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The future of E3 is more people, fewer reporters

Hype doesn’t need a booth

Ubisoft E3 2017 - Day 1 Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Ubisoft

E3 2017 was a dense forest of game trailers, announcements and live streams from the biggest names in gaming. It was also the first show where the ESA sold tickets directly to the public, changing the tone of the show floor and the event itself. Next year will likely change to an even greater degree as everyone involved, from the press to those who pay for booths, anticipate the crush of people and adjust plans accordingly.

That likely means fewer members of the press in general, and a more commercial show that caters to the fans more than the industry. That’s not a bad thing, but it does significantly change things.

This isn’t a surprise

The shows dedicated to each major publisher and platform holder — what used to be called press conferences — have already made the press’ presence redundant. Outside of hands-on events that sometimes follow the barrage of game trailers that now make up these shows, there is little reason for anyone who isn’t a fan or paid influencer to be there.

The news is broadcast live to the greater audience and, while the press is certainly happy to react to it and break down what it all means, being a body in the physical audience is now more of a hindrance than an advantage. The press conferences aren’t live shows anymore, and that makes things much easier for those organizing them.

“If you noticed, we had to put many of our games coming out this year in the pre-show lineup because we wanted to make the actual show one hour,” Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony's Worldwide Studios, explained during the show. “There were no technical issues that we needed to be worried about and there was no switching people, so we didn't have rehearsal. We had just one run-through the night before. That was it.”

It’s easier, and more effective, to cover these things from an off-site location while watching the same stream as everyone else. If publishers and platform holders don’t explicitly offer some sort of value-add for the press outside of the presentation itself, that approach is only going to grow in popularity ... but I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing in the eyes of the money people. They want an enthusiastic crowd there who will clap and look at the announcements with an uncritical eye, so why not remove the incentive for critics and reporters to show up?

And these changes were planned before anyone experienced the new show; they were just a natural evolution in the age of YouTube and Twitch.

But what about the floor itself?

There are now two types of people at E3: Those who are there to work, and fans who just want to hang out and play upcoming games. Neither group is better or more deserving than the other, but those two goals are often at odds. No priority was given to the press when the doors opened, meaning many there to work were late to initial appointments because they were stuck waiting in the crush of people hoping to see the new Mario title.

The press also struggled to navigate the show floor due to the crowded walkways and gawking fans. The booths are their own attraction, but the floor is now filled with thousands of people who went to the show expressly to hang out and look at things. That makes the floor itself inefficient for anyone just trying to make it to the next appointment, and will likely lead to even more people offering demos and interviews away from the crowd.

The open secret is that the E3 show floor has always been garbage for getting any business done, and appointments often meant off-site meeting rooms and interviews. The problem is only getting worse, meaning that there’s less reason to have large teams of reporters on the scene. Outside of the spectacle, scheduled hands-on time and interviews there’s next to no reason for the press to actually be there, and the uncomfortable fact is that all those things are better handled away from the show floor.

This isn’t a problem on its face, publishers will either make games available to the press or they won’t, and the tone of E3 has little to do with that decision, but the bigger question concerns what E3 is these days.

It’s not for retailers, it’s not for press and the public is already pretty well served by PAX. So how does E3 welcome more people, make the job of the press harder and decrease the importance of live presentation without turning into yet another consumer-facing video game show?

PAX rose to fill the need for a gaming show that pandered to fans instead of the press, but how does E3 continue to provide value for everyone involved now that it seems to be pivoting to go after the same audience?

The biggest value that E3 provides the industry is the critical mass of interest and announcements that happens during the week of the show. Traffic to gaming websites swells, news is leaked and trailers are released. It’s important because we’ve all decided that it’s important, so everyone goes after the same audience at the same time.

But this doesn’t require a physical event at all. It’s good for the ESA that companies will pay for a booth and fans will pay to get in, but the big news happens during live streams and interviews can happen over the phone. Hands-on demos could take place anywhere, and much of the hands-on coverage you’ll read about these games is based on demos given at pre-show events that take place before E3 begins.

E3 next year will likely have more booths that include stores to sell games and merch directly to fans, and fewer writers and editors will make the trek to work in an environment that’s aimed at everything but work. E3 is on the road to becoming PAX, and the biggest risk to the show is that everyone realizes that the only requirement for E3 to take place is for everyone to agree on a week to release the year’s biggest news.

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