Goodbye E3, the Trade Show That Changed My Life

How a plucky 14-year-old nerd convinced his parents to meet a bunch of online strangers in Atlanta—and it changed everything.

E3 2022 has been canceled, and there’s a good chance E3, for many years the annual epicenter of video game hype culture, is now gone forever. 

It’s easy to poke fun at the event; it’s been dying for years, and my last major interaction with the event was the organizers leaking my personal information online. COVID had accelerated what was already in motion. And yet I find myself mourning the death of a marketing stunt because of my history with it, because attending E3 was, for a long time, the “you made it” moment of being in this industry. Walking through the gates of E3 was, itself, validation. You were part of the club.

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I cannot talk about E3, the stuffy retail convention that eventually provided a pathway to a lifelong career, without talking about my dad, the person who first attended E3 with me at the age of 14, and who, coincidentally, passed away of a heart attack a decade ago this year. 

Maybe this story is slightly apocryphal, but here’s how I remember convincing my parents to let me, barely a teenager, attend a convention many states away from where I lived, built on the premise that I’d spent time online talking to strangers to believe this was a good idea.

This is me, who was a big fan of music games at this age.

I started writing about video games online around the time of Geocities and Angelfire, websites that no longer exist but in the late 90s were transformational, because it let normal people build a website with some basic tools and HTML tinkering. (At the time, it was cool if you could code a website with or without “frames,” essentially a tab on the side of the screen that could be used to modify the other side of the screen, not dissimilar to picking chapters in a book. You would visit sites in “frames” or “no frames” versions. I swear this was important!)

People told me I had an early knack for writing around the time the essay I wrote for my school’s anti-drug propaganda program D.A.R.E. was picked to be read (by me!) in front of the entire school. Maybe this was true, but when my dad brought home our first computer and connected it to the internet and I figured out how to start building a website, my first impulse was to copy and paste reviews from the pages of EGM and claim they were mine. 

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Eventually, I started writing my own “reviews” and hanging out in video game chat rooms. The fuzziness of time—these events were more than 20 years ago—means I no longer remember all the details, but I got tied up in a website called Gamerz Online. Unfortunately, this was an era in which much of the Internet was not archived, and it appears the earliest the Wayback Machine has for Gamerz Online is around the time we parted ways, and all that remains is a message from “Dave” about how the site was going to relaunch. (It wouldn’t).

But I remember Dave, because Dave is the one who invited me to E3, which in 1998 was in Atlanta, Georgia. E3 was an event for grown ups, but Dave promised there was a path to an underage media badge, and so long as I showed up, I could get one. I don’t remember Dave’s last name, but I do remember that Dave was the first person to give me a chance.

Why? I have no idea. Someone should ask Dave. (He was also pretty young, I believe.)

You have to remember how ludicrous this sounds in 1998, long before the internet became so pervasive in our lives. This was an era of dial-up modems squeaking in the night, when loading a website was a reason to go eat lunch and come back, hoping no one picked up the phone and broke the connection. The internet wasn’t culture because we didn’t know what the internet was yet. And it was definitely not the kind of place where you should have been able to convince your parents about an online stranger making vague promises to you. 

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That’s the kind of scare tactic stuff you’d hear on the nightly news—still hear today, frankly. 

Nonetheless, one night, at the age of 14, I remember walking into my parents bedroom, explaining what E3 was and why I wanted to go, and being asked to leave the room. That my parents didn’t outright dismiss me, make fun of the request, or tell me I was ridiculous is the kind of small detail that in retrospect makes me tear up because of how much it says about how my parents approached their children and their interests, however bewildering.

(I do not think it’s a coincidence that I was allowed to indulge and flourish as a video game reporter in an era where it wasn’t a career path, and my brother later spent a decade touring the world in The Audition, semi-successful pop punk band. They were pretty good, and the whole thing is a testament to the way my parents, if accidentally at first, let their children find themselves by respecting their hobbies. It’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart with my children.)

This is also me, who was a big fan of Mortal Kombat.

