At one time an industry trade show, E3 has changed multiple times since its inception back in 1995. In a year that should be the event’s big 25th anniversary, there’s a lot of questions about if the show should even go on as major exhibitors drop out and the ESA struggles to find ways to keep people interested. Rumors today say that Sony won’t be making an appearance at E3 2020, repeating the company’s strategy from last year. But with companies like Sony, Microsoft, EA, and Activision off the show floor, and more publishers reaching their audiences in more direct ways, does E3 even have a place in the industry anymore? Is there any way that it can continue to be the hub of attention on the video game industry year after year?
Conceived as an industry trade show for games media, retailers, and others in the gaming industry, E3 set itself apart from other fan conventions. Out if its 25-year run, there have only been three instances that the show did not take place at the LA Convention Center. In 1997 and ’98, the ESA moved the show to Atalanta, Georgia. In 2007 it was held in Santa Monica as part of a very brief effort to significantly reduce the size of the show (renamed the E3 Media & Business Summit for two years).
There have been other changes, including the dates of the showing moving to May or July, but since it returned to the trade show format in 2009, it’s been that June video game event in LA every year. The biggest change recently came in 2017 when the ESA, struggling for ways to make revenue on the expo, sold 15,000 passes to the general public. This was also the year that we began to see the big exhbitors start to pull out of the show in a big way. Though companies like Microsoft and EA hold their own events during the same week nearby, or Activision still holds appointments in meeting rooms and offsite hotels, they no longer participate in the collective E3 experience anymore. There’s no more blue/green hallway separating the Sony and Microsoft booths. Activision doesn’t have bombastic displays anymore. EA’s experience isn’t only offsite, but held the weekend before.
When Sony opted not to attend E3 2019, it seemed an unprecedented move. While other exhbitors were still finding ways to make the most of the show by having simultaneous experiences nearby, Sony’s presence amounted to the social team attending as press (and probably a few closed-door business meetings with other Sony executives. For the fans, there was nothing except for the third-parties that utilized PS4 hardware to demo their games. The West Hall, once the first-party hub that housed Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, felt all too empty. Floor space that many years over housed a presentation of everything PlayStation was now a sitting area filled with couches and chairs. A general seating area in the middle of the E3 show floor? It was unheard of, yet here I was, standing in an awkward space that was going unused by exhibitors and attendees alike.
Does Sony Need E3?
If 2019 proved anything, it’s that Sony doesn’t need E3. It doesn’t need to wade into the industry events for its voice to be heard. It proved this last week when the PS5 logo alone broke records for number of likes on Instagram. Does that actually mean anything? Perhaps, perhaps not, but it’s clear that Sony not making a peep at last year’s show didn’t have a severely negative impact on the brand. PlayStation was still very much “there,” considering the third-party developers, and Sony saved a bunch of money by not having a conference or a booth. At that point in the PS4’s life, E3 wasn’t going to be the investment that convinced more people to get into that console ecosystem and Sony knew it.
But while Sony may not need E3 for the PS4—considering its the second bestselling console behind only the PS2—what about the PS5? Would stepping away from E3 2020 hurt the hype for the upcoming console? At this point, no, I don’t think it would hurt Sony not to be there, especially if I’m right about my theories that the rest of the PS5 reveals in 2020 will be centered around community.
If Sony holds a reveal event ahead of E3, it gets to control that whole news cycle away from everything else. It controls the reveal and messaging. Being absent from E3 lets Sony hold all the cards. Nothing it says about the PS5 is going to get lost in the rest of the noise around E3. It decides the where. It decides the when. And it decides the how. The power of the PlayStation brand lets Sony have that full control without needing a bigger industry event to showcase at. If Sony isn’t at E3 2020—the show’s 25th year and lead up to the PS5 release—I wouldn’t expect the company to ever return to the show, at least in its current form.
Where Does That Leave E3?
As exhibitors step away, it’s left many asking about the relevance of E3 as a platform. If Sony steps away for good, where does that leave E3? Does it have a future going forward? The ESA would certainly like it to, and the organization has enlisted the help of Geoff Keighley to help reinvigorate it. Keighley’s done some great work in the industry with The Game Awards and gamescom’s opening show, but even he says that if he’s going to help E3 succeed, that it needs to be with everyone at the table. Back in August 2019, Keighley told GamesIndustry.biz:
And E3 I think will be the first to admit they’re facing a bit of an identity crisis as to what the show is and who it’s for. We’ve offered to help them continue to navigate that, and I have a lot of ideas of where I would take E3 if we took a more active role in shaping what that show could be.
But I think for E3, everyone has to come back to the table and be a part of it. You need everyone to participate, and I’m proud that The Game Awards and Gamescom [are events that] everyone actively participates in. I’m proud to be building events where we can get everyone together, and I’ve told the board of the ESA that we want to help everyone come together around a big industry event in the summer, whether that’s E3 or something new.
As an industry trade show, E3 made sense, but exhibitors are realizing that the significant investment isn’t making the returns it used to when access to their audiences is so readily available. Sony has 106 million PS4s in the wild. It has 103 million active users. That’s not an insignificant number, and if the company can invest in its own event, why bother with E3? E3 was at one point something uniquely special for industry, but now that it’s just another fan event, there’s no incentive to keep putting money and effort into it.
What’s clear is that E3 can’t go on in its current form as it hemorrhages its biggest exhibitors. While Keighley wants the entire industry to come together, the ESA may need to make some concessions here if that’s going to work. Overly expensive booth space (not to mention requiring so many people to travel to the ridiculously expensive LA), unclear goals, and poor security all need to be addressed. The ESA is attempting to rebrand E3, which a leaked pitch deck from September last year showed, but VGC reports on some critical shakeups in ESA leadership causing “key employees” to leave, which may be putting some delays on plans for the 2020 show.
It should also be mentioned that the ESA had a massive data breach—more of a massive security oversight, really—that left the personal information of thousands of media attendees exposed. The organization has failed to make significant comments on or rectify the situation, which has shaken many people’s trust in the ESA and E3, unwilling to give their information again to attend this year. If Sony is indeed stepping away, that could be a key factor in convincing many members of the press to simply not attend, and as a result, limit the overall press coverage of the show this year.
It’s a critical time for the ESA and E3. The world has changed quite a bit since 1995. Video games have changed quite a bit since 1995, and I think that 25 years is a good time to say goodbye to E3 as it once was and do a critical exploration of what that kind of expo it could be going forward, if it indeed even needs to return at all. Keighley is right about E3 needing to be everybody, and with interest from both first and third-parties waning, it might be difficult to convince everyone to return.
Daily Reaction reacts to the video game industry. Have suggestions for the column or subjects you’d like us to react to? Let me know in the comments below and be sure to check out previous Daily Reactions for more dives beyond the headlines.