For the video game industry, summer was once a season dominated by a monolithic convention in Los Angeles, an annual attraction filled with wall-to-wall announcements from the biggest companies in gaming. E3, or the Electronic Entertainment Expo, welcomed game publishers, developers, media and fans onto the packed floors of L.A.'s convention center and reveled in the spectacle of the gaming world come together.
Over the past few years however, a series of unrelated events has eroded that monolith. The landscape, once uniform, has fractured, producing a sprawling delta of livestreams and competing events that have divided gamers’ attention and lessened E3′s usual impact.
Following the cancellation of E3 in 2020 due to the onset of the covid-19 pandemic — the first time in 25 years the show did not go on — the return of the annual event in 2021 had many fans eager for a high-profile extravaganza. The convention itself, held virtually from June 12-15, did feature a number of marquee events, but the majority of the content was stretched thin over the extended broadcast schedule. Hindered by a linear broadcast, and with the remoteness of a normally buzzing audience muting their reactions, the four-day showcase proved a pale reflection of the usual event, where gaming fans would lose their minds over new game titles, and surprise appearances by celebrities like Keanu Reeves delighted all.
Still, it served its purpose. Massive gaming companies like Xbox and Nintendo enjoyed the attention of millions of viewers for their presentations, and received praise for their showcases. With Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti opening the 2021 E3 stream by welcoming the event back to the city for 2022, the question now centers on the continued evolution of the event. What will E3 look like moving forward?
“E3 is the center of gravity when you talk about summer events related to games,” Stanley Pierre-Louis, CEO of the ESA, said. “Our hope is to create an event that stimulates excitement and allows those partners who want to showcase their products to really have a platform that outshines everything else. Putting a show of this caliber together, whether it’s physical or in-person, requires months of planning and scheduling.”
E3 had a string of issues preceding the pandemic that had already prompted questions about E3′s seemingly essential role. In 2019, Sony dropped out of the show for the first time in its history. A few months later, longtime partner and live presenter Geoff Keighley announced he would not be participating in the 2020 show for the first time. All of this was coupled with reports that the ESA was looking to rebrand E3 in a way that showcased online content creators more, a move that came after the longtime trade-only event opened its doors to the general public for the first time in 2017.
The lack of an E3 event in 2020 meant companies needed to consider new ways to deliver their high-profile game announcements. Similarly, it was a year in which both Xbox and Sony planned to reveal their new consoles. The vacuum provided an opportunity for a competing, must-see event for the gaming audience. Enter Keighley — who also created and produced The Game Awards, winter’s major gaming event — and his newly-minted Summer Game Fest.
While Keighley maintains his intention is not to compete against E3, it was hard to ignore the coup he scored this year when the capstone of the Summer Game Fest kickoff show this year was a first look at FromSoftware’s highly-anticipated “Elden Ring.” According to data provided by Twitter, the trailer was the most-viewed video on the platform from either E3 or the Summer Game Fest. The game’s publisher, Bandai Namco, used its time during the E3 showcase to air footage and a developer interview from the game “House of Ashes,” a title with a much lower profile.
“Some people may see it as competitive, but it’s not like they’re on the same day on top of each other,” said Keighley, who launched his second annual Summer Game Fest show on June 10, two days before the official start of E3 2021. “If you’re a gamer, you’re going to watch all of it. I don’t necessarily see it as competitive, I see it as complementary.”
A lacking virtual reality
The lack of a physical event also may have hurt E3. A week that has traditionally welcomed more than 60,000 attendees to the Los Angeles Convention Center — all of whom have access to exclusive demos and industry booths — was replaced with panel discussions and recorded interviews interspersed with bigger reveal events.
While Summer Game Fest kicked off with a condensed showcase, E3’s more spread-out approach echoed its conventions of yesteryear, but without the benefit of its live counterpart. E3 2021 offered a variety of major announcements from various publishers and developers, such as Microsoft, Nintendo, Ubisoft and Square Enix. But whereas in the past, E3 owned the reveals exclusively, most of this year’s presentations were co-streamed by other media outlets, including Summer Game Fest (with the notable exception of Nintendo).
