This article was originally published on May 16, 2018. It has been updated on May 12, 2019.
As someone who is still holding on to the hope that Bethesda will eventually make another Elder Scrolls game, Mitch asked me if I would write up a section about Bethesda for this year’s E3. However, I’ve never been much of a fan of E3, and reminded him of this. This is one of the many topics he and I sit on opposite sides about; Mitch has always adored and followed the gaming business and industry, and I have a more critical view of publishers in particular, and AAA studios, especially as the years have gone on. As such, every year, Mitch follows the hype and news of E3, and I… well, I’d like to impart to my loyal readers my point of view about E3, and why I think it has passed its expiration date.
Who is it for, anyway?
E3 was started by the Electronic Software Association (ESA), represented by retailers and gaming companies for publishers, vendors, and media outlets, and the first official E3 happened back in 1995, 23 years ago. That’s who E3 was started for. It posted up attendance figures that ranged from between 50,000 to 70,000 from 1995-2006. The public was never invited during these years; the only people allowed in were the vendors, retailers, company representatives, and press–all of whom fit more of less under the umbrella of “game industry professionals.”
In 2006, the ESA restructured the expo and downsized it, due to demands from its exhibitors who complained about the growing numbers of bloggers and attendees not considered true “game industry professionals.” Furthermore, anyone who wanted to attend from this point forward could only do so by receiving a formal invitation. Needless to say, this exclusionary move won the ESA a healthy dose of criticism.
The attendance numbers never broached 50,000 again (the minimum number of people it had in previous years) until 2015. That’s ten long years, dear reader, of historically low attendance numbers. As long as E3 was the only fish in the pond, however, this wasn’t too much of an issue.
However, in 2004, a pair of guys who did comics for a living decided to start their own convention, called the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). This convention, unlike E3, was made for the public first, while still hosting many exhibitors. There were activities, panels, game demos, prizes, and competitions. By 2008, PAX pulled even with E3’s attendance numbers, and in 2010, PAX East began, taking attendance for both conferences north of 50,000 for a grand total of 100,000 attendees in a single year–more than twice E3’s attendance per year, and the gap only continued to grow from there.
In 2017, E3 opened its doors to the public for the first time ever, offering 15,000 public tickets to be sold to those who were not considered “game industry professionals.” They managed to reach 68,400. PAX Prime alone brought in 70,000+, and by 2017, there were five other PAX conventions: PAX East, PAX South, PAX Australia, PAX Dev, and PAX Unplugged, each of which have steadily increased their numbers. All but the two smallest ones (Dev and Unplugged) soundly trounced E3 2017’s numbers. That’s four conventions total at the current moment per year that, when combined, put up figures approaching 500,000 total attendees. That’s almost ten times the amount of attendees that went to E3 2017.
What keeps E3 relevant then?
E3 has managed to retain its marketing machine backing, and the marketers pull out all the stops to hype the shit out of it, so that it can attempt remain “important” and “relevant” among industry insiders. It is touted as the BIGGEST GAMING CONVENTION EVER, the BIGGEST VIDEO GAME EVENT OF THE YEAR.
And yet, we already see that’s not true according to attendance numbers. So what else does it boast?
Well, there’s still a “booth babe” to be found here and there, even though back in 2006–the same year those pesky “non professionals” like bloggers and such were sent packing (coincidence? I think not)–the ESA announced that the scantily clad female models used to help market the games to the “game industry professionals” were to be no more. Not your cup of tea?
What about the announcements and reveals from AAA studios? Well, Nintendo made a huge splash last year at E3 without needing to even hold a press conference–thanks to pre-recorded videos. I think Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild took away as much of the spotlight as any other single thing at the convention. So much for press conferences.
What about the experience of being there–you know, physically attending, as one of those privileged, lucky few who managed to actually get an invite or a ticket? Well, 2017’s event came with lovely reports about robberies, injuries, and overall criticism about the kind of security employed by the ESA for E3, and the job they did… or didn’t do. What fun that must’ve been.
In spite of all of this, E3 can proudly boast a host of game announcements, and CEOs in slick suits…
I think he is wearing my highest annual salary twice over there. At least. Clearly, E3 is for another class of people. However, all of that funding results in a show that is heavy on glitz, glamour, and products, even if it was never for or about you. I’m not going to go down the list; you can find all of the presentations on the E3 site.
Attend PAX; Watch E3
This is 2018, and as someone who–admittedly–is not fond of the idea of swimming in throngs of humanity, I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to conferences. However, I’m fortunate enough to live in an era when many of the events and announcements at these majors conventions, E3 and PAX included, are streamed. So, you know, I can watch from the comfort of my own cave all by myself without worrying about someone else breathing on me.
However, if I were the socializing type, and I was inclined to attend, there are many more incentives to go to a PAX than E3, putting aside for the moment the stringent attendance restrictions in place. For your average attendee, the list between these two doesn’t even compare; PAX carries it away with more activities, events, and reasons to go than E3 has ever been able to bring to the table; and with a growing number of PAX conventions, there’s a better likelihood that one is close enough to drive to, and more opportunities to actually acquire a ticket than there ever was at E3.
All of which raises the question: if all most of us are going to do is watch E3 at home, and if some of the biggest developers and publishers are just going to go with pre-recorded videos (such as Nintendo), then what’s the point of a physical convention at all? Post up the videos for watching, and we’ll be on our way.
But then we would be taking away the opportunity for all of those rich, pretty speakers to get up there in their nice, expensive clothes, under all the dazzling lights with a giant screen behind them to market their wares to captive audience. What a shame that would be…
Updated to include the following as of May 12th, 2019:
Well, it seems yet another critical insight/prediction made by Yours Truly has come to pass: E3 is continuing its downward descent into irrelevance, as other news outlets have reported, with Sony leaving the show in its rear-view mirror, and even Microsoft moving away from the main convention center. I’m not going to give the twice-dying E3 a whole new article, when my conclusion from the previous article above is more relevant than ever: An exclusive physical convention for game publishers is an exclusive convention for no one.
Better to just stream your announcements for the rest of us if we aren’t invited anyway. That way, those organizations that really do want to create a place where a bunch of gamer fans can mingle without an exclusive invite from a faceless organization that cares more about profits than games can continue to do so, and E3 can, for the second time in its troubled lifespan, prove once again that putting the corporation before the people doesn’t work. When all that is left are the soulless suits, no one is left who actually cares anymore.
On that note, it seems some folks are abandoning the whole idea of a physical convention altogether to have one completely on… Steam, of all places. As someone who is one of the true introverts probably walking this planet (rather than someone who secretly wishes they were able to be social), I say, go for it. Let’s do virtual conferences when we have decent VR interfacing options as well (no, the 10 pound helmet and sticks don’t do it for me).
I know, I know, there will be someone out there who will bemoan the fate of our ever separating, non-interacting society, where no one ever goes out to actually be with people anymore, but honestly, I see little evidence of that actually being a threat. This isn’t a zero-sum game; it’s just another way to experience content. People who love people in their space can continue to go to PAX and have a ball, and people who would rather have no one in their space can watch the videos and participate at a distance from the comfort of their own homes. Something for everyone.
RIP E3. 1995-2008. 2009-2019. Failed experiment in a conference just for the suits.
Let’s not raise this one from the dead again.