Let’s be clear. The COVID-19 epidemic is an international tragedy. Each life lost to this virus is a sad event and we’ll likely be seeing the social and economic ramifications of its impact for a long time to come. The world has changed because of the Corona virus as everyone comes to deal with the new foggy glasses & face masks. 6 feet apart conversations and remote working reality.
One industry that has managed to navigate the COVID-19 crisis better than most is video gaming. Digital stores that have been totally unaffected have meant that overall sales have actually increased. Engagement and play time is up across the board as people fill their evenings with FIFA instead of an evening at the footy or Animal Crossing instead of a night at the pub. The industry’s physical sector which was already migrating away from brick and mortar stores to home delivery already had an infrastructure to support the temporary closure of stores. The vast majority of studios and developers have been able to move to a “work from home” model to keep their staff safe relatively easily, something you’d expect from a tech-savvy industry such as this.
The one element of the video game industry that couldn’t adapt to the COVID-19 epidemic were physical events. EGX Rezzed, EGX Berlin, ESL, SXSW, PAX, Gamescom, GDC, Dreamhack, BitSummit, Insomnia 66, E3 and many more have either cancelled their event entirely, postponed them indefinitely or replaced them with a digital showcase event.
There’s one event that has likely been impacted the most by COVID-19 though. That event is E3. This pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for the annual 3-day event held in LA.
Over the past few years, when the dust settles after each E3, there has been the same question posed by both journalists and industry personnel – Is E3 still relevant? The event which has ran for 25 years consecutive years until 2020 was still considered the biggest impacting and most prestigious. Things were beginning to change however. Nintendo, one of the original 3 publishers who presented their games at the first ever E3, transitioned their shows from a physical hall based showcase into a pre-recorded video stream (birthing the Nintendo Direct format) in 2013. EA, a long time participant of E3, moved their presentation away from the convention in the shape of EA Play in 2016 and hasn’t returned since. Despite being one of the most watched and highly anticipated presentations during previous E3 years, Sony declined to attend in 2019 in any way, skipping a presentation or event floor space entirely. The event itself had struggled to find the right attendance numbers over the years. In 2017, the previously industry focused event opened its doors to 15,000 paying customers. A year later, attendance had grown to more than 69,000 people, 25,000 of whom had paid to be there, which in the words of some attendees was “uncomfortably crowded”. By 2019, pictures were circulating online of a mostly empty day 3 of E3. They just couldn’t seem to get the balance right. 2019 was also the year that an unsecured list of personal attendee data was publicly accessible from the ESA’s website. The personal details of thousands of journalists and influencers were leaked online. With hateful sentiments and death threats still being directed at journalists from the troubling #GamerGate period, the personal information of prominent abuse victims being left online had many questioning whether they would return in 2020…
Even before COVID-19 put a spanner in the works, the wheels had started to come off the 2020 event. In an attempt to bring in fresh attendees, the ESA were making changes to the shows format. Pitched as a “fan, media and influencer festival”, the proposal was to change the show floor to surround 8 stages/hubs where “influencers and celebrities play video games for people to watch”. The idea was not warmly received by anyone who had spoken about it publicly but the ESA were forging ahead with the plan. Because of the change, Geoff Keighley had announced that he wouldn’t be hosting the E3 Coliseum live stream event in 2020. In fact, it would be the first time in 25 years that he would not be attending E3 at all. Sony had again announced they wouldn’t be in attendance as they “did not feel the vision of E3 2020 is the right decision for what [they] are focused on this year”. Around the same time, the production company iam8bit pulled out as creative directors for the show. It certainly seemed that, before its cancellation, E3 2020 was aiming to evolve in an attempt to stay relevant but that change was being met by teething problems or outright resistance. People didn’t want what the ESA were selling.
When E3 2020 was cancelled on March 11th, the ESA said they had plans to hold a digital alternative so that their partners could use it as a platform for announcements. Just under a month later, they announced that the digital show wouldn’t happen as “the pandemic made it difficult to assemble the event”.
