When the Electronic Entertainment Expo first opened its doors to attendees at the Los Angeles Convention Center in 1995, only those with a proven connection to the gaming industry were allowed in. The show would, for the first time ever, allow unprecedented access to hundreds of video game developers and publishers all in one place. The Interactive Digital Software Association wanted a convention that focused solely on video games, specifically to attract and connect with retailers who saw the late successes of fourth-generation video game consoles as a gateway to a untapped but growing market of gamers. The result was the largest industry gathering for video games ever organized, with over 40,000 attendees there to play and discuss the latest games from Sony, Nintendo, and Sega.
Today, E3 has evolved into a much different beast. The IDSA has since changed its name to the Entertainment Software Association, attendance has more than doubled its original size, and the advent of fan-organized conventions like PAX have challenged the relevance of an industry-only event like E3, prompting the ESA to open the convention to the public for the first time ever this year. Yet in walking the show floor myself last month, I could not help but wonder—what role does E3 play in an internationally and socially connected world such as today’s, especially in light of other conventions that many would argue offer a better experience that satisfies the modern gaming industry fandom?
I arrived at E3 a tad bit later than most other attendees. In fact, I had missed the entire first day due to other plans, and I would end up missing the entire third day as well. It was not like I minded too much though; I knew the moment I purchased my $250 ticket that this whole E3 thing would make absolutely zero financial sense to me (and honestly, given that most other conventions are cheaper, I doubt it would make financial sense to anyone). I was not there to wait in line all day, nor did I care to play early demos of unfinished games. Of the two demos I ended up playing, one was too short to get a good grasp of what the game was about (Super Mario Odyssey) and the other felt exactly what I thought it would play as (Sonia Mania). In both these cases, I felt that the games were better off played on my TV screen at home and from the comfort of my own couch (and moreover, with online stores on virtually every current-generation console, many publishers choose to release their E3 demos to the public anyway).
Some would argue that E3 is not for playing game demos (unless you are a journalist, in which case I guess it is your job to do that), but rather to watch all the fancy new game announcements from all the big game publishers. Who can forget the legendary E3 2004 reveal of The Legend of Zelda for the GameCube, or when Sony pushed out a fever dream sequence of trailers for The Last Guardian, Final Fantasy VII Remake, and Shenmue III at E3 2015? It was all hype… and unfortunately, little substance. Thereby lies the crux of E3 announcements, the early hype of clearly nowhere-near-finished games that seem laughable in hindsight. The Zelda demo from 2004 eventually led to the controversial announcement of The Wind Waker (which despite it ended up becoming one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time) and of the 3 games mentioned by Sony above, only The Last Guardian has thus far seen the light of day. Even when companies try to curb early announcements to prevent overhype as they did this year, the public sees it as a major letdown (to further argue this point: people seem to be more excited for Metroid Prime 4—which literally only saw a logo reveal—than any other game at E3… and you definitely do not need a convention to reveal a logo).
The biggest problem with E3 seems to be the fact that it is still branded as an industry-only event, despite the fact that the requirements to get in become laxer by the year. This special yet misleading “exclusivity” treatment only sets attendees up for disappointment, especially for an event that was clearly not designed for large crowds (Nintendo needed to completely reorganize their queuing system for Super Mario Odyssey for Day 2 to deal with the surplus of attendees). Even for people at home, E3 does not seem as special as it once did, with companies opting to announce new games through social media or, in the case of Nintendo, random video broadcasts that feel more personal than the typical big-stage presser. It certainly does not help that other conventions that have kept fans in mind since the beginning have grown to be major juggernauts in the gaming convention space (Gamescom, for example, started in 2009 as an open-to-all gaming convention and currently boasts 5 times the attendance of E3).
Yet despite all this, I do not regret going to E3 at all this year. It sounds trite, but your experience at E3 really comes down to understanding what E3 is for and leveling your expectations. I came into E3 with three goals: to have fun, to get lots of swag, and to play Super Mario Odyssey (this last one is only because I love the Mario franchise too much). I accomplished the latter two handily (it helped that I only wanted to play a single game), but the first goal is easy to forget, especially when you are surrounded by obnoxiously loud noises and drowning in a sea of sweaty gamers. All too often I saw grumpy attendees complaining about long lines and the limited supply of free stuff (as if they expected anything but). On the flip side, I did meet a bunch of people who were friendly enough to start a conversation with me while I was walking around the convention center. Among them were a photographer taking really cool long-exposure photos of the crowds, a Nintendo representative who just needed someone to talk to 4 hours into her morning shift, and Sadworld (oh god the cringe).
Here is a moment that I would like to share in which I feel perfectly encapsulates everything positive about my E3 experience this year. The last thing I did during my time at E3 was watching the ARMS tournament live at Nintendo’s booth. ARMS is Nintendo’s newest IP which features characters with extendable arms in a boxing-match-style arena setting. The bracket was set up such that 4 pro gamers would be pit in one-on-one battles against 4 fans, and while I do not know how it was presented on Nintendo’s official live stream, the excitement on the show floor was palpable. The tournament stage itself was a sight to behold, with huge screens and dozens of LED’s programmed to light up every action. Each KO was met with a collective gasp or “oh” from the crowd followed by an applause to appreciate of the showmanship displayed by the players. The winner of the tournament was a young fan by the name of “Zerk” but his victory was cut short by a final challenge and ultimate beat down by ARMS producer Mr. Kosuke Yabuki. It was all in good fun, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone there who did not have a good time.
And that is what makes E3 so special. E3 is a celebration of games and gamers by gamers for gamers—that is, everyone is here for one thing, maybe not to play video games or see video games, but to experience the video game industry at one of its peak moments every year. Much of what E3 stands for today is symbolic, as the need for an industry-only show has faded long ago, but it is still not very often that thousands of people from a wide variety of different backgrounds can come together at an event like this, all with the sole purpose of celebrating what makes our industry so great. And despite there being dozens of other major gaming conventions that have popped up within the past two decades, E3 is still the premier place to meet the industry’s leaders and major players.
So perhaps E3 no longer has the unique role it once had in the gaming industry. Maybe other conventions are better catered towards fans, or less crowded, or more affordable. But while E3 only lasts a few days every year, the 7 hours I spent on the show floor—the sights, the sounds, and the games—will be remembered for a lifetime.