While the specter of E3 2016 still looms large over the gaming industry, one writer is already looking toward the future of one of video game’s most beloved traditions.
You never forget your first E3, they say. By reputation, it’s the Shangri-La of the video game industry, a carefully constructed heaven on earth for gamers and developers alike, a yearly pilgrimage for journalists and PR professionals ready to break the hottest story or nurture it to fruition. In practice, E3 has been described to me as more of a giant convention, complete with the usual flaws and public displays of tone deafness that come with being an industry leader – take Microsoft’s latest conference scandal at GDC, for instance.
I say this, of course, having never attended the spectacle that is the Electronic Entertainment Expo myself. My knowledge of it as a child was purely formed by the coverage articles I read each year, and later, from the colleagues and friends who were lucky enough to make the trip to California. I used to be quite jealous, and each year I’d silently promise myself that I’d eventually experience the event myself.
In recent years, however, that passion has been dulled to the point that not being on the E3 floor barely registers over the course of the video game industry’s busiest week. It’s not that the E3 teaser trailers don’t get me excited – they do, and this year looks like it’s going to be incredible. No, the reason I care less about attending E3 now is because, to be honest, I feel like I’m already there from the comfort of my home.
That’s because E3 is now an event that has more Twitch stream coverage than most high-profile gaming tournaments. Developers and publishers schedule their presentations months in advance, with optimized streaming slots a point of contention. Before live-streaming, there was often concern that gamers might not see coverage of an indie title with a lot of promise, and word of mouth reporting was the only reliable way to get news of a smaller game to the general public. Now, fans can pick and choose what they want to see, giving smaller studios a chance to make an impact without being completely eclipsed by the most anticipated games at E3.
This is, by and large, a very good thing for video games. Making the biggest conference of the year as accessible as possible is the best way to get a huge audience, something that E3 has become adept at doing. One only has to look at last year’s viewership figures to get a feel for just how massive E3 can be – E3 2015 had over 21 million unique viewers over the course of its stream, with a peak concurrent viewership of 840,000. E3 2015 was the first E3 in over a decade to eclipse 50,000 attendees, but the Twitch stream had 16 times as many people viewing the games over the course of the nearly week-long experience.
To put that in perspective, the physical attendance at E3 2015 was roughly the size of a small rural village in the United States, while the peak Twitch viewership equates roughly to the entire population of Indianapolis watching it at the same time. While some exhibitors are still arguing over whether or not they believe a stream is necessary for their own presentations at E3, the debate has already been settled – it’s clear that online broadcasts are simply a better business model.
None of this is suggesting that E3 is a dying practice, of course. 50,000 people in attendance is more than enough evidence to support the desperate-sounding claim from the Entertainment Software Association that E3 is still “beyond relevant” – a statement that, coming from the organization that produces E3, has to be taken with a grain of salt. What I am saying, however, is that the writing is on the wall for developers, and there’s really no reason to have a physical presence at E3 anymore.
Sure, there’s something to be said for handing out free goodies that gamers will then take out with them and show off to friends, but that kind of guerrilla marketing is small-time compared to what a good Twitch commercial can do for a new IP now. The biggest difference between a booth at E3 and a presentation on Twitch, however, is the kind of discrepancy that all the biggest companies pay close attention to. Streaming a conference is cheaper, by enough that the incidental boost in attention from something like E3 might not even be worth it anymore.
If that isn’t the case, the big names in the video game industry are sure making it seem like it is. Electronic Arts announced that it’s skipping a traditional E3 2016 presentation in favor of its own live stream announcements, and not too long after, Activision-Blizzard reported that it would be skipping the conference altogether. It’s not like these are small-time companies, either, as EA is a games-producing juggernaut and Activision-Blizzard is responsible for some of the most popular eSports titles on the gaming circuit. Exposure means a lot to these publishers, and they’ve decided that the traditional E3 method just isn’t good enough now.
Some other studios have also dropped out of E3 in recent months, although the vital presence of the Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo triumvirate will still be present. There’s still value in meeting once a year to discuss future plans and what gamers can expect on their consoles and desktop rigs in the coming months, but the message seems to be that – unless you’re one of the three wealthiest video game presences in the world – reducing physical commitment to the show floor is the way to go.
Everything about the information this year surrounding E3 2016 points to one thing, and that is the presentation itself is beginning to change rapidly. Now that a precedent has been set and many high-profile companies have withdrawn from the show floor, it’s very likely that more will consider the option next year.
E3 isn’t dying, though. It’s evolving. One of gaming’s last great relics of an era that was more about flashy presentations and booth babe culture is finally catching up to the rest of the technological world, and as E3 gradually becomes a more digital event, increased exposure and lower costs will make sure companies can continue to focus on the most important thing in the industry – actually creating and showing off beautiful, innovative games that will push the medium ever-onward.