The Electronic Entertainment Expo (more lovingly referred to as E3) first took place in May 1995, attracting 40,000 individuals working in different parts of the games industry. Video games had hit their stride, business was on the up and the industry was hungry for respect, publicity and even better ways to sell their wares. It was simply a matter of time before a trade fair, a 100s-year-old concept made to gather an industry’s newest products in a single location to build interest and investment, was set into motion. E3 was an inevitability.
But it’s been a long road, buffeted with bumps and banana skins. Over the years, E3 has been given frustrations, pressures and criticisms over the rising cost to participate, attendees getting in with less credible working backgrounds (like running a blog for 6 months), fans vying to get up and close to the conferences and the increasing advantages of each gaming company handling their own promotion through self-directed events and live streams. After all, the stars of the show are the big conferences and they’re not really part of E3 – the actual E3 is the three days of queuing for game demos in the Los Angeles Convention Center that happens after.
Many household names have taken steps away from E3 over the years. Nintendo stopped holding stage presentations in 2013 in favour of a video presentation, going for the ‘academy award winner accepting their trophy over Zoom’ approach. Konami stopped presenting in 2014. EA removed itself completely from 2016, opting to host a rival convention named EA Play in the local area. And when Sony PlayStation walked away in 2019, there were audible murmurs that E3 was heading for the big convention farm in the sky. It had become a dwindling perfunctory exercise that was nice to have around but ultimately unnecessary. So why haven’t we given up on it?
It’s for the fans
But credit where credit is due, E3 has reliably whipped gamers into heighten states of frenzy with its Gatling gunfire of game trailers and highly anticipated news. There’s an indulgent thrill for keen-eyed gamers to watch the footage, sort the quality games from the ‘all tell and no show’ trailers, and get more knowledgeable about the products they’ll be spending their money on for the next 6-12 months. Hype is a powerful emotion, and E3 has been a centralised place delivering on it for a long time. E3’s full cancellation in 2020 saw a vacuum filled with sporadic updates throughout the summer – educational but less exciting.
With hype comes the expression, which brings opinion and difference of opinion. It’s difficult to see the eventual “who won E3” debates starting as respectful competition but turned up to toxic console wars tribalism across Reddit threads and YouTube comments sections at anyone who dares to express support for a game outside of their given camp. There’s no need to launch vitriolic insults at a human being because Ubisoft brought Jason Derulo on stage.
It’s for the companies
Putting the industry leaders on a stage and subjecting them to an annual marketing trial-by-combat forces them to bring their greatest works for our judgement, battling to leave the biggest, longest-lasting impression. Sometimes we’ll see an entertainment bonanza full of spectacles, grand set pieces and Keanu Reeves calling some guy “breathtaking”. And sometimes we’ll see hilarious gaffs like busted stage demos that have given up mid-presentation, the overly loud audience cheering and the many contributions for E3 cringe compilation videos. Regardless, that pressured competition pushes all sides to strive harder to create better games for everyone.
However, for the most part, E3 is all a show. From the scripted demos to the demonstrations made to look better than the real game to the Q&A panel questions with a healthy peppering of the phrase “We’re not ready to talk about that right now”. You’ve only seen what they wanted you to see. We live in a world where a wide gulf between marketing and the actual product is almost commonplace. Just look at Cyberpunk 2077. Or any fast food advert.
It’s for the industry
The ‘large scale video game exhibition’ has become a more crowded market over the last two decades, with other events doing as good a job as E3. GamesCom & PAX have pushed plenty of trailers for fans, and Game Developers Conference & Tokyo Game Show have pushed plenty of panel discussions for industry insiders. The Game Awards & Summer Games Fest (AKA Geoff Keighley’s children) have also pushed plenty of epic reveals for… everyone who reads the summary article the next day.
Microsoft holds semi-regular XO events. Sony delivers PlayStation Experience events and State of Play video presentations. Nintendo has the Nintendo Directs. Ubisoft has Ubisoft Forward. Square Enix has Square Enix Presents. Activision Blizzard has BlizzCon. Bethesda and id Software have QuakeCon. Even Twitch has TwitchCon! Evidently, it’s not only possible for a company to connect directly with their fans to build interest in their games, but it’s preferable.
Many big companies do nothing. Take-Two Interactive (the guys who own the guys who own Grand Theft Auto) and Tencent (a company with more stakes in gaming companies than an obese vampire) never have to worry about delivering a conference with a reveal trailer that was already shown in someone else’s presentation. Why? Maybe because someone had given up trying to financially justify millions of dollars in attendance fees for the privilege of embarrassing themselves on an E3 stage.
It’s for the media
However, as much as E3 must be a cumbersome use of time and money, it is one of the few opportunities for the manufacturers and the analysts and the marketers and everyone have to catch up. Multiple meetings and play sessions that could take weeks can be done over 2 days at E3. Granted, the rise of online video calls has made the world a smaller place, but many people’s preferences still lay in face-to-face meetings. Many of those that work in the industry may have friends that they only see at these kinds of events, and if we’d given up on E3, it would remove that opportunity to catch up professionally and personally.
The brand, E3, is established. And, despite its misgivings, it is respected enough for mainstream press to pick up on gaming news. E3 can direct a lot of attention to those who wouldn’t otherwise have much of a voice. How many of us would have seen the insanity that is a Devolver Digital press conference without E3? E3 has a purpose. But as the world advanced, it became the ‘OK Boomer’ of gaming conferences and started thinking “queuetainment” was a good idea.
It’s for… everyone
Over time E3 warped and had to serve two audiences: those who push the games and those who play the games. An easy solution would be to have the event last 4 days: 2 days for the professionals to work, and 2 days for the players to play. Maybe even across two sites. But the high price to present has been a persistent complaint, and the ESA needs to take a long, hard and overdue look at what it’s offering. If they don’t add more value or lower the cost, how long will it be before companies and consumers say enough is enough?
The trade fair still works. Being in a space, experiencing the thing you love, and surrounded by the energy of tens, hundreds, maybe thousands of people – it’s a sensation stronger than anything you can imagine. It’s hype.
(Best E3 2015 Cringe Moments video by Phoenixpen.)