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Will E3 2021 repeat last year’s game mess?

It’s only February, and somehow I’ve committed the sin of thinking about the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) tradeshow that typically happens each June in Los Angeles. It’s difficult to avoid this week due to some breaking news out of and Geoff Keighley’s Summer Game Fest. And that has led me to wonder if 2021’s E3 replacement will repeat the drawn-out, messy experience of 2020.

Based on what I know so far, I am expecting a more controlled mess — but still a mess.

Obviously, don’t get your hopes up for an in-person E3 that would force many companies to come together on the same week in the same town. That was never really an option. While vaccinations are chugging along, Microsoft has already committed to not attending any in-person events through the end of this year. And Xbox is one of the ESA’s last major publishing partners that actually shows up as part of the E3 event (even though it has its own show floor at the Microsoft Theater next to the convention).

So that leaves the Entertainment Software Association (the ESA) with a choice of either scraping E3 2021 or trying to shift to a digital event. And the current ESA proposal is to go digital. Here’s a statement from the ESA:

“We can confirm that we are transforming the E3 experience for 2021 and will soon share exact details on how we’re bringing the global video game community together. We are having great conversations with publishers, developers, and companies across the board, and we look forward to sharing details about their involvement soon.”

According to VGC, the idea is to feature partners on a number of livestreams. It may also bring in media to preview games as well as platforms to host demos and more.

Many publishers won’t want to deal with E3 and the ESA

It’s unlikely that the ESA’s digital E3 will pan out the way it wants. The organization makes a lot of its money from operating E3, and it is probably charging a hefty fee to participate. So publishers will have to pay to try to fit into ESA’s format and schedule, and they’re not going to want to do that.

Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all have their own ways of speaking to their customers. They’ve invested in communications teams specifically for that purpose. Nintendo and Sony even previously shifted to doing exactly that before the pandemic.

Think about it from their perspective. These companies have to manage their own teams and then also bring in third-party partners. They don’t want to have to answer to the ESA at any point during that process.

Other publishers might turn to the ESA, but that also seems questionable. It’s free to livestream to Twitch and YouTube, and publishers could always find spots for their games as part of any of the number of showcases that will pop up in June.

How long will Not E3 2021 last?

One of the biggest issues that gaming fans had with the 2020 Not E3 stand-in was its elongated nature. Under Keighley’s Summer Game Fest banner, events popped up sporadically for months. That diluted much of the excitement, and it made it really difficult for even dedicated fans to keep up with what was happening.

From what I’m hearing so far, publishers have a desire to condense the experience even if they stray away from the ESA. At least one of the largest gaming companies that I asked about is planning to hold its own independent showcase during the normal E3 media presentation week. And Keighley said on Twitter that Summer Game Fest would run for less than a month.

But that desire for a quick E3 replacement is fighting against other factors. The most important thing to remember is that game sales surged throughout 2020. So the lack of a traditional, hype-friendly E3 did little to hurt revenue. If the effort to bring a succinct E3 to people gets in the way or starts getting expensive, most companies are going to respond to that by delaying and pushing events later into the year.

The potential for a summer game mess is still real, and it will come down to whether publishers feel the juice is worth the squeeze.


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