For E3, the best seat in the house is your own couch

Commentary: Though the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) has long been a gamer's mecca, you might be better off staying home.

Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Sean Hollister
5 min read
Josh Miller/CNET

Editors' note: This post was originally published in June 2016, but now that E3 is open to the public it's more relevant than ever. I've updated it to reflect new developments.

For die-hard gamers, visiting the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is the stuff of dreams -- a paradise where they can try video games the world has yet to see. For many, it's a rite of passage, and some serious geek cred, to come back from a pilgrimage to Los Angeles to see the latest games.

Problem was, E3 has never been open to the public -- only "industry insiders." That's why some took jobs at GameStop or created made-up video game websites just for a chance to get in. That all changes this year. For 2017, for the very first time, the Electronic Entertainment Expo is open to the public. You might even know someone with a ticket. 

But don't be jealous, because the real E3 probably isn't what you'd expect. Mark my words: You'd be better off watching the show from the comfort of your couch.

Once upon a time in LA

I still remember my first E3. The year was 2006, and I was working for a video game website you've never heard of -- and one that no longer exists. It vanished from the internet as soon as my college buddy stopped paying for hosting. You guessed it: I conned my way into the Electronic Entertainment Expo.

To be fair, I was trying to be a real games journalist. I wrote one of the very first previews of The Witcher, then a totally-unknown game from a totally-unknown Polish studio. It's now one of the most critically acclaimed PC gaming franchises of all time.

But the story I told my friends wasn't about that game: it was about how E3 fulfilled one of my dreams.

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The Sony booth at E3 2006.

Sean Hollister/CNET

I was playing Warhawk -- the first game for Sony 's just-announced PS3 motion controller -- where you could fly a heavily armored warplane just by tilting a gamepad. Believe it or not, those simple motion controls were revolutionary at the time. (This was before the iPhone was announced, before Twitter existed and even before the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3 were released, to give you some context.)

Yet on the show floor, there wasn't much of a line. I only had to wait a few minutes before I got to try this potentially groundbreaking title.

The longer I played, the more people crowded around me. Soon, I felt like a star. I was on fire, playing Warhawk like a champ in front of my very own audience. The more people watched, the better I played -- flying that deadly warplane with precision. Then, it was over. I turned around and handed the controller to...

Shigeru Miyamoto.

The father of Mario and Zelda, Nintendo 's most popular franchises, had been standing behind me the whole time. The crowd had been there for him -- to watch the man who helped develop the Wii's motion controller sample his competitor's product. I stood agape, watching Miyamoto work Sony's Sixaxis controller for the very first time, wondering whether he was happy or angry that Sony had copied Nintendo's idea.

His face remained motionless.

Disneyland for gamers?

I've been to E3 seven or eight times since, and I've never had quite that kind of access again. In fact, I've seen E3 become less and less of a paradise for gamers.

The most interesting new games are usually only shown to members of the media behind closed doors, or in theaters where you watch a developer play the game instead of trying it yourself. (That way, they minimize potential damage to their reputation if you find bugs, or simply don't like the game and decide to tweet about it.)

There are still plenty of games on the show floor, for sure, but they're typically titles that are already on sale or very close to shipping. The popular ones require waiting in long, long lines to get a few precious minutes with a controller. It's all the things I hate about Disneyland.

Sometimes, you'll go to a game publisher's booth to find their most hotly anticipated game -- such as Metal Gear Solid V and Kingdom Hearts 3 a couple years back -- is only a trailer on a big screen. The same trailer you could have watched on YouTube if you'd just stayed home to begin with.

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You'd be lucky to get a seat this close.

Josh Miller/CNET

Speaking of staying home, it's by far the best way to watch most E3 press conferences. Nintendo doesn't even hold a press conference at E3 anymore, preferring to speak to fans directly with its Nintendo Direct webcasts.

But even though Sony and Microsoft do throw a big stage event each June, they too are now mostly meant for broadcast on the web. Press often sit way up in the nosebleeds, while the company's own employees get to be front and center. (It's important to show the crowd clapping and cheering during the webcast.)

There's nothing wrong with that. It's just good business sense: Would you rather serve the tens of millions of people watching online, or the 10,000 people you can barely fit into E3's largest theater?

It also doesn't hurt that we, the media, have gotten better at showcasing E3 than ever before. You can watch all of the major press conferences right here on CNET, on YouTube or at least a dozen other online locations. Meanwhile, our sister site GameSpot (shameless plug) gets incredible access to games, game developers and the latest game trailers, and shares them all in an easy-to-browse hub.

E3 today

To be sure, E3 2017 might be a different story. This year, publishers know 15,000 fans will be marching on the Los Angeles Convention Center, and they're (hopefully) prepared. 

The aisles have been slightly widened, Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft and Oculus are no longer all competing for prime real estate in West Hall, and it sounds like there will be more attractions than ever (EA Play, Bethesda's E3 Showcase, the E3 Coliseum, the PC Gaming Show and more) outside the actual convention center.

And no doubt, with fans to please, the booths will be more eye-catching than ever:

Watch this: The best booths at E3 2016

Plus, unlike last year, there is one potentially game-changing guaranteed announcement: Microsoft's Project Scorpio game console, which you can read all about here

(E3 2016 attendees didn't get to try the Nintendo Switch, nor the Sony PS4 Pro, because companies didn't unveil them at the show -- and while The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was technically playable, the lines were ridiculous.)

Of course, if you're reading this, it's probably too late to nab tickets, hop on a flight to LA and attend any of these experiences. But I don't think you'll miss that much. Just kick back with some live feeds of the press conferences, your favorite gaming websites and some social media, and you'll probably have a better E3 than most people who actually attend the show.

This year, I'm heading back to E3 with a smile on my face, because I love finding out things nobody else knows about games, and because I know enough of the right people to get the access I need. 

But if I were still in college, writing for my friend's tiny game website, it might be a different story. I'd just fire up my browser, crack open a diet root beer and start watching the stream.