Farewell to E3 as we knew it, the Super Bowl of our video game fandom
By now, we’ve all read of the effective demise of E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, which blacked out a week on serious video game fans’ calendars every June over the past 27 years. I doubt I’m the only one who ever told a friend, sibling, or cousin that I couldn’t make a family function because, well, I had to cover E3, the Super Bowl of the business I’m in.
It was an insider’s event, to be sure; the Entertainment Software Association arrived too late to the idea of admitting the general public, and finally did so only in limited numbers. Then the COVID-19 pandemic finished off what remained. But for as much as has been written about it — and not just by writers like me; I mean by dedicated fans in the forums, on social media, and the pinwheeling chats accompanying the YouTube streams — the news that E3 2023 will not happen, either, really does feel like the World Series has been canceled.
This was not a sudden death; E3 had been lingering in redundancy, if not irrelevance, for the past four or five years. The ESA had struggled to manage its biggest members’ defections going back to 2013, when Nintendo abandoned the pomp and production of a traditional pre-E3 live news conference to devote its efforts to the smaller, recorded Nintendo Direct broadcasts it had begun in 2011 — a format its peers copy today. It’s simply a matter of changing times.
Today, the folks who market and sell video games can make their pitch directly to the customers themselves, rather than via retail gatekeepers or other middlemen, through avenues like Twitch and YouTube. And they can do it for pennies on the dollar compared to buying and setting up the elaborate booths that marked E3’s heyday.
E3 in its prime actually wasn’t a channel to consumers; it was a channel to deal-makers, retail buyers, and those who once spent the most money and moved the most product. For sure, there were always fan-driven, consumer-oriented galas driving the news in Los Angeles. But the most important of them were held off-site and preceded the convention itself; E3 was in fact a Tuesday-to-Thursday expo, even if it felt like it began the preceding Saturday.
The publishers and platform holders still rented office space and private conference rooms above South Hall, where they talked to the likes of GameStop, Walmart, and Best Buy about stocking their shelves for the coming holiday season. That was the real point of E3 — it was a trade show, after all.
But over the past decade, game sales steadily moved online, and to the publishers’ marketplaces themselves — not just the PlayStation Store, Microsoft Store, and Nintendo eShop, but also Ubisoft Connect, EA’s Origin, and, of course, Steam (and Valve rarely had any presence at E3, anyway). The hobnobbery and relationship-building, pairing up-and-coming developers and their projects with publishers? It’s up to industry functions like the Game Developers Conference to broker those partnerships now.
Still, the old-school, meet-and-greet, personal nature of E3 had value. In sports writing, there’s a long tradition of going to the locker room to face those you have ripped in print. E3 was that locker room. It reminded me that real people devote years of their lives to my enjoyment, and to my readers’, too. Losing that connection, I feel like my complaints are pettier, my speculation less informed. We do a lot of virtual preview events these days, and while I’m grateful for the chance not only to play a game in development, but to play it in my home, where I’ll actually be playing once it launches, it’s not the same as going into a publisher’s booth — much less playing a series like FIFA with its executive producer, and revealing to him how bad I am at it, actually.
I will miss E3, even though I last covered it in person in 2014. It was the one thing I did that family and friends not connected to this industry would ask me about. I actually did make friends there — people I’d only known online, or as a byline in a peer publication — and it really was heartwarming to meet them in person. We can do Nintendo Directs, PlayStation States of Play, developer diaries all day long; nothing can replace the personal connection of that expo.
My favorite memory from the Los Angeles Convention Center was in 2011, at EA Sports’ booth. The publisher was showing NCAA Football 12, which would launch the following month. It was fully baked and previewed, a known quantity; there was no big reveal to be made. But I was in there shooting the breeze with developers from EA Tiburon when I was politely pushed out of the way by a very robust gentleman leading Snoop Dogg’s security detail. Snoop strode in to see the game, sat down with producer Ben Haumiller, and took his beloved USC Trojans up against Ben, who was playing as Oregon. And Ben absolutely smoked him.
It’s the kind of thing that only happened at E3, but it’s also the kind of thing that hadn’t happened in, hell, the last five or six years. And now it’ll never happen again.