Tech by VICE

The Age of the Big E3 Is Over

Change is on the way for what has been the video game industry's biggest and most significant event for the better part of two decades.

by Chris Pereira
Mar 6 2016, 5:00pm

Image: Entertainment Software Association

E3, the shorthand name for the annual Electronics Entertainment Expo, is the biggest video game industry convention in the world. Or, well, it used to be. E3 is by no means the largest in terms of attendance—Cologne, Germany's Gamescom routinely sees hundreds of thousands more people—but for over a decade it's been the place for game announcements, reveals, and showcases. Despite this, there has been talk for years that E3 was a dying beast, a relic of an old age. While the show is set to take place once again this year, numerous companies are scaling back their presence, and it looks as if E3 as we know it is finally done for.

That's not to say E3 is poised to no longer exist; there's no reason to believe that this year will be the last one ever. But there's no denying that major changes are afoot, especially in light of what's unfolded so far this year and during the last week in particular.

Back in January, Electronic Arts announced it would not have a booth on the floor of this year's E3. This is one of the world's largest game publishers, responsible for Battlefield, Mass Effect, Madden, and FIFA, among other franchises, choosing to forgo its usual E3 presence in favor of its own event. It's not as if this is a year in which it has nothing to show; in addition to the usual slate of sports games and other titles, EA has new Mass Effect, Battlefield, and Titanfall games due out by the end of March 2017. History would suggest a major showing for the company at E3.

Instead, EA will host its own event, called EA Play, just prior to the start of E3 in Los Angeles. Rather than host its usual press conference on Monday, the day before the convention officially begins, it'll instead do so on Sunday, when it kicks off a three-day event that fans can attend to play upcoming games. By holding this the week of E3 in Los Angeles, EA gets to have an E3-like experienceon its own terms. If the people come, EA Play will likely become an annual event, and it wouldn't come as a surprise if future events move to a different point in the year, away from E3.

EA isn't alone. Another of the industry's largest publishers, Activision Blizzard, followed suit this past week. In a blog post ostensibly meant to announce the company's year-round support of the Call of Duty community, it revealed it will not have a booth at this year's E3. The latest Call of Duty game will still have its traditional showcase during one of the console manufacturers' press conferences (Sony, for the second year running), but you won't see Activision on the show floor.

Just like that, two of the biggest exhibitors in the Los Angeles Convention Center's South Hall are gone. EA, for one, will still take private meetings at E3, but neither of these companies will be there in their usual capacity. And in all likelihood, they won't be able to easily get back their floor space in the future, as companies are able to hold their spots from year to year. That's especially significant for EA, which had a premium spot in front of the entrance to South Hall. In short, for EA to pull out doesn't mean it just wants to skip this year, it shows a lack of faith in the show's future in general.

Image: Entertainment Software Association

The Activision news was then followed by word that neither Disney Interactive nor Wargaming would have booths. An alleged, likely incomplete floor plan for this year's show appeared online this weekend (via gaming forum NeoGAF), and it paints something of a grim picture.

For its part, the Entertainment Software Association, the trade association that represents the games industry and organizes E3, has tried to downplay the recent announcements.

"E3 is constantly evolving. For example, just three years ago there wasn't a sizable virtual reality presence at E3 and barely any mobile or handheld games," ESA senior vice president of communications Rich Taylor said in a statement shared with Motherboard. "Those companies and titles are now a significant element in the event.

"The event continues to break records on the number of international attendees who come to E3 every year to participate in the global launchpad for video game news and products. 2016 will be the same, including an event with a record number of press events in the works.

"In short, attendee registrations are surpassing where they were at this point last year. Interest from new exhibitors remains strong and we are in discussions with major exhibitors to take the floor space that is available. We look forward to seeing the world in Los Angeles in June."

Whereas E3 has traditionally been a press- and industry-only event, last year the ESA decided to allow 4,000 to 5,000 fans to attend. That total may explain how the ESA is allowed to claim 2015 broke records; 52,200 attended the show, compared with 48,900 in 2014, when no one from the public was allowed in. Attendance is still far from what it was in the early-to-mid 2000s, however, when the ESA reported that E3 attracted 60,000 to 70,000 people each year.

