Does E3 Have a Place in a Post-COVID World?
Video/streaming presentations are becoming the norm, but in-person events will always have value
E3 has historically been one of the gaming industry’s most important events. At the same, the industry’s relationship with the event has become increasingly fractured in recent years. Many have argued — long before COVID-19 — that the expo has become redundant. The emergence of COVID-19 certainly seemed to be the final nail in the coffin for the event. But that may not necessarily be the case.
In the last few years, E3 has admittedly lost quite a bit of its shine as more and more hardware and software developers have turned away from the event. Nintendo opted not to host a live press conference during the expo, opting instead to air a pre-recorded video presentation. EA moved away from the L.A. Convention Center (where the event is held), instead moving to a nearby location to hose their EA Play show. The icing on the cake came last year when, for the first time, Sony decided not to hold a keynote presentation — leaving Microsoft as the only one out of the “big three” (Sony/Microsoft/Nintendo) to do a traditional live show.
To say that Sony’s announcement came as a shock to the industry wouldn’t be an exaggeration — as a result, though, the entire show felt underwhelming. It was painfully obvious that as we approached the end of the eighth console generation, we’d need to consider the end of live gaming presentations. Other options had emerged and proven successful, and everyone had begun to move in the digital direction.
Nintendo has pioneered the digital presentation — keeping fans up to date with its Nintendo Direct presentations. These pre-recorded videos are formatted to suit their context (e.g. a third-party specific Direct, or perhaps a Pokémon Direct for Pokémon games). These presentations have become wildly popular, with fans routinely speculating on when the next Direct will drop. Sony decided to follow Nintendo’s lead in 2019 with the debut of their first State of Play presentation. These videos have given Sony an opportunity to update fans on titles like Final Fantasy VII Remake and The Last of Us Part II.
The sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 changed the world as we knew it. Major in-person events like E3 have been cancelled. Even though companies like Sony had flagged early on that they wouldn’t be participating in this year’s show, the organisers (Entertainment Software Association — or ESA) held out until March before announcing the 2020 show’s closure. And yet, the ESA apparently remain confident that E3 will return in 2021; they’ve already announced the dates.
With E3 gone this year, and the absence of any other major gaming event (at least until Gamescom in late August) — and with a lot of people stuck at home due to isolation — it became necessary for developers to pick up the mantle and shift to online showcases. It’s not just that online showcases are a viable option; they are arguably a necessary step forward for the industry. And while serious efforts were made, it’s debatable whether or not they succeeded.
Early in June, Sony revealed the first glimpses of the next-generation PlayStation 5 console during their Future of Play showcase. A wide range of titles were revealed, including games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Horizon Forbidden West. More than a month later, Microsoft made their move with a one hour game stream, during which they showed off Halo Infinite and revealed Square Enix’s new project Balan Wonderworld (a collaboration between legendary SEGA figures Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima). Several other third-party developers have shown off new projects via small video presentations, too. Even the ubiquitous Geoff Keighley got in on the act with his Summer Game Fest event.
Quite a lot of stuff has been announced over the past few months. But in some respects it all feels a bit hollow and empty. There’s a sense of curiosity in the air, but nobody has really had the opportunity to go hands-on with these new machines in order to tell if they’re really a step forward or just a mere upgrade to our already-capable consoles. How do the controllers feel? Are loading speeds truly as fast as they say? Sure, Geoff Keighley videoed himself going hands-on with the PS5 DualSense controller, but this doesn’t tell us much — when large, in person events like E3 occur, numerous gaming journalists usually have the opportunity to go hands-on, leading to a wide range of direct reports. This is where the true value of E3 comes in.
Also, rather than each developer or publisher investing in doing their own polished video production, E3 provides a space for multiple companies to come together — and there’s real value in the live crowd (the cheers and screams as a result of some major reveal, like being in a crowded football stadium). The energy from the audience after the first Kingdom Hearts III trailer was shown at E3 2013 is ultimately what led me to purchase the entire franchise. That curiosity, that audience engagement…it’s something you can’t get from a pre-recorded video.
The industry as a whole is moving in a different direction, that much is clear. It’s likely that a post-COVID world will still see a tendency toward pre-recorded presentations. Regardless what happens in the future, the memories of E3 will always be with us. And the value of some sort of in-person event will always exist, but perhaps it will take different forms in the future.