The Entertainment Software Association has confirmed via The Washington Post that they have decided to officially end E3. While the ESA will continue to operate in other areas of the industry, the formerly biggest video game event of the year is no more. As of the time of this writing, there have been no indications that any other party has any desire or plans to bring the event back in the future in any capacity.
In many ways, this news is not surprising. We’ve covered the likely death of E3 many times in the past, and most of my previous thoughts on that subject hold true today. If you haven’t been following the status of E3 in recent years, though, then this announcement may come as something of a shock. Even if you were aware that E3 was on life support, you may find yourself wondering exactly how E3 fell so far and was eventually reduced to this unceremonious fate.
While the death of E3 can be attributed to a number of complicated factors, here are some of the biggest reasons why the show is truly dead.
The Pandemic and Money Problems
Let’s start with two of the more obvious reasons E3 is dead: the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and significant financial struggles.
Obviously, the events of the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted nearly every kind of live event in some way (among many, many other more important aspects of life). Not being able to host a live E3 event in 2020 was a major blow to the “reliability” that the show previously depended on. While E3’s organizers tried to host a digital version of the event in 2021, the almost universally poor reception to that overall sloppy effort highlighted how far the event had fallen in the years before the 2020 shutdowns. More on that later.
Ultimately, though, that particular issue is just an extension of E3’s overall money problems in more recent years. Simply put, E3 was quickly becoming a massive money pit for pretty much everyone involved. That certainly includes the major presenters who began spending absurd amounts of money on their mega booths, but that arms race eventually impacted smaller studios. Those who could theoretically benefit most from an event like E3 began to find that the event was just too expensive to justify the potential positives it offered. Even larger studios began to reach that same conclusion.
While you can certainly argue that greed from those involved with organizing the event is the real culprit here, the results are the same. If the money side of E3 still made sense, the event would still be alive. It didn’t, so it isn’t. While it’s as simple as that, it’s important to look at the other factors that eventually contributed to E3 becoming so unsustainable for everyone involved.
The Impact of Nintendo Direct and E3 Alternatives
In 2011, Nintendo premiered Nintendo Direct: an online live stream presentation designed to showcase some of the studios’ major upcoming titles and other relevant announcements. In 2013, Nintendo shocked the gaming world by announcing that they would not be hosting a major E3 presentation that year and had no plans to return in that capacity at future events. Though Nintendo continued to have a small presence at E3, they began to rely more and more on those Direct-style announcements that eventually grew to essentially replace the studio’s traditional E3 conferences.
Whether directly or indirectly, Nintendo was the first major game company to test the idea that E3 needed them more than they needed E3. While some argued that the company was simply running away from the spotlight (this decision was made when the Wii U was struggling), time eventually proved Nintendo right. More importantly, Nintendo showed that they could get most of the usual E3 publicity benefits not through a big, expensive, yearly presentation but through a series of relatively simple live streams. The key was to make those live streams feel as significant as possible relative to their size and costs.
Eventually, other studios got the message. Indeed, Sony’s decision to skip E3 in 2019 sometimes feels like the more obvious “final nail” for the show due to its proximity to the event’s official death. Realistically, though, the success of Nintendo’s Direct presentations raised a lot of questions about E3’s role in the modern gaming world that E3’s organizers could never properly answer.
There’s a world in which E3’s organizers got the message sooner than they did and tried to adapt to modern times. Realistically, though, it was always going to be difficult for them to challenge the biggest game studios in the world suddenly realizing how little they needed the E3 event to get most of the more practical E3 benefits.
A Growing Lack of Identity and Personality
It’s easy to look back at the history of E3’s most awkward, tragic, and generally “worst” moments and buy into the idea that such moments eventually contributed to the show’s downfall. There’s certainly an argument to be made that they did in some ways, but I find it interesting that so many of those moments happened during what many consider to be the event’s golden days.
See, for as bad as some of those moments were, they were often the consequential counterpart to many of the things that once made E3 special. In its earlier days, E3 was more of an industry event meant to reach those who marked the event on their calendar rather than those who only paid attention to gaming a couple of times a year. While that “insider” approach led to more than a few awkward presentations and truly unfortunate attempts at attention, there was a joy to the whole thing that soon proved to be hard to replicate. Watching audiences and creators genuinely lose their minds over the reveal of gaming’s next great titles and hardware ignited a fire in the souls of everyone following the event from home.
