alarming and pretty insensitive.

During its PlayStation 2 heyday, Sony displayed an arrogance and tin ear that many of its partners found grating. The result was the difficult PlayStation 3. Sony knows how to do things well, but its antenna can sometimes be tipped with tungsten. I wonder why no-one considered the flashes and bangs in such circumstances are not entirely wise.

Christian Petersen / Getty Images

Just as you and I give off subconscious signals by the clothes we wear and the friends we keep, every company at E3, even the small ones with modest stands, is revealing something dark about itself. It’s fascinating stuff. (And yes, I completely accept that it’s possible to read too much into all this, to veer off into fancy.)

Even so, I'll show up to E3 next year, to tune out the bullshit and watch for the real story, the glorious folly of power.


Thanks to Christian Petersen and Charley Gallay for photography in this article.