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E3 2019: Xbox, PlayStation still rule, but streaming is a game-changer

The world's largest video game conference was as full of games and celebrities as it's always been, but it's clear that streaming tech like Google's Stadia became the talk of the show.

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E3 is morphing.

James Martin/CNET

I touched the future this week. And it was super cool. The journey began when I walked into a building in downtown Los Angeles, a few blocks from where the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, was taking place. The world's largest video game conference drew 66,100 attendees and more than 200 exhibitors to LA's convention center to talk about the future of video games. But it was off the show floor that some of the most interesting action was taking place.

The building I'd been directed to had been remade to look like an old video game shop, filled with now-antique game consoles like '90s favorites the Nintendo 64 and the Sega Genesis, and racks of game cartridges to go with them. The "clerk" signed me in on a tablet, which seemed out of place in this historical re-creation.

I was ushered to a doorway in the back, and when I stepped through, I stepped into the future.

Settling down in front of a TV, I started playing Doom Eternal, id Software's upcoming sequel to the '90s-era blood-and-guts smash hit that has players running around exterminating demons. But I wasn't playing on a Microsoft Xbox, a Sony PlayStation or a Nintendo Switch. I was playing over the internet, courtesy of Google's upcoming Stadia service, which promises to let you stream games just like millions of people stream Netflix and HBO shows every day.

"Our ambition is far beyond a single game," Google's Phil Harrison had said when announcing the service back in March. Not only does Stadia's internet magic make an Xbox or PlayStation unnecessary, Google added, but it also means gamers get access to games quickly, and on any device they like, whether traveling or at home. "The power of instant access is magical," Harrison said, "and it's already transformed the music and movie industries."

Stadia, which will be free to use if you buy the game from Google, wasn't the only streaming service touted at E3. Microsoft was showing off its xCloud gaming service as well, which'll go into public testing in the fall.

"Streaming is going to enable this high-quality content to hit more screens around you," Xbox head Phil Spencer said in an interview.

Of course, all this nifty new technology largely wasn't made available for thousands of attendees, including some 15,000 gamers who paid $249 apiece to be at the show. Those folks braved the long lines, bad food and notorious Los Angeles traffic to get glimpses of new titles like CD Projekt Red's dystopian futuristic game Cyberpunk 2077. Or Square Enix's Final Fantasy 7 Remake, a retelling of the industry-defining epic adventure game from the '90s.

"Mostly, I was here to check out the games," said Alesha, a grade school teacher from Denver.

Here are some of the other things that stood out at this year's conference.

Keanu Reeves as his alter ego.

Microsoft

Keanu Reeves won the show

Fresh off his smashing success in John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum, Reeves took to the stage during Microsoft's Xbox press conference, announcing he'd lent his likeness and voice to one of the characters in Cyberpunk 2077.

"A while back the guys from CD Projekt Red approached me and asked me to be a part of their new project, Cyberpunk 2077," he told the crowd. "They were going on and on about how they'd create this vast open world with a branching story line, how you'd be able to customize your character through in-game choices."

"I'm always drawn to fascinating stories," Reeves said. 

He promised that walking in the streets of the game's futuristic setting would be breathtaking. Then one attendee shouted out, "You're breathtaking!" and Reeves pointed back and shouted, "You're breathtaking!"

In a world of carefully choreographed, precision-rehearsed and often corporate-sounding press conferences, Reeves was a welcome breath of fresh air.

By the way, the runner-up was Jon Bernthal, star of Ubisoft's Ghost Recon Breakpoint and former star of The Walking Dead. He came on the stage of Ubisoft's press conference with his dog Bam Bam, who kindly sat by as Bernthal spoke on stage.

Fortnite at E3

The game phenom continues.

James Martin/CNET

Fortnite, Fortnite, Fortnite

I know what you're thinking: Wasn't that last year's big game? And you're right.

That doesn't mean Fortnite was any less conspicuous this year. Epic Games, which makes the cultural phenom, put up a giant booth with a real-world re-creation of the Battlebus. That's where you start each game, along with 99 other people, flying over the island your character eventually jumps to before starting the battle royale last-person-standing tournament.

Lots of fans

Without question, E3 is changing. And one of the most dramatic ways is through the everyday gamers who can attend the show only after shelling out nearly 300 bucks for a ticket. 

Their presence has made companies rethink their massive floor booths and the vibe on the show floor. Some, like Take-Two Interactive, decided to set out dozens of computer stations so fans could take a whack at its upcoming Borderlands 3 sci-fi shooter game.

Others, like Ubisoft, set out stores filled with merchandise and gaming collectibles. To entice people further, there were theme park-like rides, massive statues of gargoyles and dragons, people suited up like Luigi and other game characters and real-life mockups of items from the digital worlds of the games. There was even a rock climbing wall.

Shawn Layden, Sony's head of game development studios, said in an interview with CNET earlier this year that E3 needs to evolve past being the place where companies drop their big bomb announcements every year.

"Can't [E3] just be a celebration of games and have panels where we bring game developers closer to fans?" he asked.

One attendee, Mike, who does tech support for Oracle in Denver, said he felt like he got a solid fan experience, and plans to come back to see the new Xbox and PlayStation ahead of their launches next year.

"Next year is gonna be a much more interesting show," he said.