E3 is back in 2023 ... or so we’re told. The Entertainment Software Association, gaming’s trade association and E3’s organizer, canceled the show entirely in 2020 and 2022 and held an underwhelming digital-only version in 2021. The main reason for those cancellations was the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, but now that everyone knows the cure is simply pretending it doesn’t exist, E3 is back on. Supposedly.
As the ESA recently told The Washington Post, an in-person E3 with an online component is in the works for 2023. There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical about that. First, the ESA made strikingly similar announcements in 2021 and 2022, neither of which panned out. But even if E3 does return in all its glory next year, we’re left with another question:
Is that even a good thing?
E3 began in 1995 and for nearly 20 years, it was unquestionably the biggest gaming event of the year. If an earthshaking announcement about video games was coming, it would probably be at E3. Console reveals, confirmation of massive games like Final Fantasy VII Remake, and stunning gameplay demos used to be nearly guaranteed when E3 rolled around.
The reveal of Final Fantasy VII Remake was a seismic E3 2019 event.
By the mid-2010s, though, that was changing. Nintendo and EA pulled out of the show entirely to host their own events and the ESA took its first steps toward making E3 more of a fan convention than the industry showcase it began as. More recently, data leaks and contributions to right-wing politicians soiled the ESA’s reputation further. In the midst of that, competitors like Summer Game Fest has shown it can do E3’s job and maybe even be a little less messy about it.
Nintendo didn’t just deprive E3 of one of its biggest exhibitors when it stopped attending; It set an example for the entire industry with its Nintendo Direct showcases. Splicing pre-recorded host segments with gameplay footage, the Nintendo Direct model reaches the developer’s fans directly and controls messaging more than it ever could at a chaotic, exclusive live event.
Now, everyone from Sony to Devolver has a showcase of its own, each with a distinct personality and no risk of the company’s announcements being overshadowed by a competitor at the same event. And while E3 lets everyone watch from home now, it’s still easy to feel FOMO if you’re not on the show floor. With online events, we’re all seeing the same thing, and without crowding into a poorly ventilated convention center with thousands of strangers.
Maybe the best thing about E3 was its ubiquity. If your game got a big announcement at E3, you knew it was going to make headlines and get players everywhere paying attention. The obvious downside is only a select few developers have the cash and clout to really make a splash at the show.
Online events haven’t fixed that. Tune in to Summer Game Fest and you’re going to see roughly the same games that would have been at E3. But with the proliferation of smaller shows, there’s a lot more space for indie games to shine. Not only are there events like Guerrilla Collective and Day of the Devs specifically designed to showcase indies, but even console makers have more space to include relatively unknown games alongside their first-party blockbusters.
Likewise, having a handful of events in place of one monolith gives presenters room to experiment. E3 thrived on high-profile, you-had-to-be-there world premieres, often accompanied by concerts and celebrity cameos. Game development is still a secretive business, but it’s much harder to keep those secrets these days than it used to be, and megaton announcements don’t carry the same weight when they come after years of rumors. Rather than try to replicate that excitement, E3 replacements are best when they do something else entirely, particularly when that means deep dives into games and insights from the people who make them.
That’s not to say E3 serves no purpose anymore. For the ESA, E3 is a money-maker and a way to cement its reputation as more than just a glorified lobbying committee. For developers, it’s a chance to meet colleagues and make deals that may not have materialized otherwise. For reporters, it’s an invitation to closed-door presentations for dozens of games. And for non-industry attendees, it’s a social event and a way to play exclusive demos.
Between Summer Game Fest and other upstart events, there’s little need for E3.
Tough luck to the ESA, but all those other functions are already served (sometimes better) in other venues. Events like GDC and PAX offer the benefits that only in-person gatherings can provide, while digital demos and showcases reach a wider audience than a convention booth ever could.
Maybe it’s too early to lay E3 to rest. Maybe the ESA can reshape E3 into something truly unique (and not the way it tried to in 2020 with its failed pitch for an influencer-centered brand extravaganza). Maybe the ESA will learn from the upstarts rising from E3’s ashes and find a niche they’re still not filling. Whatever the future of E3 is, it can’t look much like its past if it wants to survive.