Diminished as its role in the industry might have become, the Electronic Entertainment Expo–better known as E3–remains a major showcase for the games industry. It’s undeniably in a state of upheaval, as an increasing number of companies either have distanced themselves from it (such as Electronic Arts, which opts to hold its EA Play event nearby in the days leading up to E3 proper) or removed themselves entirely (such as Sony, which will seemingly go without any kind of big event or press conference this June). Nevertheless, E3 2019 will still have a number of major press conferences from companies like Microsoft and Bethesda, and the show floor remains home to many major publishers. But how did we get to this point?
In the ’90s, gaming was without a major event of its own; in place of such a thing, developers had a presence at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). But May 1995 saw the debut of gaming’s own industry trade show in the form of E3. It was held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, a site that has served as the home for the vast majority of the show’s existence. Until recent years, E3 has been closed completely to the public, serving instead as a meeting place for members of the industry and press, along with retailers. That distinction was reflected in its attendance: Even at its peak, E3 paled in comparison to the sheer size of something like Germany’s Gamescom, which is open to the public.
Press conferences held in the days prior to E3 have long served as the preeminent place for making announcements and revealing games. E3 has been home to the unveiling of major games and hardware over the past two decades. Despite the existence of other major events, like Gamescom and the Tokyo Game Show, it’s traditionally been E3 that publishers save their biggest news for.
But the last decade-plus has proven to be challenging, as the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the industry’s trade association that organizes E3, tries to figure out exactly what the show should be. From 2007-2008, it downsized the event significantly to what was known as the E3 Media and Business Summit. 2009 saw the event revert back to something closer to its former self, and more recent years have seen an increasing amount of access granted to members of the public, who had previously been unable to attend. To some degree, it’s muddled the purpose of the show; E3 is in something of an awkward middle ground now where it’s expected to simultaneously fulfill its prior role and serve as a fan event. Whereas a show like Gamescom has a day open only to industry members and the press, E3 does not. Instead, it has a few hours during the first two of its three days where the doors are not open to the public. Meanwhile, for members of the public that do attend, the reality often amounts to standing in very long lines and watching the press conferences online like those at home. It’s not really ideal for anyone.
Further complicating the purpose of E3 have been various shifts in how the industry works. Free-to-play games, games as a service, and longer console generations, combined with companies’ ability to showcase their wares through events like PlayStation Experience and Nintendo Direct, have called into question whether an event like E3, conceived during a much different era of video games, continues to be the best use of resources.
Case in point: Sony, which has typically had one of the largest presences at E3 and was responsible for one of its most significant press conferences, has opted out of E3 2019 entirely. This move comes after Sony’s atypical 2018 showing, which was criticized by some for the fact that it focused almost exclusively on four upcoming PS4 games, rather than the much wider slate we’d usually see.
Explaining the rationale behind its decision not to attend E3 2019, Sony told GameSpot last year, “As the industry evolves, Sony Interactive Entertainment continues to look for inventive opportunities to engage the community. PlayStation fans mean the world to us and we always want to innovate, think differently and experiment with new ways to delight gamers. As a result, we have decided not to participate in E3 in 2019. We are exploring new and familiar ways to engage our community in 2019 and can’t wait to share our plans with you.”
Subsequently, Sony Worldwide Studios head Shawn Layden expanded even further on the diminished role E3 serves. “Now we have an event in February called Destination PlayStation, where we bring all retailers and third-party partners to come hear the story for the year,” he said. “They’re making purchasing discussions in February. June, now, is just too late to have a Christmas holiday discussion with retailers. So retail has really dropped off. And journalists now, with the internet and the fact that 24/7 there is game news, it’s lost its impact around that.”
“So the trade show became a trade show without a lot of trade activity. The world has changed, but E3 hasn’t necessarily changed with it,” he added.
It remains to be seen what Sony’s plans for “new and familiar ways to engage” fans will look like. While it’s unusual for one of the three console manufacturers to not be at E3, some of the industry’s major publishers already sit it out. Rockstar doesn’t attend E3 in a public capacity, only having a presence during Microsoft or Sony press conferences when it has a game to showcase. Activision has already pulled out of E3 2019, though we do know that this year’s Call of Duty game will be discussed at the E3 Coliseum. This is a series of panels and discussions hosted by Geoff Keighley that anyone at E3 can attend. While it’s by no means equivalent to the various publishers’ press conferences, the Coliseum is home to some reveals and–as it’s open to fans at the show–feels like E3 continuing to try to figure out what it is in the modern day.
It’s not as if all of the major players have dropped out, however. Microsoft has pledged to “go big” at E3 2019. Nintendo will also be in there in a similar capacity to recent years, although it continues to use pre-recorded Nintendo Direct events rather than the live press conference it held in the past. Microsoft continues to go the live route, while EA has exited E3 and launched an event that takes place in the days prior. Other companies–including Bethesda and Square Enix–have stepped in to fill that gap with their own E3 briefings, alongside smaller publishers like Devolver. There’s also the possibility for Google, which is entering the industry with Stadia, to have an EA Play-style showcase around the time of E3, although it doesn’t appear that will come during E3 proper.
We don’t yet know what the future of E3 looks like. The ESA has faced its own issues, as detailed in a recent Variety report. Since that story was published, the group has named a new CEO, Stanley Pierre-Louis, who has spoken enthusiastically about E3. But he’ll be faced with addressing questions of whether the group that lobbies on behalf of the games industry in Washington should also be in charge of organizing a continually evolving trade show.
E3 could have been facing a significant change as soon as next year; E3 2019 had been the last show confirmed for the LACC, but that deal has since been extended to 2023, so we won’t see it moving to a different venue or city for at least a few more years. In the meantime, more companies could decide to drop out, as they decide the cost and trouble isn’t worth it–keep in mind, it’s not cheap to put on an E3 show, not to mention the impact it has on development as studios are forced to divert resources toward creating demos, trailers, and so on. And there are now more options than ever for sharing news, including the annual PSX and The Game Awards; Sony and Microsoft testing the waters with their own Nintendo Direct-style broadcasts throughout the year; and a new show in August from The Game Awards organizers called Gamescom: Opening Night Live. As a result, companies have more flexibility than ever to showcase their games when they’re ready to do so, rather than forcing an E3 demo or trailer out the door in June, regardless of when it would make the most sense to do so.
Only time will tell what future E3s will look like or how long it will continue to exist, but in the meantime, stick around GameSpot for in-depth coverage of whatever this year’s show brings, and check out the video above for a deep dive into the history of E3.