What is E3? We know it stands for Electronic Entertainment Expo, and it has a chequered history of expanding, contracting and then blowing up to be this massive industry event that is now bigger than the sum of its parts when everything is a click away, what does E3 want to accomplish?
This is a question many were asking before Covid-19 changed the world, albeit for a couple of years. Even the ESA, the trade body that hosts and coordinates E3 grappled with the direction of the conference. Matters got complicated when publishers decided to pull out of hosting E3 showcases altogether and do their own thing, like Nintendo, then Sony, then Electronic Arts. E3 began to transition from one thing, an event for industry people and media, into another, an event for everyone. There was a sense of reinvention by the ESA on what E3 could accomplish. It opened the conference to the “gamer”, the paying consumer, people who contributed money and passion in supporting the industry, but who are not directly involved in making games. It wanted to make E3 into the kernel of the video game industry but in doing so, it created a hydra. A trade body with two heads.
A body with two heads
This multi-headed hydra model of having conferences serving two functions, one for business-to-business (B2B) and one for business-to-consumer (B2C), something that already exists in Germany with Gamescom. How E3 and Gamescom differ is when consumers are allowed in. At E3, it is from the opening day of the exposition, once all the publisher showcases have concluded. Consumers and business people must fight for space in overcrowded conference halls in the Los Angeles Convention Centre. In Gamescom, however, consumers are allowed in only after two days earmarked for business and media people. Gamescom may therefore be considered more successful in terms of a trade conference, from a logistic point of view.
Having a virtual E3 was not going to be easy. Not because it is the same thing as having tens of thousands of industry people all converging in one place to meet each other, discuss games, try demos, and bring a wave of excitement in press conferences. During previous E3s, some people were getting fed up with seeing and hearing screaming fans and an over-excited audience. We now have had two years without them, and I would venture they are now sorely missed. At least they brought some fun to the proceedings. The ESA was given an uphill task of keeping its audience engaged in a disjointed smorgasbord of live and pre-recorded streams. Overall, they managed to accomplish it quite well. That does not mean that the content in this year’s E3 was better than average
How should we sum up E3 2021 and did it accomplish what the ESA wants for the industry?
Proceedings kicked off with Geoff Keighley's Summer Game Fest, and although Geoff Keighley has distanced himself from the ESA, it is telling that his show was earmarked prior to E3 officially starting. That is the gravitas of the show. As much as people gripe it is not what it used to be, like a black hole, it still has a strong gravitational pull that brings in the news media, the fans, and the studios like no other video game conference.
There were some new games but few in the way of new IP. The most notable new IP shown during this year’s E3 included Elden Ring, Starfield, Redfall, Shredders, The Dark Pictures - House of Ashes, Pragmata, Babylon's Fall and Back 4 Blood. These are the “big” games. There was also a range of new indie games announced, so many in fact, it is easy to lose count. One of the takeaways from this year’s E3 is that studios and publishers continue to play it safe. Some of the games showcased had been revealed in last year’s E3 (this trend of promoting games years ahead of schedule is gaining traction) and the new ones did nothing out of the box. Microsoft did win credit for announcing games so close to release date. During the Nintendo Direct it was highlighted that the Switch reached its fifth year in market (and one could argue, halfway through its lifecycle). It would have been wonderful if Nintendo announced a new IP to refresh the brand, something to get Nintendo fans excited. Instead, a sequel to The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild took center stage, but that game is not coming out until 2022. I came away with the impression that the Nintendo Direct of E3 2021 could have come out at any time and its impact would have been the same.
E3 2021 was pedestrian when it came to pivotal announcements. It was notable that the evergreen games, Call of Duty, Madden, FIFA, Minecraft and Fortnite were not showcased. There was also no sign of GTA 6 or Half Life 3, games that would have sent the internet into meltdown. Another disappointment was the lack of any news regarding hardware. The only company that had any hardware news was Razor. Considering this is the first E3 since the launch of the Xbox Series and the PS5, nods to their sales numbers were missing altogether. Additionally, what happened to the reveal of the Switch Pro? There was some news before E3 that the Switch Pro would get announced, if not directly by Nintendo, but maybe indirectly by a third-party publisher wishing to plug its 4K Switch game. Instead, no announcement was forthcoming, resulting in the worst kept secret in video games continuing. VR and Stadia were nowhere to be seen. Streaming services, the technology that is supposed to “revolutionize” how we game, did not make an appearance.
Microsoft won the E3 Best Presentation Award as the showcase was one of the best on record. Interestingly, the games played second fiddle to GamePass. The fact that almost everything revealed in the showcase would get a day one release on GamePass and would get released sometime later this year was groundbreaking. In many ways it was not the Xbox Showcase, it was the GamePass Showcase.
The ESA will be mightily relieved that next year’s E3 looks to be a personally attended convention, and so they should. That is the problem with a virtual E3 or for that matter any virtual trade conference. Trade shows actually need people to be physically present for it to be truly successful. The two-headed hydra of E3 2021 was missing one head. On the ESA E3 website I found no portal to administer B2B. B2B is vitally important to keep this industry healthy as well as fresh. Publishers need to find talent. They need to nurture their ability. They need to explore original thinking. Video games are an art form as much as it is a business and as such, it needs artists to find people who have the money and the expertise.
That is ultimately the point of E3. Behind the glitz and the glamour and the showcases, E3 is about business, and it should focus on retaining its trade show credentials.
E3 2021 was not the most memorable E3, nor was it a disaster, but it could have been better. Like almost everything else in 2020/2021, the ESA had to make it with a bad situation. What the ESA cannot do is make up for the fact that this somewhat lackluster E3 was the one after the best financial year on record for the industry. With so much money being made, tens of billions of dollars in profit alone, E3 2021 could have been spectacular given the level of R&D. Several years ago, I wrote a blog where the tagline was “E3, Gamers need it whether they know it or not”. That now needs to read “E3, Game-makers need it more than ever”.