Update: And it's official - E3 2020 has been cancelled.
News that E3 2020 is on the verge of being cancelled makes us think of years gone by. There was a time when the mere mention of the Electronic Entertainment Expo gave gamers the world over a spurt of the old dopamine. E3 may have been a comparatively small industry-only event but it occupied a much larger space in the minds of fans who watched every conference, read all the exclusive coverage and dreamed of what it would be like to wander the show floor filled with fibreglass effigies of gaming's greatest characters, getting behind-the-scenes access to never-before-seen games, running into Reggie, StreetPass-ing Eiji Aonuma or bowing deeply at the feet of Miyamoto as he popped out the back for a sandwich.
Announcements could drop throughout the year, of course, but come June you knew there was big news coming, guaranteed. For most of us E3 was more a time of year than a discreet LA-based event; something to anticipate and get hyped for. E3 used to be synonymous with excitement, and that was built on the premise that it was inaccessible to the general public, and therefore exclusive and 'special' in some way. All the horrific reports from attending journalists concerning lack of sleep, poor hygiene and frantically typing out preview text huddled over a laptop in the corner of the hall didn't matter - we would still have given our right arm for a chance to walk that show floor.
It's somewhat ironic that Nintendo, of all companies, was the first to realise the arguable irrelevance of E3 in the age of the internet.
In the years since E3 began back in 1995, more and more gaming events have appeared around the globe, events that welcomed the public from the beginning and crafted the experience around them. Attendee numbers at Gamescom and the various PAXes dwarf E3 attendee figures, but as an industry-only event, E3 has arguably always enjoyed a disproportionate mindshare amongst gamers.
The moment the Entertainment Software Association began admitting members of the public, beginning in a limited capacity in 2015, it became evident how ill-equipped it was to give paying attendees an experience rivalling those they had come to expect from other events. It traded on the residual affection and nostalgia many of us still have for the old days, the exciting trade event of old that would bring incredible news. It's these memories which still fire a few sparks in our belly to this day.
Sony’s decision to stay away from the event in a new hardware year was a significant blow, but an understandable one. They also declined an E3 showcase in 2019, but with the as-yet-unrevealed PS5 scheduled for Holiday 2020 launch, Sony's absence feels that much more significant. When Nintendo replaced their keynote conference with a pre-recorded E3 Direct presentation for the first time back in 2013, it cut out the middleman, sidestepped any embarrassing onstage mishaps (technical or otherwise) and utterly maintained control of its messaging while still reaping the benefits of E3 exposure. We poke fun at Sony’s State of Play ‘Direct’ broadcasts, but it is surprising just how long it took for someone to follow in Nintendo’s footsteps. It's somewhat ironic that Nintendo, of all companies, was the first to realise the arguable irrelevance of E3 in the age of the internet.
Even with a confident front man like Reggie Fils-Aimé and a host of beloved developers led by Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo still made the decision to forgo the traditional press conference. Few other companies could expect a standing ovation just by throwing a dev on stage with a plastic sword and shield, but Nintendo demonstrated the considerable benefits of eschewing the worry and expense of a press conference and addressing their public directly. After all, the real audience wasn’t in the conference hall; why waste time putting on a show for media who were obliged and eager to report your news in whatever form it took? Nintendo may be bullish in its public support for the show, but it's not attending out of the kindness of its heart. When E3 no longer serves its purpose, the company will be quick to move on.
For the informed, die-hard gamer who wants to see E3 prosper, this is arguably a blessing in disguise; we can't have been the only ones to shudder at the mention of 'experience hubs' and... 'queuetainment'
If Sony’s absence this year was a body blow to follow up the bloody nose from Nintendo, it seems that coronavirus is the final blow. While there's a belief among some people that this raft of event cancellations across all industries is an overreaction to the threat posed by COVID-19, beyond cruise ships there are few better venues to incubate and spread a virus than a gaming convention. The ‘PAX pox’ is no joke, and it is a thoroughly prudent and responsible decision to not cram thousands of people into a confined space where they’re forced to touch shared surfaces and queue for hours on end.
