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Online E3 has a hell of a lot to prove | Opinion

After last year's cancellation, the industry's former tentpole event is back in online-only format - and the tough questions about its value and relevance aren't getting any easier

If it hasn't quite registered with you that we're only a little over a month and a half out from this year's E3, that's quite understandable.

Time, it turns out, flows rather differently in a pandemic year; interminably slowly while it's being experienced, almost non-existent in retrospect and downright confusingly whenever you look at a calendar. But yes, we're actually a fair chunk of the way through 2021 now, and the industry's annual early summer jamboree is nearly upon us.

The other reason you might not have registered E3's impending arrival is, of course, because you're not going there this year. Nobody is. There are no flights to book, hotels to arrange, meetings to schedule or cold sweats to break into at the prospect of having to drive on Los Angeles' freeways. E3 this year will be online-only -- the first year that the organisers have actually put together an online version of the event.

"If all 'E3' amounts to is a logo that companies slap onto livestreams they're capable of running themselves, it's hard to imagine the event persisting for very long"

You may think you recall an online E3 last year, but what actually happened was rather different; E3 was cancelled, there wasn't sufficient time to put together some kind of online version, and its major participants instead ran their own online showcase events around the time when the show would have happened, with presentations spread out from as early as May (Xbox) to as late as July (Ubisoft).

If, like a great many people, you remember the summer of streamed presentations and showcases as being "last year's E3," then you've pretty much highlighted the core problem that the event faces this year. For years, there have been some pretty rancorous debates about E3's value proposition: in an era where any interested consumer can open a livestream with a click of a button, the question of what purpose is served by dragging industry staff from all over the world to a big, expensive, noisy event in the middle of LA every year is one that has become increasingly hard to answer.

E3 has been trying to contort itself into a variety of new shapes in search of a satisfactory reason to exist -- like a teenage middle child, it has been on a journey of experimentation and self-discovery, trying on new looks and styles, dabbling a little awkwardly in shedding its exclusive industry-only trade show origins and opening itself up to the masses.

None of these experiments has had a convincingly positive outcome so far, and when long-time stalwart Sony pulled out of the show a few years ago, there was a real sense that the wheels were coming off. Other major platform holders and publishers stayed involved, but even for them, E3's centrality was a thing of the past -- for Nintendo, for example, E3 is basically just a slightly scaled-up version of the Nintendo Direct online events it runs throughout the year, and major product announcements or demos are spread out across those events rather than being focused around the E3 event in any especially meaningful way.

This will be the second year running where E3 does not return to Los Angeles, bringing into question how it might return at all

This will be the second year running where E3 does not return to Los Angeles, bringing into question how it might return at all

Because of this, after last year's cancellation, I honestly wasn't sure if E3 would come back in any form in 2021; the fact that the various major companies could just run their own events and seemingly have about the same level of impact and coverage really raised the question of what the purpose or value of E3 as an organising framework actually was.

This year's online E3 has managed to attract a decent line-up of companies (including Nintendo and Microsoft, though Sony remains a very notable absence), but I'm not sure it's entirely answered that question yet; the plans for the event look an awful lot like they'll be broadly the same kinds of presentations we got last year -- when there was no centrally organised "event" as such -- just shoved into a tighter timeframe and thus probably earning less press and attention in the end. If all "E3" actually amounts to is a logo that companies get to slap onto video streams that they're perfectly capable of running themselves, it's hard to imagine the event persisting for very long.

"The multi-million dollar questio is whether E3 views this as a once-off shift forced by the pandemic, or if the future of the event is largely online"

There are probably things that the organisers could do to elevate the E3 online experience over and above just being a bunch of branded streams, but it'll require a significant commitment to innovating and experimenting with what's possible in this format.

One possibility that was floated in reports earlier this year -- though talk of it seems to have evaporated since then -- was a partnership with a game streaming service to allow publishers to offer time-limited online demos of their new games, effectively a "virtual show floor" kind of experience. This may or may not actually work -- I'm not sure how well it would stack up to the likes of the Resident Evil 8 demos that have been causing such a stir, for example -- but at least it's pretty original thinking and it would be a genuinely unique and interesting thing for the show to offer in its online incarnation.

The multi-million dollar question, though, is whether E3 views this as a once-off shift to an online format that's been forced upon it by the pandemic, or whether it thinks the future of the event is largely online.

In practical terms, E3 has been shifting to a hybrid online/offline model for many years, but this has largely been driven in a piecemeal way by the major publishers that participate in the show and the media that covers it. After a couple of years in which E3 more-or-less served its purpose (at least from the point of view of building consumer anticipation for upcoming products) without having a physical show, the question of whether a physical show in LA is needed or wanted will be a tougher one than ever.

The event's role as a location for networking and deal-making is vastly better and more appropriately served by GDC and similar events, so its justification as a pillar of the industry's marketing and PR efforts is really all that's left -- apart from the fact that some people in the industry really, really like their annual Los Angeles junket, which honestly is a factor that's been a major part of the inertia sustaining E3 for the past decade or more.

In any discussion about the future of E3, it's always worth bearing in mind that to some degree at least, the companies which most need an event like this are those which E3 has always served most poorly -- smaller companies and creators who don't have the reach of a Sony or an Ubisoft and can't attract giant attention to their games in a self-promoted online event.

E3 has never been great for those firms, but at least it's been something; an event where they had a chance to get in front of media and (some) consumers, even if it was just on a stand tucked away in the back of the Kentia Hall, and hopefully break through into people's consciousness. No E3 at all would be a loss to those firms, at least to some extent; but an online-only E3 that's largely just a schedule of high-budget unveiling events by major publishers would serve them no better.

If E3 is to continue in any format, some way to make it a worthwhile venue for game discovery and not just an expensive marketing stunt for well-known franchises will be one of the toughest balances for it to strike.

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