So, E3 Is Just Dead Forever Now, Right?
E3 has been on its last legs for a while. The announcement that it's canceling this year's digital event may be the final nail in the coffin.
The ESA might be signaling its intent to hold a show next year, but it appears that E3 is gone for good. After years of awkward stumbling as it attempted to keep up with a rapidly changing industry, followed by a pandemic that disrupted gatherings all over the globe, the ESA has canceled the conference for 2022. And I suspect, more than likely, forever.
The global games conference had been struggling to transform itself in recent years, and we had been seeing the signs of its waning relevance even after its ill-fated attempts to scale down. First came Nintendo cancelling its traditional stage conferences for prerecorded Nintendo Direct presentations. Then, E3 transitioned to a public show, an awkward step that made conditions less-than-ideal for both the fans and journalists alike. Then publishers like EA and Sony started skipping the event altogether--albeit with their own events that just happened to take place in Los Angeles around mid-June, when they could count on all the media being in town.
The finishing blow, though, was the global COVID-19 pandemic. For obvious reasons, a highly transmissible disease that shut down all public gatherings was going to have an impact on a massive game conference attended by tens of thousands of people. When the virus erupted in March of 2020, even small public gatherings were shut down as an emergency measure. Case rates were still rising in June, so E3 was a no-go. The ESA put out a statement committed to come back all the stronger in 2021.
The next year came, and the variants came too. It was too risky to put on a public show, so E3 transitioned to an all-digital showcase. As a hasty make-good, it had echoes of the in-person show, but it wasn't the same. Business networking had always been a big part of the appeal of E3 for developers and publishers, and that just wasn't imitable with an all-digital show. Studios couldn't solicit real-time feedback from fans and journalists. Whatever utility E3 had remaining after going through such dramatic changes was blunted severely by an all-digital show.
But the pandemic actually had a sneakier, more pervasive impact on E3 outside of what couldn't be done within it anymore. It hastened the realization of what could be done without it. Publishers that had previously only been dipping a toe into digital showcases and direct-to-consumer presentations had two straight years of needing to rely on those communication methods almost exclusively. Some developers relished being no longer beholden to a strict calendar for creating their presentations and vertical slice demos. Indies banded together and found empty spots on the calendar, like the New Game Plus Expo, to get more exposure than they ever could in a loud, noisy conference hall
When you give companies that much time to practice, they're going to get pretty good. They might just conclude they don't need you anymore.
This year, even with all the prep time it could have possibly needed and vaccines making it potentially safer to have a conference in the middle of summer, the ESA still decided not to put on a show. We don't know exactly why--whether it's about the difficulty of putting on an all-digital show or publisher disinterest--but time and further reporting might tell.
The ESA is planning a "reinvigorated showcase" in 2023. It's possible the organization will pull it off and bring the show back in full force. We might still see ostentatious booths and massive crowds stuffing themselves into the Los Angeles Convention Center yet again.
But it's also possible that the last traditional E3 happened in 2019, and the last digital stopgap happened in 2021, so the show is simply done. Big game events will keep happening--Geoff Keighley has already jumped on the opportunity to promote his Summer Game Fest, and there are other conferences like Gamescom and PAX. But E3 was going through an identity crisis before the pandemic, and the sudden disruption of that global event forced publishers to adapt. Now that they have, what purpose does E3 serve?
That's a question that the ESA, if it's serious about regrouping for next year, will need to spend a lot of time figuring out.