EA's absence from E3 is not a death knell
The ESA's centerpiece has technically lost a key publisher, but this is a step closer to evolution than dissolution
EA won't be at E3 this year. Sort of.
The publisher announced this week that it will be foregoing its annual E3 booth at the Los Angeles Convention Center in favor of its own three-day EA Play event just next door in the LA Live complex.
The first reaction to seeing an established name opt out of the biggest establishment trade show of the year is heavily dependent on context. Sometimes, we see it as a reflection on the health of the company in question, as it was in the years when Sega or THQ skipped the show. Other times, it's interpreted more as a sign of waning relevance for the decades-old show itself, an institution in an industry with precious little respect for institutions, like when Activision skipped the 2008 show and pulled out of the ESA entirely after the prior year's drastically downsized E3 in Santa Monica. There are even times when a move signals both, such as when Nintendo abandoned its annual on-site press conferences in favor of a pre-recorded online broadcast.
This news with EA doesn't quite fit with any of those narratives. The publisher is doing just fine financially, and coming off a successful 2015 that saw EA's stock price soar by almost 50 percent. All indications so far are that Star Wars: Battlefront is doing well, and with the return of Battlefield and Visceral's Star Wars game on the horizon (not to mention sports stalwarts like FIFA and Madden), EA is solidly on track for the future.
"The press and retailers who used to be a focus at E3 are categorically less important to publishers now, as the digital revolution has enabled publishers to communicate directly with their audience"
E3 may not be as cut-and-dried a success story, but there's little reason to fear for the show just yet. EA clearly still believes E3 is relevant, and well worth a considerable investment of resources. It's renting out Club Nokia in the LA Live complex for three straight days of essentially the same hype and promotion it would normally perform on the E3 show floor. It's even scheduled a press conference for the Sunday afternoon before E3, leaving no doubt that it wants its games to be the first big announcements of the show. (Traditionally, E3 conferences start with Microsoft's Monday morning presser, but Bethesda jumped the line last year with a Sunday night media briefing that had the entire show buzzing with talk of Fallout 4 and Fallout Shelter.)
The big difference for EA is simply in who will be there. Because E3 is not open to the public, one would assume that the press and industry attendees there in a professional capacity would be more composed than a throng of rabid fans. Much as that statement invites a snarky rejoinder, there really is nothing quite like the real thing. EA recognizes this, and rather than secure E3 credentials for a handful of superfans to hang around their booth and ooze excitement for a few days, the publisher has (probably rightly) decided it would be better served by having a venue crammed full of the faithful to give the press and retail partners a friendlier perspective of how excited people are for their games.
For the ESA, that leaves an EA-sized hole in the South Hall show floor. Fortunately, that's prime real estate, front-and-center as attendees file in. In short, it will quickly be snapped up by other companies, if it hasn't been already. Where you're more likely to feel EA's absence will be on the edges of the hall, which already felt a bit barren last year, with booth space devoted to "Networking Lounge," "Mobile and Social Game Pavilion," and "College Game Competition." At the same time, the press and retailers who used to be a focus at E3 are categorically less important to publishers now, as the digital revolution has enabled publishers to communicate directly with their audience, and in many cases sell directly to them as well.
You can look at that and suggest that E3's relevance is threatened, but the truth is that, intentionally or not, the shape of E3 has been adapting to fit this new world. A little more than a decade ago, the E3 press briefings were hastily liveblogged by journalists in attendance. Particularly well-funded sites would toss pictures into their liveblogs. Now the press conferences are all livestreamed through Twitch to massive audiences around the globe, and gaming sites just embed the feed on their own E3-themed page. Reporters are as likely to cover them through that feed as they are to travel to LA and try to crank out stories in a crowded auditorium on a laptop using the inevitably flaky WiFi provided by publishers.
While E3 isn't technically open to the public just yet, the public has virtually unfettered access to everything your average attendee could see, on-demand and in concentrated form. The only thing they can't do is play the games, but moves like EA's suggest a willingness to change even that. This is the prime adaptation in how the show has stayed relevant to the industry over the last decade, when its ongoing relevance has been under frequent question.
That adaptation may not reflect any grand vision or design on the part of the ESA, but it has happened nonetheless. That's because E3 is an event for the benefit of game publishers, organized by a trade group of publishers. Considering how much money is at stake, those companies won't collectively push forward with any bold strategic vision for the show that hasn't been proven out by individual companies on a smaller scale first, so the show will likely always feel a half-step behind the times. But publishers also won't turn their noses up at a proven opportunity to generate massive hype for their own work and the industry as a whole.
"Is the current wave of community-driven marketing compatible with a show that's strictly limited to industry insiders?"
As for the ESA, E3 usually accounts for roughly half of its annual revenues, so it's not about to let the show die without a fight, either. It also certainly learned a hard lesson in 2007 with that Santa Monica sojourn. In addition to drawing criticisms from attendees, the move necessitated some changes in how the ESA funded its operations. According to the group's Form 990 filings, E3 2006 brought in about $18.5 million for the ESA, while the relocated E3 2007 brought in about $3.5 million. The majority of the difference in revenue was made up for by hikes in membership dues, which skyrocketed from $1 million in 2005 to $17.4 million in 2007. Activision, Vivendi, id Software, and LucasArts all withdrew from the ESA before 2008's E3 moved the show back to the LACC. Since then, the group has been committed to the bigger, badder, better approach to E3. It has since grown the show (not quite to pre-Santa Monica levels, but still more than respectable) and made it a highlight of the gaming calendar once again.
So even with the occasional misstep, E3 will survive, and it will remain as relevant as the console and PC gaming space on which it is focused. (Sorry, Mobile and Social Game Pavilion.) The bigger question in my mind is what the show will look like in the future as it shifts to accommodate the needs of multiple audiences. Is it possible to have a proliferation of fan-driven events like EA Play coexist, or will they necessarily water down each other's audience with casual observers and other non-fans? Is the current wave of community-driven marketing compatible with a show that's strictly limited to industry insiders? Would the ESA ultimately be better off turning E3 into a Gamescom-like event open to the public? And the most important question (on a personal level, at least), if the ESA relaxes admission to the point of E3 2006 levels or beyond, might we finally see the return of Kentia Hall?
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