E3 and the season of hype-building
2018 in Review: Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft made moves this year that point to a coming shift in how they approach a general gaming audience
E3 2019, still half a year away, promises to be an unusual affair.
One reason for this that should immediately come to mind is the promised absence of Sony. The company recently announced it would pass on the show in 2019 for the first time in E3's 24-year history. Though Sony didn't give a specific reason for skipping out, the decision followed it also declining to host the annual PlayStation Experience event, with the company stating that it didn't have enough to justify bringing everyone together in North America.
For E3, that means one less press briefing, a chance for Microsoft and Nintendo to command even more attention with their own line-ups, and a massive space on the show floor to fill.
E3 2019 will also be a continuation of the show's growing pains in general as the ESA struggles to manage the event as a hyrbid industry/consumer show that seems ready to outgrow its venue at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Even with a gaping hole left by Sony, Microsoft's move down the street in 2018 proved that there is no shortage of willing publishers who will fill prime spots on the floor.
"It wouldn't be surprising to see E3 take another [venue] to fit a larger consumer audience and try to wrangle some [off-site] publishers back"
Furthermore, last year was the second year in a row that the show was open to the public, and with an attendance of 69,200, was the biggest show since 2005's 70,000 person record. That size felt especially poignant from the floor, where enormous lines and security concerns (albeit improved from 2017 to 2018) made it clear that the transition from industry event to consumer show still hasn't fully been embraced yet.
On the venue level, that may be set to change. The Los Angeles Convention Center has been the event's home since a poorly received move to Santa Monica - before that, its only departures were in '96 and '97, to Atlanta. However, 2019 appears to be the final confirmed year (for now) that E3 will take place in the LACC, and former ESA CEO Michael Gallagher has said the organization may "pursue other options" if the venue does not upgrade its facilities. Though this is far from a confirmation of a move, it wouldn't be surprising to see E3 take another excursion again in the years beyond to fit a larger consumer audience into a more convenient space and try to wrangle some publishers back who have since straggled into off-site spaces.
For over a decade now, E3 has served as a focal point of industry hype for North American audiences and increasingly for global ones. The livestreamed press events before the show from the big three console makers and a handful of major publishers have been an ideal spot for new game announcements and general hype-building ahead of and throughout console release cycles.
In fact, it seems that each year, another publisher tacks their show onto what's increasingly becoming a week-long affair. Any website, personality, or streamer with any passing interest in gaming at all is either at the show and its surrounding events with live coverage lasting the duration of it all, or at home reporting on or reacting to every second with pre-shows, post-shows, live tweets, and more. For those who don't normally pay attention to the gaming news cycle, E3 is the week to perk their ears up and pay attention as the expo is the best place to, even from home, put a finger on the pulse of what the upcoming year in gaming will look like.
And yet, despite the show's expansion, there equally seems to be a push away from E3 from certain sections of the industry. Nintendo dropped its live stage presentation a few years ago in favor of treating E3 as a slightly more interesting Nintendo Direct, with non-stop Treehouse presentations following. Sure, it's still a place for them to show their games to a willing consumer and media audience, but in terms of Nintendo's announcement and hype cycle, the company no longer seems to view E3 as a place to converge. Nintendo will drop Directs whenever it feels it should, and its fans will watch them, E3 or not.
Microsoft, too, seems to be adding a touch of distance. It isn't so much the physical distance Microsoft has put between itself and the venue by moving its floor show to the Microsoft Theater last year; after all, it was still showing games to the same people, during E3, albeit with more space and control over how they did it. No, what's interesting about Microsoft is its sudden, recent interest in the return of Inside Xbox.
Like Nintendo Directs, Inside Xbox is a way for Microsoft to reach its particular audience throughout the year, and though the announcements are still far smaller than the rapidfire world premierces traditionally shown at E3, it's the smallest of signs that yet another major player doesn't necessarily need E3 as a central hub for hype-generation. Rather, the company will dish it out year-round as it sees fit, perhaps with a particular emphasis on the revived X0 events.
"E3, despite being over two decades old, is trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up"
E3, despite being over two decades old, is trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up. As it continues to grow the consumer side of a formerly industry-only show, E3 appears to be in a precarious position where indies and third-party publishers are increasingly flocking to the show floor itself, but are also surrounding its physical space in separate venues (everything from Devolver Digital's delightful parking lot party to EA, miles away, in Hollywood last year) and its temporal space with increasing numbers of live streams, events, and announcements. It's become a struggle for the media to cover, a frustration for consumers paying expensive tickets to stand in line for hours, and is starting to see its biggest supporters, the console giants, back away one step at a time.
Which leads us back to Sony, whose departure in 2019 is certainly not the "end of E3" but it may well be a turning point. Microsoft already seems poised to steal the spotlight this coming year with yet another mid-generation announcement, but with an entirely new console generation surely on the horizon soon after, what matters isn't Sony's absence in 2019. Instead, what matters is whether or not it returns for 2020, either with a PS5 unveiling or on the heels of its announcement and prepared to show games.
E3 isn't the end-all-be-all of the industry, certainly, but should Sony announce whatever the PS5 is in 2020 and then skip E3 yet again, such a gesture would be a clear signal that the company does not see E3 as a key moment in its marketing. That would leave Microsoft and Nintendo free to either move in and claim the show's audience, or make their own calls and ditch the event themselves in later years. The latter seems unlikely for Nintendo, at least, with Reggie Fils-Aime calling the show a "no-brainer" for the company just yesterday.
It's unlikely that any of the big three specifically need E3 to market their consoles, but Fils-Aime brings up a good point. "During [E3], we generate more engagement than...whether it's CES or Comic-Con, or other big entertainment events," he said to IGN. "People tune in to find out what's new and to have first playable experiences for our industry."
Any of the big three leaving E3 behind entirely would prove an unusual shift in the announcement-hype-release cycle. For Sony and Microsoft in particular, it would mean a somewhat reduced focus in converting a general gaming audience to their "side" of the "console war" and an increased focus on selling to their existing fans through their own marketing events.
Microsoft and Nintendo are already experimenting with this in their own ways with Inside Xbox and Nintendo Directs even as they remain at E3, and it seems that Sony may do something similar, E3 or no E3. The company has said it is "exploring new and familiar ways to engage our community in 2019."
Should Sony decide 2019 was more than just a quiet year, its vanishing from E3 might warrant actual "E3 is doomed" headlines. At the last, it would force the event to transform once again into a consumer show more closely resembling other already-successful consumer-focused events that already have years of practice effectively organizing such a show without the three console giants overtaking the entire floor.
Either way, it seems we'll be having interesting E3s for at least a few more years.