It was no surprise when the traditional E3 event, hosted at the Los Angeles Convention Center was cancelled, the health risks associated with running a large scale public event drawing an international crowd in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic made it an impossibility, and it’s still unclear what travel restrictions may still be in place come early June when it was scheduled to take place.
What is a surprise, however, is that the organisation that plan and hosts E3, the ESA, now will not be hosting any kind of digital event to take its place.
When the announcement came that the ESA made the decision to cancel E3, they said the following:
“We are also exploring options with our members to coordinate an online experience to showcase industry announcements and news in June 2020.”
Well, it would appear that they explored those options, and somehow got lost along the way, because now there will be no kind of online experience to replace E3. Or if there will be online experiences, the ESA is not involved in them whatsoever.
So what's changed?
The ESA has given a statement to PC Gamer, stating:
“We will not be presenting an online E3 2020 event in June. Instead, we will be working with exhibitors to promote and showcase individual company announcements”
It’s hard not to see this in the wider historical context. In recent years we’ve seen some of the big companies in the games industry gradually back away from E3, or at least scale back their involvement. Nintendo has stopped hosting a live conference at E3, instead opting for an online-only broadcast as a separate event that just coincides with E3. Sony too pulled out entirely from E3 2019 and had already announced that they would be doing the same in 2020 long before there was any talk of cancellation. EA too, has pulled their show floor presence out into a separate but concurrent event EA Play.
There has been trouble in the water for some time now, even before the problems related to COVID-19 that are entirely out of the ESA’s hands. With longtime host and mountain dew enthusiast Geoff Keighly severing his ties with the ESA after 25 years, they lost the public face of E3.
Looking at things from the perspective of the big publishers and platform holders, what exactly would they need the ESA’s involvement or association for in a scenario where there is no large scale physical conference to tie their announcements to?
If major publishers are revising their plans for what would be shown and announced at E3 into their own promotion campaign of live-streamed announcements, trailers, and gameplay footage, why would they even need to fork over a large sum of money to get the ESA to participate? Most of these major publishers have a huge reach across social and traditional media, and they can gain a far greater control of their message if they have final say over every aspect of it.
How will the industry respond?
Logistically, it’s an interesting question to consider whether we’ll see some kind of coordination between major publishers. Will EA and Ubisoft schedule live streams to coincide with their previously planned E3 conference timeslot? Will we see them jockeying for position for the best schedule around this time, or will they coordinate to avoid stepping on each other’s toes? Will we see a unified announcement between various industry players to announce a week of “Not-E3”, or is everyone just going to go their own way?
It’s also going to be interesting to see how much of an anomaly this year is. Will everything just go back to normal in 2021, or will these publishers see this as an opportunity to try something new and experimental, with the hope of carrying it on into the future if it works out?
This is not the most important uncertainty related to COVID-19, and of course whilst people are struggling with serious matters of health and livelihood, there are far bigger problems in the world, but it is fun to think about, and for better or worse, the shakeup this pandemic is leaving in it’s wake is going to indirectly accelerate some kinds of changes beyond the catastrophic direct impact it’s having.
We’ve already had a look at how it might end up impacting supply chains for PC parts going forward, perhaps it’s going to have a wide-reaching impact on the future of how big games companies talk about their games going forward, too.