The rest of the industry stepped up to fill the vacuum that E3 left. Team work, hard graft and collaboration meant that during May, more than 20 virtual events had been scheduled by publishers big and small alongside indie developers for the period now being referred to as “Not-E3”. IGN’s Summer of Gaming, The Future Gaming Show, The PC Gaming Show, The Guerrilla Collective, New Game Plus, Indie LIVE Expo, EA Play 2020, BitSummit Gaiden, Ubisoft Forward, NACON Showcase, Wholesome Games, Sony’s State of Play and PS5 reveal, Microsoft’s Xbox 20/20 streams, Nintendo Direct’s – hell, there’s even a collection of low-res indie horror game’s being showcased by Haunted PS1 this weekend. While E3 collapsed, the rest of the industry created a whole new world of buzz. Millions of people around the globe have watched these events take place on YouTube and Twitch. There was even a few on Mixer too. *be dum cha* I’ll be here all week.
For E3 and the ESA, the toothpaste is officially out of the tube. The cats are out of the bag and no amount of chasing them could put them back. Without the cost of flying and hosting people in Los Angeles, without the cost of expo floor space, without the expensive booths and parties, the gaming industry has held their own series of showcases which have earned just as many, if not more headlines, than that of an E3 week – and it’s still not over. These events combined have been seen by more eyes that any E3 before it. Developers and publishers that would have been lost in the shuffle of the bustling E3 show floor have had dedicated time to show off their wares to thousands of people, far more than would have attended their booth at E3 2020. Coupled with the Steam Summer Gaming Festival which has allowed developers to upload a timed demo for people to try, it means that the hands on demonstrations are still happening too.
“Not-E3” and the whole host of digital events are proof beyond a doubt that if E3 still wants to remain the “biggest impacting and most prestigious” gaming event on the calendar, it needs to evolve. The ESA need to realise that current and future generations of gamers will be consuming their media almost entirely online and that a “fan, media and influencer festival” probably won’t cut it. Standing in a hall watching a celebrity play a game isn’t something worth travelling for. That’s something we can do on Twitch for free without getting off the couch. Then there’s the presentations. Sony broke records with the PS5 reveal. Will Bethesda, Ubisoft, Microsoft et al return for next year’s E3? Only time will tell but I imagine they’re all looking at what can be achieved via live streamed events and seriously thinking twice.
Of course, “Not-E3” could be improved. As good as Metal Hellsinger looks, I’m not sure I needed to see it presented at 4 different showcases. Better collaboration between contributors and organisers will mean game’s don’t overstay their welcome and reach over saturation that makes people want to turn over to something else. It would be brilliant if other platform holders could follow Steam’s lead by offering limited time demo’s for people to experience. Aligning the tone of some of these events would have been beneficial too. If you’re promising big AA/AAA announcements (which admittedly did happen later in the events) don’t open the events with obscure indie games which might turn some away. There needs to be a balance.
I also think there will always be a place for physical events. Those physical events will need to offer something you can’t get online however. E3’s split priority – part press and industry event, part paying customer there to play the demo’s – means that neither group can be served as well as they would should. Dedicated press events or shows with dedicated industry days like Gamescom will be become the preferred destination for industry professions. Smaller events that won’t make you queue for 3 hours to play the latest Call of Duty will become the place for the public. E3 needs to pick a lane and try to find experiences that make attendance worth it.
If the relevance of E3 was in question before, it’s a dead cert after 2020’s “Not-E3”. Is there a way for the ESA to restores E3 former glory? Personally, I don’t think so. I think no matter what form E3 2021 comes in, enough of the industry will have seen the results of “Not-E3”, an experiment forced upon them by an international crisis that’s likely exceeding any predicted metrics, for anyone want the old E3 form to return. I’ve no doubt that E3 2021 will still go ahead in what ever form the ESA choose but if enough publishers and developers choose to do their own things akin to The Guerrilla Collective, it’ll be a zombie of its previous self and a sad relic of the past. It’ll only be a matter of time from there.
If you enjoyed this article or any more of our content, please consider supporting our Patreon.