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.


The ESA should have no trouble filling EA's old space in the South Hall.

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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Latest comments (6)

Richard Browne Partner & Head of Interactive, Many Rivers Productions2 years ago
Yes it is, I said so in the other article. ;)

E3 has become more irrelevant year after year and no matter what the ESA likes to say ANYONE who has attended E3 the past two years when badge and ID checking has been in force at the doors knows attendance is way down. Might be selling the same amount or more badges but walking around the show the past two years has been easier than ever - prior to this badges were always in multiple use. All the announcements of any relevance are done via video streamed presentations before the doors even open ; but then E3 has always been a press and retail show first and foremost and there's just better cheaper options available to publishers these days for that. The ESA will fight the good fight, but E3 will slip away as it already has started to do and as EA's move just reinforces.
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Steve Peterson Marketing Consultant 2 years ago
E3 has been shrinking for years, at least in terms of the number of companies exhibiting. There's more and more space on the show floor, taken up with lounges and various exhibits rather than companies paying to be there. At the same time, the original purpose of the show has been shrinking -- the need for a single venue to impress retail chain buyers and get a favorable impression among game journalists, in order to build retail sales and demand among game players. As digital distribution continues to increase its overall share of the business, the importance of retail chains diminishes. What's most important for game companies is connecting with individual game players -- which is exactly the intent of EA's move, their calculation being that EA Play will reach the fans much better than an E3 show floor presence.

I think for E3 to avoid dwindling into irrelevance in the future it will need to be much more inclusive of the public. Maybe it should turn into a full consumer show, or maybe some hybrid effort. But it's not just the consumers that need to be made a bigger part of the show -- it's the rest of the game industry that currently doesn't bother with E3. The games industry is more diverse geographically, demographically, and technologically than ever -- E3 should strive to embrace that somehow, I think. Maybe EA's move will cause the ESA to seriously rethink its approach to the show -- I hope so.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 2 years ago
E3 should have added public days s decade ago. With the floor prices that expensive it makes no sense not to.

It should have become the home of massive tournaments, rock star style signings and appearances etc. have everyone keynote on a set stage in the Nokia, and use it for Q&A afterand have tournaments in Staples Center. Probably way too late for that now since PAX did it
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Show all comments (6)
Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany2 years ago
On the other side; Europe's Gamescom gets more and more people each year. Provably for having open days during the weekend the way @Jeff said right above me.
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Jon Rissik SVP & GM, Dovetail Games2 years ago
Completely agree with you Alfonso. Gamescom should be the blueprint for E3. The event in Cologne, whilst not perfect, is a fabulous celebration of gaming where the great and good of industry mingle with the only people that really matter - the players. It's also a true barometer for the appeal of a product. The opinions of retail buyers become irrelevant in the face of a 3-hour player line to experience a game.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 years ago
Here is the Gamescom Consumer experience in a nutshell:

You get up very early, stand in line hours before the show opens, then you RUN LIKE HELL to the first game you want to see. Since press and whoever got in early, you wait less than an hour to play the one game. After that, you may stand in line for most of the rest of the day for that one other game. After that, you buy some food, and stumble aimlessly through the convention halls. You then go home.

I ask you. Is this the type of experience conducive to people discovering your game? No, the consumers who play the game on gamescom will be the ones who probably paid money to be in the Beta-Demo after E3. Gamescom is certainly fanservice, but it is hard to imagine it as a sort of market expansion.

On the gaming press side, the event is equally broken for an entirely different set of reasons. But no matter all these problems, E3 and gamescom generate that one thing all other events do not: mainstream press attention. That's the real value and EA is smart to know that they do not need a booth on E3 to get it. They need a big event at the right time.
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