E3 going all-digital may signal the beginning of the end

Organizers have proposed hosting a digital event this summer.

Actor Jack Black playing video games with attendees of the E3 gaming expo.
John Sciulli/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

The organizers of E3, which is usually the most-anticipated video game expo of the year, are hoping to host a digital event this summer. Last year's show was canceled, of course, due to the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which organizes the event, said it would look to "online experiences" instead.

According to the site Video Game Chronicles, a pitch document being disseminated to game publishers proposes three days of live-streamed coverage to be held from June 15-17. The show would consist of multiple two-hour keynote sessions from game partners, an awards show, a June 14 preview night, and other, smaller streams from game publishers and other partners in the industry. The ESA hasn't confirmed the veracity of the document.

Just drop a YouTube video — Every year the industry debates whether or not E3 has a future. Increasingly, major publishers are choosing to host their own events, where they can be the center of attention and plan announcements on their own timelines. Indie publishers have smaller events like PAX where they can meet everyday gamers, not just the press. But the coronavirus pandemic makes E3 an even harder sell. When the event is just a livestream, there is way less of the logistical work involved that the ESA would normally help in coordinating. There aren't parties to plan or theatrics to organize. For major publishers who can easily draw attention online, the question becomes, why should they pay the ESA a reported six-figure sum to join the 2021 schedule?

Maybe there isn't a good reason. Sony and Microsoft last year held direct online events where they unveiled their new consoles and launch lineups, and publishers including Activision and EA have had success shunning the crowded E3 keynote lineup to go it alone. None have confirmed plans to make an appearance at E3 this year, and it's looking increasingly likely they won't.

The ESA argues that a unified digital games event grabs the world's attention more effectively than a series of independent shows. But then, it would say that. You have to wonder, though, with the major developers doing their own thing — what types of companies might replace them? Maybe ones that nobody is particularly interested in.

Fun is part of the equation — Even if publishers choose to go it alone, prior to coronavirus there was at least some argument that E3 was an opportunity for the industry to come together in Las Vegas, simply for the face-to-face network opportunities. Insiders could meet journalists covering the industry and schmooze, develop connections, and get some hands-on time with games. But this year that dynamic isn't even a possibility.

Another conference, CES, was held online last month and shows what a digital E3 might look like. The annual tech bonanza, usually the de-facto place for all the biggest names in tech to show off their latest wares, wasn't nearly as effective as a digital-only event. The major companies largely host their own events now, and in their stead is a collection of weird concept ideas and iterative updates to existing products. The fun of meeting in person was replaced by a series of Zoom calls.

E3's organizers say they're having "great conversations" with developers and publishers about this year's show. They did not say who was signed up to participate. “We can confirm that we are transforming the E3 experience for 2021 and will soon share exact details on how we’re bringing the global video game community together,” an ESA spokesperson said.