Why virtual E3 is the video game industry show in its most perfect form

Josh Miller/CNET

Like nearly every other big industry show or public gathering over the past 15 months, the 2021 E3 video game trade show is happening virtually. The 2020 version of the event, which is usually held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, didn’t even make it that far. It was unceremoniously canceled shortly after COVID-19 shutdowns started. 

This year, E3 is back, in a direct-to-screen form. And for an industry show that’s teetered on the edge of irrelevance for several years, that may be exactly the shot in the arm E3 needs to stay relevant. 

I’ve attended at least 15 of the last 20 E3 shows, starting 1999, and have seen the show evolve (and in some cases devolve). Some years, the aisles were crowded with national TV news crews covering a blockbuster growth industry. Other years, attendance was seriously curtailed, limited to a handful of companies and media. In 2007, the show even temporarily moved to a small Santa Monica airplane hangar.

The biggest issue was always that the event locked out its most-important audience. E3 is best aimed at gamers and game fans, not bloggers or buyers for retail chains. The original intent, like any trade show going back to the pre-internet era, was to bring industry reps, developers, publishers, retail stores and distributors together for deal-making and networking. The modern version is more of a series of flashy advertisements for upcoming games. 

Back in [checks notes2016, I wrote: “In fact, the media is no longer the true target audience for these [E3] press events — it’s the game-playing public tuning in on their laptops and tablets — and game companies are shifting towards skipping the media middleman and pitching their wares directly to the public.” I had been advocating for opening the show to the public since at least 2010. 

Eventually the show started admitting fans in 2017, for $150-$250 per ticket. But the number of available fan tickets was limited, and neither fans nor industry attendees found the overly crowded “new” E3 to be a real improvement. 


Josh Miller/CNET

Fast forward to 2021, and the ultimate democratization of E3 has finally happened. No ticket purchase or industry credentials required. Gamers, media, influencers, analysts and casual game-watchers are all attending the same way, watching various live streams from home, and all for free. 

The biggest things I’ll miss is general in-person networking and the chance to stumble upon indie games and talk to indie game developers about their craft. The other things we lose are minor, such as the chance to play some upcoming games in person. But on the E3 show floor those opportunities were severely limited and often required a multihour wait in a long line. The behind-closed-doors sessions on bigger games, from Cyberpunk 2077 to The Outer Worlds, were more often than not hands-off demos, with a small audience watching a carefully stage-managed demo being played by a developer. 

For a show about video games, seeing them presented on our own TV screens and laptop monitors feels like the perfect way to experience new interactive entertainment content. Yes, we don’t get to bump into costumed characters running around the convention center or see the occasional B-list celebrity in person. It’s a loss I can live with. 

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