After an inauspicious start, E3 2021 ended on a high note.
But the surprise-filled presentation from Nintendo that capped the final day of the biggest annual showcase for video games wasn’t enough to offset a largely underwhelming week.
E3, or the Electronic Entertainment Expo, has been the most important event in the video game industry since it started in 1995, as a spin-off of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). In recent years, the departure of industry giant Sony from E3, and the shift toward publishers putting on their own livestreamed showcases, have raised the question of whether E3 is still relevant: Why fill an LA convention center when people everywhere can watch it all on Twitch and YouTube?
While digital showcases have managed to fill the void in a year without IRL events, if E3 is going to be meaningful in 2022 and beyond, it needs a renewed focus on digital and in-person game demos.
It’s hard to remember one trailer from dozens shown back-to-back — unless you’re one of the big dogs, like Elden Ring. But a game can leave a much more powerful impression if you’re able to actually play it, hands-on, even for just a few minutes.
That ability to experience things no one else has before is a subtle, but crucial distinction between E3 and other events, like CES or San Diego Comic-Con. Sure, you can sit in a room with actors from the MCU, or gawk at a 100-inch OLED TV. But, for the most part, you aren’t actually encouraged to get your hands on and play with those things.
In 2022, E3 needs to make the experience more interactive, both in person and at home.
It’s in that latter respect that E3 has some serious catching up to do. Tribeca Games partnered with Parsec to host a staggered slate of media and public demos for its eight Official Selections for 2021, allowing players to take new games for a spin, even without specialist equipment.
Xbox also recently released 40 indie game demos that will be available for players for a week via its consoles and PCs. The trailers, interviews, and Zoom panels that comprise the bulk of E3 2021 simply aren’t enough — people actually need to be able to experience some of these games.
It’s been fairly obvious for months that the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) had intended to host an in-person event for 2021, only relenting to an all-digital format in February, cutting it concerningly close to the wire for a large-scale June event.
“Attending and covering real-life E3 is a blast”
Before Covid-19, it was common for game publishers and media outlets to begin making E3 plans months in advance. In 2021, the timeframe was mere weeks, if not days. Unsurprisingly, the result felt hastily thrown together, with many publishers holding their cards close to their chest and opting instead to make their big reveals on their own timeframe instead.
After the deeply underwhelming launch of E3 2021’s “media portal,” I was convinced the event was headed the way of the World’s Fair, or even the Fyre Festival. But in light of the week’s solid presentations from Microsoft, Nintendo, and Devolver — along with parallel events like Summer Game Fest and Tribeca Games, I’m feeling far less cynical. But ESA has a lot of catching up to do.
Despite the considerable unpleasantness of navigating the Los Angeles Convention Center when it’s packed to the brim, attending and covering real-life E3 is a blast. And it could be again. Maybe these kinds of conventions will eventually go the way of the World’s Fair, and our grandchildren will roll their eyes as we prattle on about early VR headsets and watching wannabe influencers get hurled from the bucking llama at the Fortnite booth. But I don’t think we’re quite there yet.
Going to E3 is like spending a long weekend in Vegas — it’s an absolute grind, but also extremely fun. Sure, you’re going to feel pretty rancid after subsisting for five days on airline-quality wine, complimentary sliders, and rumpled granola bars unearthed from the bowels of your backpack. Nevertheless, it’s thrilling to be in those big theaters with their elaborate stages, and bask in the titters and murmurs of excitement as the lights dim. Even if you’re not in the room, there’s something about the presence of a live crowd that makes the stakes feel far higher than a pre-recorded reel of trailers.