E3 2021: Does PS5, Xbox Series X Need a Central Expo Anymore?

E3 seemed to disappear with little fanfare in 2020, largely by pandemic concerns and the global health crisis, but that wasn’t the sole perpetrator of the event’s cancellation. More accurately, E3 as a universal gaming/tech trade show has been losing steam since the last console generation. Before the internet’s widespread digital connectivity had spread its way into gaming, E3 used to be a very necessary (and often celebrated) time of year for the gaming industry. Progressively that perception started to change, as larger companies like Sony decided to host its own independent conferences and skipped the necessity of the E3 show floor and exposition.

Rumors on a consumer-friendly trade show being organized by the ESA were a source of contention before the Covid-19 pandemic affected multiple industries worldwide. Eventually, E3 was cancelled, and plans to reignite a digital exposition seemed to fizzle out as publisher’s and other game companies organized independent efforts. As reports on the ESA’s planned resurgence continue to leak in 2021, as well as the ESA responding to these reports, it’s clear E3 is once again bidding on a resurgence. However, even in an ideal situation where society has returned to “normal” post-pandemic, E3 may still not really have a place in the modern gaming landscape.

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Obviously in 2020 it was easy to write off the ESA and E3 from existing because, without a physical expository presence, E3 theoretically had no reason to exist. Nintendo apparently started it, and Sony seemingly proved it: Both console makers organized independent showcases before 2020, and reached out to publishers directly for streamed showcases online, without the necessity of a presence on the show floor. Nintendo still opted for floor space at E3 for hands-on demos and such, but even Sony opted not to have any specific presence on the show floor, in favor of solely developing its at-the-time brand new State of Play reveal and announcement streams.

This year it seems the Entertainment Software Association is priming a return to E3 in digital form, considering the LACC show floor was already cancelled due to lingering Covid-19 health concerns. The ESA has even gone as far as de-confirming recent reports of an E3 “paywall” that supposedly would charge viewers for consumer-facing content. Representatives were quick to comment on VGC’s initial report, but there haven’t been any official announcements since then of what the E3 2021 plans actually are. Other than a digital showcase/exposition, there really isn’t anything confirmed about the ESA’s plans this year, other than news coming “very soon.”

In an industry that’s increasingly utilizing digital exclusive showcases for marketing and gaming announcements, E3’s future is questionable now more than ever. Considering the pushback the ESA received in the wake of the controversial changes being made to E3, as well as the pandemic’s cancellation of last year’s event, perhaps E3’s becoming irrelevant. Publishers are putting together media teams to handle independent game announcements, showcases, livestreams, and other marketing-related efforts. Even video game press outlets themselves are organizing events, just like GamesRadar’s most recent Future Games Show, for video game marketing and reveals.

While many gaming fans were disappointed by the disjointed and less bombastic E3 season in 2020, livestreams and digital announcements have improved immensely. PlayStation and Xbox in particular have further honed and expanded efforts to host game reveals and announcements on each company’s own behalf. Nintendo continues to produce its own Nintendo Direct presentations as well. In a gaming climate where announcements and reveals are largely being handled internally, there could be very little reason or persuasion for developers/publishers to participate in E3 2021. It’ll be interesting to see what the ESA has in store, and how it compares to past E3 shows.

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Even if the outlook could potentially be seen as dire for the ESA, a lack of E3 may not necessarily phase PlayStation and Xbox all that much. Both console makers have iterated on different formats for independent showcases, to varying degrees of success. Xbox certainly learned a lot about setting expectations for digital presentations in 2020, while PlayStation also seemingly learned how to manage great expectations with the reveal process for the PS5, albeit after long bouts of official silence. Either way, both companies are in far stronger place in 2021, and ultimately don’t need an E3-style event to unveil the next big games coming to either consoles in the future.

Same deal with game publishers and developers as well. Indie game makers often find similar, if not greater success marketing games as part of indie segments in presentations large and small. Some indie games were revealed alongside the PS5’s reveal, while others saw decent traction from smaller showcases like IGN’s Summer of Games or Summer Game Fest segments. In both scenarios, neither side of the publisher spectrum (AAA or indie) needed an E3 show floor to maximize marketing or exposure compared to digital showcases. Regardless, the ESA moves ahead with its plans for E3 2021 digitally, and it won’t be anything like E3 shows of the past.

E3 2021 is planned for June 13 – June 16, 2021.

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