Editorial: Saying E3 Is Irrelevant Is A Stone Cold Take

Do you remember your first concert? For many, the experience is a memory of a dimly lit venue with a stage flooded in light. Music pounds through speakers towering over the crowd, at a decibel most people can only dream of reaching in their home or apartment. The feeling of being surrounded by others as the band puts on a show is a unique rush that isn’t to be forgotten.

And then there’s listening to music through a pair of headphones sitting on a BART train.

In this world of instant digital access, an argument can be made that live music is no longer necessary. Why travel to watch a band play when all of their discography is at the tips of fans’ fingers? We don’t even need to carry around cassettes and CDs anymore to listen to music; just download and play, anywhere, any time.

Yet, for those who have been and go to concerts there is an undeniable, palpable difference between sitting in a car during rush hour traffic and listening to recorded music, versus seeing, hearing, and feeling it in person. The act of listening to music isn’t as simple as going from speaker to ear—it’s an experience that can be as intimate as listening to tunes on a stereo while the rain falls outside to one that is communal, loud, and boisterous.

The mindset that E3, the Electronics Entertainment Expo which is held in Los Angeles every year, is somehow no longer needed or relevant falls into a similar mindset. Nintendo led the charge by planting the seed of this idea into the minds of fans and pundits seven years ago at E3 2013. Nintendo decided to forego a traditional stage presentation and instead relayed its upcoming games via one of the company’s now-signature Direct broadcasts. What Nintendo showed the world at E3 2013 was that the way people ingest news and media was changing. That with the Internet so readily at hand it didn’t make a difference whether or not Reggie was standing inside of the Kodak Theatre or talking to reporters through the door of an ARCO restroom stall—the news would reach the masses all the same.

Unless that’s not entirely true, of course. Yes, Nintendo opted out of a stage show, but the company did not jettison its usual elaborate, enormous booth inside of the LA Convention Center. In the seven years since E3 2013, Nintendo has continued to publicize its game and project announcements via the web, but the hands-on demos inside of the convention center have never gone away or diminished. Indeed, even at E3 2016 when all the company had to show was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (and the Wii U version, no less—Switch wasn’t even announced yet!), not a single sacrifice was made to the booth and the experience of attendees. All of the kiosks were dedicated to Breath of the Wild and the media assembled to play in a recreation of Hyrule replete with enormous models of Link and company.

Why does this matter? The reason is that for the past couple of years, a large chunk of the gaming media has been parroting the idea that E3 is a dated relic of the ’90s that no longer serves a purpose in the industry. When the event was canceled this year due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing quarantine, pundits continued to peddle the “hot take” that E3 was already dead and should stay dead, and then began to bray the notion even louder when E3 was announced to be returning in 2021.

To be fair, the media members claiming E3 is irrelevant didn’t entirely pop out of the woodwork at random overnight. Sony’s absence from the LA Convention Center in 2019 was a cap on a year of bad press for the event. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which hosts E3, had suffered a major data breach the year prior which rightly had some attendees and presenters on edge. That Sony chose to opt out was easily as much due to perceived safety inefficiencies as much as so-called dwindling interest in the show.

In 2019, of the big three companies in Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, only the latter was actually on the show floor. Surely, this was a sign that E3 had become more of a habit than a viable transmitter for the latest video game announcements. Except, if that were true then it makes the success of Germany’s Gamescom convention a rather curious anomaly. The annual event brings in hundreds of thousands of attendees, with the 2019 total at 373,000 people. The PAX conventions, held in multiple regions around the United States and internationally, also draw thousands of people each year. Globally, there are many gaming conventions and countless people continue to attend them, including shows like Tokyo Game Show, Paris Games Week, Brasil Game Show, and more. Perhaps “anomaly” should be changed to “regularity.” If these in-person events are so needless, the industry is curiously not showing any signs of a lack of interest.

Circling back to last year and Microsoft, it’s also somewhat disingenuous to claim that Xbox was nowhere to be seen at E3. Rather than present in the LA Convention Center, Microsoft opted to host its own FanFest in the nearby Microsoft Theater. Keep in mind that the event was held during E3 proper, and was marketed as being part of the iconic convention. Now, it’s here that I’m willing to concede that perhaps the industry has a growing problem with E3 as an entity; whether it’s the high cost of exhibiting in the LA Convention Center or issues like the aforementioned data breach, it’s possible that E3 in particular presents challenges that other conventions do not. That could all be a real possibility.

