The E3 That Wasn’t

As a summer of game reveals winds down, UK games journalists discuss whether digital events have been able to fill the void left by the cancellation of E3

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E3, like everything else this year, was cancelled. The annual games showcase, which takes over the Los Angeles Convention Center for one week every June, was instead replaced by dozens of digital festivals and presentations - but was E3’s absence still felt?

Since May, games journalists and gamers alike have watched the livestream equivalent of E3’s big press conferences from Xbox, PlayStation, indie publisher Devolver Digital, Ubisoft, and Xbox again. Not to mention the various summer-themed games festivals outlets like IGN have been running. 

But several major companies have been particularly quiet - most notably, Nintendo - and Eurogamer editor-in-chief Oli Welsh observes that there have been fewer collaborations between big third-party publishers and platform holders. As a result, Sony and Microsoft have had to lean harder than usual on indies and their own internal titles, but Welsh says the results have still “felt leaner” compared to E3 in years past.

“It wasn't as exciting as you would expect a new-generation year to be,” he says. “I feel like I still don't have a great handle on what late 2020 will look like, which I normally do by this point in the year.”

VG247 editor-in-chief Matt Martin adds that, while the usual heavy hitters like Xbox, PlayStation and Ubisoft have drawn plenty of attention, some of the smaller streams have “barely generated any interest at all.”

“It looks like they would have benefited from being under the wider umbrella of a console manufacturer,” he says. “But then a lot of announcements get lost in the regular, physical week of E3, so there's no change for some of them, unfortunately.  

“The spread of announcements has also been awkward to follow, but I don't think that's any worse than a week of concentrated announcements over E3 in LA. That's still more exhausting than doing it this way online. The drawn out process of announcements over multiple months benefitted us, but it's been too long now and we've seen fatigue set in after two months. May and June were great, but having more announcements and streams in July and now August is outstaying its welcome.”

Andy Robinson, editor-in-chief at VGC, notes that one positive from the spreading out of events and reveals across the summer has been that the media can spend more time covering the games, including ones that would usually have been drowned out during E3. But the show itself is definitely missed.

“Once it’s safe to do so, I would like to see physical events continue to play a lead in games marketing because I don’t believe you can replicate the same level of energy, clarity and access from a digital event,” says Robinson. “Virtually everything announced this summer would have been more exciting with a crowd and covered better with tangible access.”

The scattered nature of the summer’s games showcases has also led to confusion, particularly from PlayStation and Xbox as they gear up for the release of their next-generation consoles this Christmas. Martin observes that the “dripfeed of announcements” has raised more questions than answers, offering the reveal of Ubisoft’s hotly anticipated Assassin’s Creed Valhalla as an example.

The debut of Valhalla raised questions, as reveals often do, but the teaser shown during Xbox’s first showcase “confused players and left them hanging,” he says. It was only at Ubisoft’s own digital conference (almost two full months later) that fans got a real sense of how the upcoming Assassin’s Creed might play.

“Publishers have struggled to be clear in a time of confusion - not just about games and a new generation, but in an unprecedented global environment,” Martin says. “I don't think any announcement this year can be understood without including the spectre of coronavirus.”

Robinson adds that the shift to digital presentations has “given publishers even more chance to hide behind their marketing,” which is not often beneficial for consumers. However, he also points out it’s difficult to criticise when games companies - like those in so many other industries - face the new pressure of working remotely. In that light, he believes PlayStation and Xbox both made strong announcements this summer, even without E3-style surprises.

“There have perhaps been fewer ‘one more thing’ type reveals than usual, but that’s understandable considering the uncertainty of when far out releases might be able to get back on track,” he says.

Crucially, despite the difficulties that 2020 has presented, both platform holders have been able to accomplish what they would have at E3: generate excitement for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.

“You only have to look at PlayStation’s record-breaking engagement numbers to see that excitement around new console hardware has never been stronger,” says Robinson.

Welsh adds: “I don't think [the lack of E3] has made a big difference for readers. The PS5 hype in particular that we are seeing from the audience is off the charts.” 

This excitement has been somewhat dented for the Eurogamer team by the fact they haven’t been able to go hands-on with either device, an opportunity they would have had at E3.

The million-dollar question is: does the games industry still need E3? Recent studies by Fancensus and SuperData suggest not, since many of this summer’s game reveals generated more website and video traffic than the biggest announcements from E3 2019. 

Of course, with the world spending more time online this year, such spikes were perhaps inevitable. And while watching livestreams from the comfort of your home is far less expensive than jetting off to LA for a week, journalists agree this year has proven the importance of E3 as an event.

“I think there’s a definite benefit to a centralised industry brand for showcasing the future of the medium,” says Robinson. “The myriad of digital events this summer has at times been confusing and difficult to follow.

“That said, E3 has problems of its own and needs to evolve in a meaningful way before it returns. The current show feels like an awkward compromise between the trade show it used to be, and the public event some of its members want to embrace. Either keep it to trade, or move to Las Vegas.”

Welsh adds: “For journalists, this year has had big downsides - much less access to execs and creatives, and it can be technologically pretty tricky to preview the games remotely. So you have more opacity and less accountability, which is a shame for us and for fans, and while publishers might like it for obvious reasons, it's not necessarily healthy for the industry.

“I think we still need E3 or something like it, but it needs to be reshaped, scaled back, and have both physical and digital aspects. And just be a bit more chill.”

Martin notes that, before this year, he was one of the vocal supporters suggesting the industry no longer had a need for E3. And while he stands by that to an extent, he does now recognise the benefits of concentrating announcements into a smaller timeframe around a single event. 

“Whether that's a digital thing or a physical event, I don't know,” he says. “Old-school E3 isn't great, and new-school digital E3 needs a lot more work. But maybe this is the catalyst we need to get it right at the dawning of a new generation.”

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