With everything that happened in 2020 (aka, “The Longest Year”), it’s easy to forget that E3 was completely canceled for the first time in 25 years. The gaming industry staple was in trouble even before COVID took the stage, but the pandemic really sealed the coffin for last year’s trade show. The ESA wasn’t even able to put together a digital event as would-be exhibitors took to their own platforms and timeframes to announced games and content. At the time of cancelation last year, the ESA promised E3 would be back in 2021, but given the ongoing pandemic and the state of the industry, is E3 2021 really going to happen?
E3 2019, the last E3 that actually happened, was a sad show. Multiple exhibitors had either reduced their presence or pulled out of the show entirely. Perhaps most notable among these was Sony, who opted out of attending E3 entirely in 2019, but Microsoft also shifted itself to the adjacent Microsoft Theater. The West Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center, normally the staging area for the big three—PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo—was weirdly empty. E3 organizers filled some of the empty space with a seating area (which nobody was using), but the absence of these enormous companies and their booths was palpable.
The Once and Future King?
What thrived as an industry trade show started to see issues when organizers opted to open up ticket sales to the public a few years back, making it both an event for industry professionals and a public convention. Exhibitors weren’t prepared to adapt for the influx of people who were just there to wait in line for a 20 minute demo, while industry professionals with wall-to-wall appointments struggled to wade through the masses to get to their next meetings. In order to make it easier for those who were there to work, publishers like Activision started pulling operations off the show floor and into meeting rooms instead. E3 organizers also weren’t ready with optimal security, which led to a number of security breaches and thefts of exhibitor property.
Through this identity crisis, E3 organizers, exhibitors, and attendees—both members of the industry and the public ticketholders—are all at odds for what the want the event to be and what they’re getting out of it. The last few years of E3 have progressively gotten worse for everyone. Industry members are frustrated at the shift in focus from the organizer level. The paying public has been frustrated with a diminishing show floor having a smaller and smaller presence. And the ESA has struggled to build an event that still holds a meaningful place, being neither a great industry event nor public convention.
Shortly following E3 2019, a huge data breach (read: an exceptionally lazy and insecure way of housing the attendee list on the E3 site) leaked the personal information of thousands of people online. After promising better digital security for those who registered to attend, the E3 2020 exhibitor list leaked (before the event was ultimately canceled). The culmination of all of these issues made people question if they’d even want to attend E3. And then the pandemic hit.
How E3 2020 Fell Apart
Stepping back to just before the COVID pandemic started a rolling cancellation of physical events, industry hype-man Geoff Keighley distanced himself from any kind of partnership or participation in E3 2020, specifically saying that he didn’t feel “comfortable” participating. It was a notable moment, one that called into question the ESA’s plans for the event last year. As a participant in basically every E3 prior, from attendee to taking part in the event itself in some way, his distancing from E3 2020 based on not feeling comfortable with what he knew about the show was a huge deal.
It was around this same time that Sony voiced its intention not to attend E3 2020 either, skipping the gaming event for the second year in a row, the same year that it was set to launch the PS5. The ESA rambled off “nothing statements” that didn’t hold much reassurance, but the message from Sony was clear: E3 wasn’t valuable to them anymore. It was an unnecessary expense in time, money, and personnel, and it wasn’t prudent to its marketing strategy for its next-gen console. The thought rippled through the gaming community: If Sony could skip E3 the year it planned to launch the PS5, there was very little likelihood the console manufacturer would ever return to the event again, at least without some drastic changes to operations.
Still, the ESA pushed onward, determined to hold the event, even as threat of the pandemic grew early in 2020. They partnered with iam8bit as a creative directors for the show. iam8bit resigned as creative directors a month later. Clearly all was not well in the E3 2020 planning room. The show was already falling apart before it had even began, but the pandemic was the nail in its coffin.
To be quite honest, the pandemic was probably a useful excuse for E3 organizers to cancel the event, a move that seemed like a likely scenario even before an infectious virus ravaged the world. Still, as other events and exhibitors pivoted to all-digital events—an experiment that was somewhat messy but generally well-received under the circumstances—E3 organizers failed to even put together a viable digital show, confirming more than two months ahead of time that E3 2020 was completely off the books.
And yet organizers talked of a promising E3 2021, a supposed “reimagined” show that is scheduled to take place June 15-17, 2021, that, along with a bunch of other buzzwords, must have been easy to promise back in April 2020. But no word of this year’s show has been spoken since. It doesn’t even have a venue. The E3 website has no information, with its current posts dating back to September 2020. With 2021 well under way, a major revival of the one-time industry-leading gaming event isn’t looking good.
E3 2021 – The Pandemic Effect
And that’s before you even consider the ramifications of the pandemic, which has lasted far longer than anyone anticipated it might back in April 2020. It’s unlikely that anyone will be ready to return to in-person events this year, especially of the scope and scale that E3 organizers hope to bring to the show. We’ll be lucky if we’re even ready to get back to business as usual by E3 2022, if current projections of vaccine rollouts and herd immunity are anything to go by.
Sony is unlikely to attend any potential E3 2021 event anyway, COVID or not. Microsoft has already confirmed it wouldn’t hold in-person events until July 2021 at the earliest. And exhibitors got a taste of a world without an E3 last year, a world where they controlled the messaging and the timing and the audience. While there is still absolutely a place and time for physical events that bring the industry together, perhaps the muddled messaging of E3 wasn’t worth the time, money, and effort on what it was (or wasn’t) delivering. Will exhibitors even want to return this year if E3 2021 is announced, or would it be a sad shell of a show missing the industry’s most prominent players?
Given the state of the industry and the world right now, I don’t think there’s any chance that E3 2021 happens, especially not as a physical event. If E3 returns this year, it will almost assuredly be all-digital, and even then, there’s a question of who would participate. If the pandemic weren’t raging on, I’d say there’s a good chance the ESA would try to push through some kind of E3 event this year, but again, it would be a shell of its former self, kept on life support, with many attendees and exhibitors opting out of the show entirely. The next couple of months will be a crucial messaging period for the ESA if it intends to bring E3 back for 2021, but perhaps its just best to leave the show to rest right now. I’m not saying it should stay dead forever, but the event needs to do some serious soul searching for how it plans to adapt in the future, and 2021 just doesn’t seem like the year for it.
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