All of that awkwardness and excitement combined to form something I think E3 slowly started to lack over the last 10 years or so: a sense of genuineness. As presentations became much more streamlined and constructed, the whole event started to feel like it could have been a corporate meeting. Celebrity presenters could never truly replace sometimes awkward (but entirely enthusiastic) developers doing their best, and the emergence of plant-filled audiences made even otherwise competent presentations feel slightly disgusting.
Perhaps this isn’t the most important factor in E3’s downfall, but it is certainly another example of the event’s struggles to discover how it fits into modern times and what still made it special.
The Struggles to Incorporate Fans Into the Industry Event
It’s easy (and largely accurate) to say that E3 started as a kind of collaborative “trade show” and eventually struggled to stay relevant in a world where such events on that scale were simply no longer needed. However, I find it much more interesting to look at the ways that E3 eventually struggled to open its doors to the public.
While there is no shortage of stories about those who managed to get into those early E3 events without the proper credentials, the show was intended to be a press and industry event for much of its run. When companies like EA started to balk at the lack of public access, the ESA implemented sweeping changes to its admission policies. Eventually, they even allowed the general public to buy tickets to the show.
It seemed like the right move at the time, but things didn’t go quite so smoothly. Not only did E3 ticket prices eventually become quite absurd (as the price of pretty much everything else E3-related also did), but the E3 experience was often a mixed bag for live attendees. Those who dreamed of going to E3 suddenly faced the reality of long lines, conferences they likely couldn’t get a good seat for, and the general struggles of navigating through a sea of humanity to even try to do anything.
In its earliest days, E3 offered the public a glimpse into a world they would never otherwise be able to see. While opening the event to the public naturally killed some of that “magic,” the fact of the matter is that E3 was a different beast by that point. The need to cater to live attendees prevented the show from being many of the things that made people want to attend that show in the first place. It was another in a series of contradictions that E3’s organizers never really found a way to navigate.
Changes To the Nature of the Console Wars and General Industry Competition
Many modern gamers will practically trip over themselves in a rush to tell you how much they hate the ideas of console wars and brand loyalty fanboyism. I tend to agree with that sentiment. There’s little to gain in the grand scheme of things from accepting the toxicity that comes with pledging often blind loyalty to a brand. Ironically, those who do are often the ones who eventually suffer the most.
However, there’s a degree to which the golden age of E3 is closely related to the more traditional era of the console wars. Indeed, the battle between Sega and Sony helped E3 gain much of its notoriety in the first place. In subsequent years, watching companies compete to control the narrative and “win” the biggest media publicity event of the year often led to those companies bringing their very best. That sense of clear competition often led to some of E3’s best moments.
Mind you, I think the industry (and gamers) are better off without that same level of clear competition being directed toward only a few viable commercial avenues and one major yearly event. However, this is another example of E3 failing to grow in a way that allowed it to properly represent what the industry had become.
Prolonged Development Times and Extended Media Coverage
Developing, releasing, and promoting a video game has always been an expensive and time-consuming process. However, modern games are more expensive and time-consuming than ever before. Many have argued that video game production costs and production times have ballooned to an unsustainable and dangerous level, but the fact remains that the industry tends to move a bit slower (in terms of major new releases, at least) than ever before.
During that same time, though, the need (more accurately, the “hunger) for more updates and information about video games has only grown. Numerous publications and content creators (*wave*) have emerged to try to satiate that hunger, but as studios become more guarded about their time-consuming and expensive projects, genuinely significant updates become fewer and far between.
That brutal combination of factors eventually put an amount of pressure on E3 that the event simply couldn’t survive. More and more studios suddenly found themselves struggling to come up with significant updates for their major projects in time for E3. That led to things like “exaggerated” trailers, radio silence, and other things that gradually hurt E3’s reputation. At the same time, the nearly constant calls for video game news essentially forced those studios to take opportunities to release on more dynamic timetables and via less elaborate platforms.
I suppose you could argue that the “magic” of E3 was gradually spread thinly across the calendar year, though it certainly doesn’t feel like that most of the time. Whether that information exposes how limited E3 always was or is a testament to how we need an E3-quality event more than ever is up for you to decide.