Yet, the declarations that E3 is the dinosaur that just won’t go extinct aren’t making that argument. Instead, there’s a fixation on this notion that a live event serves no purpose when it comes to broadcasting video game news. To which I say… they’re missing the point. They’re listening to music on iTunes and oblivious as to why people love concerts. E3 isn’t merely a mouthpiece for the industry to tout its wares. E3 is spectacle. E3 is grandeur. E3 is a party.

I’ve been to tons of different media events. I’ve been to hotels in San Francisco where folding tables with video game consoles are waiting with demos to be played, as food is kept warm off to the side for us to munch on as we work. I’ve been flown to New York to be wined and dined by a major developer showing off their latest project—the company had even put samples in my hotel room before I arrived. I’ve been in the middle of nowhere to small, rented offices to check out game builds. I’ve learned about new games by reading announcements on Twitter. Developers and publishers have all sorts of ways to get news to fans. Again, if people like Phil Spencer want to hop onto a Zoom call and read off the list of Xbox Series X launch titles while cooking some Top Ramen in his microwave, the media would gobble it up like water in the Sahara.

In short, the news comes easy now. It’s the showmanship that does not. E3 exhibitors don’t spend thousands of dollars every single year to build replicas of New Donk City in the LA Convention Center, or life size replicas of Monster Hunter ice dragons for giggles. Epic didn’t commission an enormous Battle Bus and serve gallons of chilled Slurp Juice for fun. These are calculated, intentional acts meant to blow the socks off of the people at the show. When E3 hits each year, all anyone has to do is scroll through social media to see the countless pictures that journalists and other attendees post from the show floor. Yes, people can retweet an IGN post talking about Breath of the Wild 2, but nothing can top thousands more people posting, retweeting, and commenting endlessly on a replica of the Master Sword from the convention center, as well.

E3 2012 Generic Masthead 2

What’s also being forgotten is that smaller publishers and developers depend on the in-person interactions of E3. Not every company is a Nintendo or Sony. A lot of these outfits hope to bring attention to themselves through the theatrics and pageantry that they display in the convention center. I’d never heard of Volt Edge before E3, but countless people went to their booth to check out its headsets and try to win a Switch. Companies like Nyko and Hori offer physical peripherals that are pretty hard to get an impression of through a livestream. Perhaps even more of note is that E3 sees hundreds of people in the industry from across the globe congregating all at once in the same place. That’s a lot easier than trying to arrange 50 different meetings with countless different parties over the span of weeks and months. Saying E3 is irrelevant might be true to a journalist who hates the grind of the show floor and prefers an MPEG waiting in their email inbox, but for everyone else that is not the case.

E3 is a major driver of news for reasons well beyond the games themselves. That’s the point. A point that is being obfuscated by journos who were also likely the same ones claiming that PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 were going to be the last video game consoles. We live in the era of the hot take, where people in the media ostensibly just throw a lot of shi—spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. The 24-hour news cycle practically demands it. For some strange reason, however, the insistence that E3 is obsolete will not disappear. The presence in 2020 of 100 different online exhibitions and presentations (with more to come) has somehow validated this criticism in the eyes of these pundits, but let’s be real—no one has had a choice but to turn to the Internet this year. The success or even failure of these broadcasts and online meetups are representative of nothing because there are no alternatives.

Look, full disclosure—I personally love going to the show. It’s my concert. I’ve seen a lot of cool stuff, met many nice people, and enjoyed the atmosphere year in and year out. It’s distinct from the countless other ways that the industry goes about giving the media hands-on time, and it’s one that also acts as a celebration of what makes video games so fun and unique. This is perhaps not the most popular notion these days, but I’ll close by saying that there’s a part of me, and even a part of fandom and members of the industry (and god forbid a journalist or two) who are rooting for E3 to stick around because it’s a part of the tradition and history of the medium. Livestreaming and video broadcasts have a purpose, but as far as I’m concerned they’re emblematic of the detached, sterile world that is creeping up around us. Get out. Do stuff. And if you can hit up E3, you should—no matter what some fussy pundit has to say.

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