For the ESA, the decision to cancel must be an extremely painful one. If exhibitors were already edging towards the door (following a spate of announcements severing ties with the event, from organisers to prominent individuals), the cancellation of E3 2020 gives them the perfect excuse to find out how not attending E3 affects their messaging. When companies see how they can function quite effectively in an off-site capacity, spreading their word via the countless other channels available in 2020 and simultaneously removing the cost of exhibiting an expensive event from their annual budget, we suspect the number of sign-ups for E3 2021 will be significantly diminished. Cancellation forces publishers to make a jump that many lacked the confidence to make themselves; coronavirus has given them a push and the excuse to experiment; to see what happens when they don't attend E3.
While the ESA may well be smarting, given the public reaction to the organisation's plans this year to turn E3 into a 'fan, media and influencer event', the cancellation of a show which sounded more and more unappealing with every passing leak - even before Sony dropped out - will be welcomed by many, regardless of their opinions on global viral countermeasures. For the informed, die-hard gamer who wants to see a vital and prosperous E3, this is arguably a blessing; we can't have been the only ones to shudder at the mention of 'experience hubs' and... 'queuetainment'. Opening the doors to the general public exposed how little the ESA understood what was required to put on a great show for paying customers, and the leaking of media outlet credentials and information last year highlighted the organisation’s lack of care and respect. When leaked internal planning documents dropped back in September last year filled with jargon detailing a ‘new’ E3 dripping with influencers and ‘activations’, it felt to many as if the ESA was doubling down on the least interesting, most banal aspects of gaming events. At a time when social marketing and sponsored content is so easily put out over the internet, leaning into this approach felt like a fundamental misunderstanding of what gamers want from an event labelled ‘E3’. It looked set to become a glorified mall tour rather than an industry event.
And E3 began as an industry event, a trade show – that’s what made it desirable to the public. Gamers want to feel like they’re getting an insider look, a behind-the-scenes peek, not wait in line for hours playing their Switch and hoping the guys offering soda samples from a cart swing by. Journalists charged with reporting on previously unrevealed new games might be willing to suffer WiFi blackspots, dehydration and sitting on the floor for hours on end, but paying customers cramped together with thousands of others coughing on them, queuing to play a game they already own? It doesn’t take a genius to see the writing on the wall, although apparently the ESA is incredibly short-sighted.
if the physical event were replaced with an all-digital version, with each platform holder and major publisher contributing in a way that makes most sense for them, it would have a negligible effect on how [gamers] perceive and experience the show.
Maybe it’s because the organisation itself is old and somewhat obsolete, unduly influenced by marketing buzzwords and old-fashioned thinking. The ESA doesn’t appear to understand the attraction E3 used to have for millions of gamers across the globe and feels like it's run by out-of-touch old men. Given the most at-risk demographic when it comes to COVID-19, it’s little surprise E3 has succumbed.
For the vast majority of gamers, if the physical event were replaced with an all-digital version, with each platform holder and major publisher contributing in a way that makes most sense for them, it would have a negligible effect on how they perceive and experience the show. Again, for most of us E3 has always been a time, not a place. The argument that platform holders would do better to extricate themselves entirely from the crowded June announcement period holds some water, although it ignores the wider attention of the general public and the non-gaming media reportage that E3 attracts.
And despite the cancellation of the event itself, the ravenous hunger for information will remain – as the current Nintendo Direct limbo we’re in highlights. It makes sense for E3 to continue in some form, and if a global epidemic forces the ESA to rethink its approach entirely, that could well end up being a good thing in the long run. Charging for a ticket to buy cheaply-made swag and queue to play Fortnite was never going to save E3. Flying people around the world to showcase a product you can send digitally makes little sense, and there's ample opportunity to rethink and come up with better ways to engage with your audience beyond the relative simplicity of a Direct broadcast. E3 could become a download demo hub, a true social experience and celebration of games in a way which sounds far less cynical than the buzzword-loaded plan that leaked several months ago. There are endless possibilities. Back in January we asked Nintendo Life readers if E3 was still important to them in 2020. The majority felt that the event still has a significant role to play in the gaming calendar.
If the event truly is cancelled, it’s the end of an era. The truth, though, is that E3 has been in a bad way for a long time and coronavirus has simply expedited its inevitable demise. It’s sad, but also something of a relief to see a once near-mythical event put out of its misery with a modicum of dignity. If it is to survive in some form - and thrive - it now needs to regenerate Dr Who-style, refreshed on the outside but with the same beating heart(s) that made it such a thrill in the old days.
Is this the end, my friend? Could E3 return stronger than ever next year, or is it better for it to go into that good night? Did you like the sound of what the ESA was planning this year? Let us know what you think below.