On March 11, 2020, just as COVID-19 lockdown orders were starting to trickle out across the U.S., E3, the annual trade event for the video game industry, was canceled for the first time in its 25-year history. The decision rocked the gaming community — at least for a couple of days, before every other major in-person event that year was canceled.
“For a day or two, there were people scratching their heads like ‘Really? You’re gonna cancel E3?’ ” Stanley Pierre-Louis, president of the Entertainment Software Association, which organizes and presents E3, remembers in an interview with Variety. “And then by day 3, it was like, ‘Oh, of course you had to cancel E3,’ because it was one of those things where it just took us all by surprise.”
This year, E3 is back. But instead of returning to its longtime home at the LA Convention Center, it’s going all-digital, streaming its events — which include presentations from Ubisoft, Nintendo and Square Enix and Microsoft’s first showcase since its acquisition of Bethesda — via an online portal and various distribution partners like Twitch and YouTube from June 12-15.
In some ways, going all-digital has made things a little easier. After all, Pierre-Louis notes, if they did need to switch the date of the convention for quarantine restrictions or any other external reasons, it’s a lot easier to handle when it’s all online. Plus, “there won’t be any FOMO,” he points out, “because we’re all in it together.”
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But there are certainly plenty of challenges that come to adjusting to the format after a year of video calls and conferences have officially ushered in the era of “Zoom fatigue.” Pierre-Louis acknowledges that much of the excitement of E3 comes from networking on the show floor, as well as the gasps from gaming industry workers and media when a big announcement is made at the convention center.
“There’s an excitement even in watching people watch things,” he says. “If you’re watching a concert live, there’s an excitement in seeing the crowd as part of that concert, as opposed to just watching them on Zoom, right? So how do you create that excitement [in a digital environment]? Part of it is by variety, and then part of it’s by having different kinds of programming.”
Pierre-Louis stresses the importance of having a rhythm. “You can’t just do announcement, announcement, announcement” in the digital show, he says. That’s one of the reasons that the show implemented a trio of hosts for the first time, with Greg Miller, Jacki Jing and Alex “Goldenboy” Mendez heading up the processions. He says the three aren’t “simply there to do hand-offs, but also to comment on what they’re seeing and to reflect some of the conversations that are happening in the gaming community.”
The 2021 show is obviously all online due to the ongoing pandemic, but it comes after a few years of E3 gradually embracing the concept of broadcasting more of its major events online. In recent years, nearly all of the major presentations have streamed online for the public.
So what could this year’s show mean for the future for E3? If nothing else, it’ll be a learning experience. Pierre-Louis says they’ve enjoyed working with the LA Convention Center (the ESA has a contract with the venue through 2023) and “certainly anticipate heading back there for an E3,” but also acknowledges that many of the people he’s talked to who attend E3 and other trade shows have expressed enthusiasm for more digital opportunities.
“We’re gonna try a lot of different things over the next few days to keep that exciting, and then also take those lessons for future E3s where you do have the opportunity for a show floor experience as part of the programming,” he says.
Pandemic restrictions aside, the past few years have seen a bevy of changes for E3. For one, the convention that used to be exclusive to only those in the gaming industry and media has become gradually more welcoming to the public, with the 2017 convention opening up 15,000 public passes for the first time.
It’s also seen a number of high-profile publishers veer away from major presences on the show floor in favor of their own major announcement events. But Pierre-Louis notes that most of other gaming events, while not all officially sanctioned by E3, all still happen in the orbit of the trade show.
“What’s really clear is that E3 is the center of gravity, and that’s why you see other companies and other organizations and other people drafting off of the power of E3,” he says. “We heard from both fans and media, ‘It would be great if you could be put this all in a concentrated period of time so we can see what’s happening.’ And what’s happened is that others have started finding that, ‘oh, E3 has this power, let’s plan our event around when E3 goes.’ “
“I am one who wants to let a thousand flowers bloom,” he adds, “but when it comes to E3, E3 really is the center of gravity.”
Overall, Pierre-Louis says that, even without the excitement of the show floor experience, he’s looking forward to the variety of content that the 2021 show will offer, from major developers to indies to panel conversations on the topics that are most relevant to the industry today.
“I think that combination, that variety of content and being able to produce it and showcase it to everyone at the same time, creates a lot of opportunity for more excitement, more entertainment, more buzz, and hopefully a great experience for all the audiences we’re trying to reach,” he says.