“[E3 is] a bit kludged and confusing in terms of branding, at a minimum,” said Lewis Ward, research director of gaming, esports and VR/AR at analytics firm IDC. “Since Nintendo and Microsoft are focused on E3, I’d say it’ll get the nod, but Summer Game Fest didn’t exist before 2020, so it certainly feels like it has more forward momentum.”
The E3 brand still carries enormous weight, however, and even industry giants like Nintendo and Xbox can feel the impact of an E3 bump. On Wednesday, Xbox head Phil Spencer tweeted that this year’s presentation was the company’s “most viewed E3 ever.”
“We haven’t felt players and the team sharing so much energy and excitement since the [Xbox] 360 era,” said Spencer.
After E3 concluded Tuesday, Nintendo of America president Doug Bowser explained what he liked about the digital delivery of Nintendo’s announcements, compared to an in-person only event.
“The ability to communicate with fans that may have just been in the sea [of the crowd away from Nintendo’s stage] or some of the accompanying theaters [at the L.A. Convention Center], I thought was a positive,” Bowser said in a video interview with The Post Wednesday. “It allows you to speak to players around the world and provide more texture and content overall.”
While the all-digital showcase may have sapped some of the excitement, it improved the economics around E3 logistics for some smaller game publishers.
“Not having to attend a conference in person saves us loads of time, effort and money,” said Jos Bouman, creative director at Dutch studio Gamious, which debuted its upcoming indie “Lake” at this year’s E3. Despite that, Bouman still hopes that the industry will work together to “keep this week alive.”
John Linden, CEO of Mythical Games, which also showcased its latest game “Blankos Block Party” at E3, echoes Bouman’s sentiment on the annual event: “To me, it’s still the best venue to get messaging out.”
The ESA did not provide viewership metrics for this year’s event when asked by The Post, but the event’s exclusive Nintendo Direct presentation has racked up more than 1 million views on YouTube alone, while the first trailer for the company’s upcoming “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” sequel has amassed more than 3.5 million.
According to a report by live-streaming analytics firm Stream Hatchet, Nintendo’s E3 Direct topped 3.1 million streams across Twitch and YouTube, the most of any company at this year’s conference. Xbox and Ubisoft followed with 2.3 million and 1.4 million respectively, while Square Enix reached 1.3 million with its presentation.
Where does E3 go from here?
The Summer Game Fest kickoff show boasted over 25 million streams of its event, with a peak of over 3 million concurrent viewers globally, according to engagement figures shared with The Post. Still, some companies have chosen to separate themselves from broader industry shows entirely.
Sony, for example, famously dropped out of E3 for the first time back in 2019. The company instead opted to host its own “State of Play” livestream on May 27, showing off gameplay footage from Guerrilla Games’s “Horizon Forbidden West” for the first time. That event, produced and hosted independently by Sony, topped 3 million livestreams globally, according to metrics the company provided. Similar events produced recently by Sony, such as last June’s PS5 Future of Gaming and September’s PlayStation 5 Showcase, topped 24 million and 9 million streams respectively.
Sony declined to comment on the decision to yet again opt out of E3 in 2021.
“We are always open to having all of our members join, including Sony, and it would be exciting, but they also have quite a powerful brand and we know that they have been very successful in the decisions they made,” Pierre-Louis said.
Not all brands have the cachet of Sony. Therein lies the appeal of an E3 or Summer Game Fest: These events are a way to generate interest, allowing participants to piggyback off the appeal of other publishers.
“Ultimately, what we found is these publishers can do their own events, but there’s also a sense that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should,” Keighley said. “Our shows sort of protect people in a way because if you only have one or two things to say, you can be in a larger roll-up versus doing a half-hour event to announce one thing.”
The major takeaway from 2021’s summer gaming events may be the positioning of its two players for the future. Fans can expect to see a “hybrid” of both physical and digital offerings from both E3 and Summer Game Fest next year.
“I think that a combination of a virtual experience, along with a physical experience, is what’s going to be guiding us going forward,” Nintendo’s Bowser said.
“The real question to me is, what does next year look like?” said Keighley. “It used to be, wait four months and don’t say anything because you’re going to be at an E3 press conference and disappear. It doesn’t matter anymore in a digital world. The bar is much higher.”