The best my parents recall, they were taken aback their 14-year-old was interested in turning an online hobby, one that was taking up an increasingly concerning amount of free time, into the real world. Again, the internet was a black box to them. It was a black box to me. Can you blame them for being weirded out? Me either. It was a rational reaction. This felt like a step in the right direction, even if they had no idea what E3, let alone Gamerz Online, was.

Before my dad was an executive, he was a salesperson, which meant he spent a lot of time on the road. It’s not that he was rarely around, but it was enough that dad coming home was a big deal, you know? My parents didn’t have the money to plan a vacation to Georgia, but my dad was able to line up a sales trip on the same dates as E3, and agreed to accompany me there. The stage was set: I was going to E3. We were going to E3. I mean, so long as this online stranger hooked me up with a pass that I could not guarantee. Very small details.

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Much of what happened next was a blur, but moments stand out. I remember that we showed up, Dave and the underage media badge were real, and my dad was required to accompany me around E3. Not only did my dad, whose sole encounter with video games was sometimes playing Tecmo Super Bowl with us, wander around the glitzy lights of E3, he stood nearby while I met Nextlander’s Brad Shoemaker, who would become both a lifelong friend and colleague, for the first time because we hung out in the same IRC chat room. He stood nearby when I would walk up to media desks at various video game publishers, informing them the person they’d made an appointment with was, in fact, a 14-year-old child. 

Most of them found this amusing, and happily escorted both me and my dad into the same appointment. During one such appointment with ASCII Software, while the company showed me a Nintendo 64 video game that I cannot for the life of me remember, my dad fell asleep.

He didn’t make fun of me when I had an appointment with Konami, where I was, ludicrously, supposed to interview the developers of some Castlevania game. I had written some questions on my computer at home and printed them out—and then got too scared to go through with the interview. I don’t know if my dad knew I was bullshitting, but I pretended to approach the media desk, informed my dad the interview was “canceled,” and we moved on. 

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I’m pretty sure we went to go see the bad American Godzilla in a mall theater after that.

I would go on to attend every year for the next two decades, and for the better part of that first decade, my dad was at my side. As I transitioned from a writer to a reporter, E3 was the place where I met colleagues and networked. It was vital. He eventually let me attend appointments on my own, but would always be close by. Every year, he would coordinate a sales meeting around E3, so he could attend, too. As I was getting older, E3 was phasing out the ability for people under the age of 18 to attend, and ultimately made it impossible for a website like Gamerz Online to nab one. (By then, I was writing for Gaming Age, the website whose message boards would eventually spawn NeoGAF, and then later ResetEra.)

To attend one year, I needed the website IGN to vouch for me. Prior to E3, I was told the paperwork was taken care of, only for me to show up and find out it was definitely not taken care of. 17 years old at the time, my dad flew with me to Los Angeles but no longer walked around E3 with me, and instead spent his day doing actual sales stuff while I worked the show. The organizers wouldn’t hand me a badge, but they did offer to give my dad a temporary one, and let him walk in and try to find someone at IGN’s booth who could help.

I loved my dad, but he had a temper, one that made him effective at his job but was less fun to be on the other end of when, say, you missed curfew. But I also knew that when my dad said he was going to head inside E3 and “figure it out,” I knew he would come back with a badge. And he did. Technically, I think he came back with someone who was going to figure it out, but he was still right. I have no idea what kinds of conversations he had with the random people asked to staff IGN’s booth, but he did, in fact, “figure it out,” and I went to E3. 

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Another year, he chaperoned me and several dirtbag high school friends of mine to E3. I score badges for all of them by—shhhhh—fraudulenting editing the HTML pages of a website I wrote for and putting their names on reviews. I later snuck them into a Sony party near Dodgers stadium, where we grabbed empty beers off a table to convince the mostly indifferent bartenders that we were of age. We most definitely were not, but with a little effort, we did get drunk on Sony’s dime and watch the Foo Fighters and George Clinton perform. 

Another year, after dropping me off in front of a hotel where some friends were gathering, he coughed and accidentally choked on a fake tooth in his mouth. While trying to get help from a cop down the street, they yelled at him to lay down on the ground before the tooth popped out, so he could breathe and explain the issue. My dad almost got arrested for attending E3.

My dad ruled. I don’t have a career without him and, for better and worse, E3. 

RIP, both of you.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

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