What went wrong with E3? Can it come back?

As news spread of E3 2023’s cancellation on Thursday, Games Twitter went straight into obituary mode. Developers, journalists, industry types, and fans shared their memories of the show; among them was erstwhile E3 presenter Geoff Keighley, who segued from a nostalgic show-floor photo to crowing promotion for his rival Summer Game Fest event in the space of a single tweet. Despite assurances from organizers the Entertainment Software Association and events company ReedPop that they would “continue to work together on future E3 events,” the general assumption seems to be that there was no coming back from this. “RIP E3” is trending. E3 seems dead for good.

The telling detail is that so many reminiscences of great E3 moments hinge on events that weren’t, technically, part of the show at all. For every story of a connection made on the vast, noisy show floor of the Los Angeles Convention Center (like this one, from former Polygon editor Arthur Gies), there were 10 more about the grandstanding showmanship and hilarious fails of the publisher press conferences that gathered alongside it: Sony owning Microsoft over its games ownership debacle, or Shigeru Miyamoto appearing with sword and shield to announce The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

There’s no doubt that these indelible moments, and others like them, were born from the hubbub, the fan ardor, and the competitive energy of the E3 show itself. But they weren’t actually part of it. They happened away from the show floor, at private events staged by publishers and platform holders. E3 was the reason these events came into being. But now those companies have realized they don’t need it for them to continue.

So what went wrong? And is this really it for E3, or can it come back?

E3 2023 was supposed to be a comeback for an event that had not taken place since 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic had wiped out in-person shows, and an attempt at a digital event in 2021 had been a waste of time. The ESA recruited ReedPop, organizer of PAX, New York Comic Con, and Star Wars Celebration (and my former employer), to create a new, hybrid public and trade event in consultation with exhibitors. It would still take place at the Los Angeles Convention Center, but it would have an online component, too.

Earlier this year it became apparent that neither Nintendo nor Microsoft would be taking part in E3 2023. (Neither would Sony, but that was no surprise; it hadn’t attended in 2019 either.) The show has historically leaned hard on the presence of the console platform-holders, and this was a serious blow, although Microsoft said it would still hold a showcase event before the show.

On Tuesday this week, after Ubisoft, too, withdrew its support, IGN reported that other publishers were declining to get involved, and the whole future of the event was in question. IGN’s detailed reporting suggested that exhibitors had grown frustrated with ReedPop’s slow communication of its plans for the redesigned show, while ReedPop felt blindsided and even “betrayed” by clients that had initially seemed engaged, and had given strongly encouraging feedback early on.

Staging the rebirth and transformation of such a high-profile and large-scale event was never going to be easy, even for an outfit of ReedPop’s experience. It seems it did not go smoothly, and relationships broke down. But this is likely more symptom than cause. There are several factors that have contributed to the total collapse in support from the industry for its most famous showcase.

In an interview with GamesIndustry.biz (a ReedPop-owned site), ESA president Stanley Pierre-Louis set out, in diplomatic but reasonably forthright style, what he sees as the reasons publishers deserted E3. In short: The pandemic had played havoc with production schedules, which means that big games weren’t ready to be shown or announced, or their release dates were difficult to pin down. Also, “economic headwinds” made it difficult to commit the huge budgets necessary to exhibit at a show like E3 (not to mention the need for a company like Microsoft to be seen to be frugal after laying off thousands of staff).

Finally, publishers were still experimenting with how to “balance” in-person events with the digital marketing streams that had dominated during the pandemic, but had been gaining traction for a long time before it. (The first Nintendo Direct took place in 2011, and Nintendo held its last in-person E3 press conference the following year.)

There’s no arguing with these points, as optimistic a spin as Pierre-Louis tried to put on them. To put it more bluntly, as GamesIndustry.biz’s Chris Dring did in an accompanying opinion piece that doubles as a semi-insider account of the collapse of E3 from ReedPop’s perspective: “In the end, the industry just didn’t want this E3.”

There are a couple of further angles to consider, which Pierre-Louis unsurprisingly did not want to engage with. The first is that the E3 brand, as powerful as it remains with the gaming community, is tarnished. The ESA had made itself very unpopular in the pre-pandemic years with poorly conceived efforts to inch the show toward being a public event, and with a disastrous data leak that exposed many press and attendees to potential harassment. Sony had already had enough, and Microsoft was edging toward holding its own parallel event at a separate venue, as EA had done a few years previously.

The second is that E3 was simply starting to look old-fashioned and wasteful. Video game PR was changing fast, and E3 wasn’t keeping up. Even before the pandemic, a series of dreadful controversies, culminating in GamerGate, had caused both press and publicists to retreat somewhat from close association with each other, while editors and influencers were starting to find more value in engaging with audiences after games were out in the wild, rather than during the pre-release hype cycle. There’s also the consideration of the carbon footprint of flying half the industry to California during an escalating climate emergency. As an editor-in-chief at Eurogamer, I was privy to the eye-watering cost of sending editorial and sales representatives for a handful of sites and YouTube channels to E3. Imagine what that would look like for a big publisher. Was it really worth it?

That existential question has been building in the minds of the industry for at least a decade, and it looms much larger than any more temporary consideration of the economic situation, production schedules, or marketing plans. If E3 is ever to come back — and the chances look slim — the industry will have to conduct a brutally honest accounting of the event’s actual value.

I reported from E3 for many years, and though it was an ugly and transactional show in many ways, I still loved the experience. It had a thrilling scale that could reach beyond the usual gaming constituency, it was an exciting focal point for fans, and it brought the global industry together in one place like no other event — not even Gamescom or the Game Developers Conference. The access was unrivaled, and the energy generated by all those big reveals and face-to-face meetings was an annual shot in the arm for the whole industry. But were we all — attendees and fans alike — just addicted to the buzz?

We have been here before, though it wasn’t as dramatic. In 2007 and 2008, responding to concerns about costs and audience makeup, E3 downsized to a much smaller, less noisy business conference. It was chill and easy to get work done, but nobody really liked it. In 2009, the industry was ready to bet big again: In the space of a single day, I saw Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Pete Sampras, Pele, Jay Z, Eminem, and the two surviving Beatles promoting video games. Showbiz was back.

If E3 is going to stage another comeback in these more sober and serious times, it will need a much better reason than “Isn’t it just fun?” E3 was an outsized event for a bullish young industry with imposter syndrome. Now, the gaming industry — and the gaming audience — needs to decide if it has outgrown it.

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