There's no word on who the major exhibitors the ESA refers to are. The ESA might not have any trouble filling the floor space, but it's not as if there are many EA or Activision-sized goliaths that are likely to have been waiting to get in.

And that's because the industry is changing. Many of the world's biggest games—things like League of Legends, Dota 2, or Clash of Clans—aren't the sort of games companies are clamoring to show off at an event like E3. As free-to-play becomes the increasingly dominant business model for games, it makes less and less sense for many companies to come to E3 to exhibit their games.

Image: Entertainment Software Association

That appears to be the rationale behind Wargaming's decision. The World of Tanks maker said in a statement to GamesBeat that it's choosing to "focus a large majority of activities on events focused on our players and community. ... From a strictly business perspective, E3 just doesn't fit our current direction. It's a show that is very centralized on retail product, and as a free-to-play digital download gaming company, we've realized that while the show may be a good fit for lots of other publishers and developers, it's currently not a great fit for us."

A game like Dota 2, meanwhile, doesn't need to be promoted through big events like E3. It gains international exposure throughout the year thanks to major competitive tournaments such as The International, which is held each summer and attracts millions of viewers.

It's 2016. There are countless ways to showcase your game that don't require catering your schedule to an event in June that may or may not fit your timetable, but is all but guaranteed to ensure the spotlight isn't on you for long. There are dozens upon dozens of announcements during E3. It's difficult to digest everything whether you're there or following the show from afar, and really, what good is it for anyone when games invariably end up being ignored or flying under the radar because there's just so much? No one wants to be in that position.

Certainly no one wants to foot the bill for an E3 presence only to have their games overshadowed by everything else. And that's nothing to sneeze at: The cost of floor space and bringing dozens of people and all sorts of equipment to Los Angeles is not cheap, nor is the food or hotels those people then need.

It's not as if the only alternative for these companies is to announce games through a magazine cover story. E3 reveals are quickly becoming as antiquated as those.

For years, game companies have been taking steps to circumvent the media and talk directly to fans. While companies have long had their own websites and forums, Microsoft and Sony took things further with Major Nelson's podcast and blog, and the PlayStation Blog, respectively, in the mid-to-late 2000s. Today, every game company cultivates its own fanbase through social media, livestreams, and so on. They can make announcements without relying on members of the press relaying what publishers went to great expense to show at E3.

Of course, having an E3-esque event can help to attract more eyeballs to any given announcement, but it's long since been the only show in town. As noted above, last year's E3 welcomed several thousand fans, but there are already numerous fan-centric events that have popped up over the years: Seattle's Penny Arcade Expo has expanded from one annual event to four throughout the United States and Australia; QuakeCon has grown from celebrating id Software to all of parent company Bethesda's titles; BlizzCon highlights Blizzard's franchises; MineCon does the same for Minecraft; and so on.

There are countless other such events in the US and around the world. Now we also have EA Play, and Sony appears intent on making its hit fan event PlayStation Experience an annual tradition. Nintendo, always one to march by the beat of its own drum, doesn't have such an event, but it has established its Nintendo Direct streams as press conference alternatives that it can sprinkle throughout the year.

E3 doesn't serve the vital role it once did. It started in 1995, long before YouTube and Twitch. Consoles like the PlayStation 3, Wii, and Wii U were all unveiled there, while the Xbox 360 was shown ahead of time during an MTV broadcast and then more fully detailed at E3. The most recently revealed consoles, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, were both announced at dedicated events unrelated to E3. When Nintendo finally reveals what its new NX console is this year, it wouldn't come as a surprise if it happens outside of E3, where the company has stopped hosting press conferences anyway in lieu of supersized Nintendo Direct streams.

All of this is to say that E3 as we know it—the big, loud showcase where everyone waits to make their biggest announcements—is bound to change. I've always enjoyed the show, both as something to attend and something to enjoy from the comfort of my home. It's fun to see a glimpse of what everyone is working on, build up a backlog of previews to read, and get excited that this might finally be the year some longshot dream comes true (hey, Sega, a western release of Phantasy Star Online 2 would be just great). I hope E3 continues to exist—a smaller show seems like it would be good news for everyone, save for perhaps the city of Los Angeles which could miss out on a huge influx of people eating out, riding in taxis, and staying in hotels—but one thing's for sure: It's going to be different from here on out.