What do Metal Gear Solid 2, the Nintendo Wii and Final Fantasy 7 Remake all have in common? They were all blockbuster reveals that happened at E3. For decades, the Electronic Entertainment Expo was the video game industry's biggest event and showcased everything from new hardware to hype-filled games to indie projects.
In late March, the Entertainment Software Association announced that E3 2022 has been canceled. This is the second time the show has been canceled since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In 2021, there was an online-only show, but that will not go forward this year.
While the ESA has plans for the show to continue in 2023, gamers and industry watchers may not care. Other events, both online and in-person, cover much of the same ground and in greater frequency throughout the year. And since the last in-person E3 three years ago, the relevance of the industry's once most important event seems shaky at best.
Yet, the loss of E3 -- or rather what it represented -- does leave a large vacancy that could stand to be filled. Given the immense flow of information and the number of outlets that have sprung out, it can be tough for general audiences to keep up with what's coming in the world of games. With this in mind, we wanted to examine the history of E3 and where things are heading.
Go your own way
So, where have game publishers and developers been putting their energies? Along with other in-person consumer-driven shows like Gamescom and the Penny Arcade Expo, individual companies have gotten into the groove of pulling off their own showcases via livestream. In an interview with CNET, former PlayStation President and CEO Shawn Laydon said that the trade shows have become less focused on actual trade and that the 24/7 news cycle of the internet had lessened the need to attend an annual major show like E3.
In many ways, the decline of E3 was inevitable. In fact, it was something that industry watchers had predicted in prior years. After a few years of mostly average shows alongside the increasing prominence of online event streams, the traditional E3 show is hard to justify. Even though the ESA says E3 is coming back next year, it's difficult to see a future for a massive trade show such as this.
At its beginning in 1995, E3 was already significant gaming event because it marked the games industry's first serious opportunity to break away and distinguish itself as more than an extension of general technology. The show was originally an offshoot of the annual CES event where publishers, developers, press and some general attendees could make an annual trip to Los Angeles (or Atlanta, Georgia, in the late '90s) to see the latest games.
And with the exception of the past few years, when regular gamers were permitted to attend, the event was always industry focused. General consumers could only see what happened on gaming websites like GameSpot, or in magazines or cable TV highlights on G4 and Spike TV. That gave E3 a certain mystique.
Big E3 press conferences from major industry players like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, which once took the time to show sales numbers and projections, were turned into large media events that featured full orchestras, theatrical performances and celebrity guest appearances from people like Keanu Reeves.
Nintendo abandoning the traditional onstage E3 press conference was, in many ways, E3's first death knell. It was a strange choice at the time, but it set a new standard. In the months and years to come Sony, Microsoft and Ubisoft (among others) would host their own Direct-style livestreams, creating well-produced online events at their own pace throughout the year. And the more companies moved away from onstage conferences, the less relevant E3 became.
At the same time, events like PAX and Comic-Con had evolved into conventions that were more welcoming to the general public. The ESA would eventually adapt by letting the general public in to E3 2017, giving fans what they'd wanted for years. But in some ways, it was too little too late.
The last big in-person E3 was held in 2019, and that show saw notable absences. Nintendo, EA and Sony, all of which had been show floor regulars in previous years, were missing. E3 2020 would be canceled due to COVID, and in 2021 it was an online-only showcase of new games and interviews.
Don't blame COVID, though
But even before COVID-19, there had been chatter about E3's standing in the games industry. One long-standing complaint both large and small companies had about attending E3 persisted: the expense. Taking up space in the Los Angeles Convention Center for nearly a week is not cheap, and simply being at a show doesn't guarantee a game's or company's success. Often it's the opposite: Competing with other publishers for attention is costly. So it's no surprise that many companies decided to go their own way as the mystique of a massive trade show had faded in the Information Age.
But perhaps the biggest reason why E3 has fallen off is that general audiences now have much, much greater access to the latest news. Whether that's from news sites, streamers, social media or even watching highlights on YouTube, audiences are now more clued-in to the latest from the games industry than ever before.
The collapse of E3 2020 left a power vacuum. Video game companies and media brands are in the business of producing their own E3 stand-ins. What was once just a single weeklong event in June became a loose collection of virtual events that lasted well into August.
In 2021, the colloquially named "summer games season" found its footing without E3's large influence. That was due in part to former-journalist-turned-media-personality Geoff Keighley's Summer Games Fest event, which has filled a decent bit of the void left by E3.
After partnering with the ESA for years, Keighley's Summer Games Fest was an offshoot of his familiar E3 stage shows and the Game Awards. The Summer Games Fest inaugural showcase in 2021 was impressive, offering an alternative E3-esque experience that would outshine E3's actual 2021 online show thanks to new trailers for games, notably the world premiere gameplay clip of Elden Ring.
Even if E3 never comes back, the summer games season will go on without it. Both the industry and general audiences have already embraced the new year-round approach of regular online showcases from publishers and developers.
The "E3 experience" as we used to know it is gone, which does bum me out. I believe unifying events for the industry are important, but it may be that E3 simply cannot offer that anymore. Whether the ESA and E3 will be able to find footing again is an open question. However, Geoff Keighley's seasonal online show, which will be back in June, already has a head start on being the talk of the summer for gamers.