A cheesy take on why E3 is more than just a convention
For the past few years, a speculative question has been buzzing around as we get closer and closer to summer: Is E3 dying? By the mid-2010s, game studios started to pull their booths and presentations out from under the E3 banner because of costs, and the event started selling tickets to the public when it was usually known for being more exclusive for those in the industry. The writing was on the walls that something was up, and the global pandemic causing cancellations of any in-person events seemed like the final nail in the coffin.
Now that E3 2021 is finally here, it got me reflecting a lot on my own experience — I was able to attend the convention for the first and only time in 2018, when my career in games was just beginning, and I didn’t quite yet know what I was getting myself into.
I started getting back into gaming again when I was in college, and attending E3 immediately became a new bucket-list item for me. Part of that was because I felt so isolated in my small town and going all the way across the country was a huge deal, but also because in any coverage I saw of the event… it just looked so cool. The lights, the game demos, the booths — not to mention the presentations with huge, roaring audiences, were more excitement than I had seen in my entire childhood.
After deciding I wanted to work in games, I was able to land an editorial internship with pop-culture website Nerdist, where they let me write about game news for their website. Huge shout out to them, they went out of their way to make sure I had an amazing experience that summer — including letting me tag along to E3, knowing it was a dream of mine.
I remember walking onto the show floor in the LA Convention Center, so overwhelmed by it all. There were huge, floor-to-ceiling light-up panels with some of my favorite characters, life-size replicas of props from various Nintendo properties, and a façade of New York City with a life-size Spider-Man hanging from it. It was a real “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” situation.
The definite highlight for me was the behind-the-scenes demo and interview with Sucker Punch for Ghost of Tsushima. One of the Sucker Punch employees (I think it may have been a lead programmer?) was playing the game live for us, while one of the directors (I feel terrible for not remembering which one) was describing what was going on in the game, as well as some of the behind-the-scenes work that went into making it. At one point he launched into an impassioned monologue about the research they had done about samurai katanas, and enthusiastically described that the various designs on the hilt have different meanings.
That moment stood out to me because I could tell that he didn’t care about all of the fanfare or clout surrounding the game, he just honestly loved what he was making and wanted other people to love it, too. I even (embarrassingly) teared up, because working with people who are so insanely passionate is what made me want to work in games in the first place.
Another great moment from that day was going to play the Shadow of the Tomb Raider demo. For the sake of making sure I had the coolest experience possible, my boss just walked up to the Square Enix booth and asked if we could get a gameplay demo, even though we didn’t have an appointment.
For context, there was a huge line that wrapped all the way around the booth, and people were waiting hours to get in. But we showed them our press badges and they ushered us right in, as there were a few consoles that were reserved specifically for journalists. Let me tell you, I had never felt like such a rockstar in my life, and haven’t since. This line of work definitely has its perks, but as some kid who was just experiencing this all for the first time, it was a special moment.
Despite all of the moments that made me feel like I was being punk’d because it was so cool, I think there’s an interesting irony in this whole experience. That E3 weekend was just at the start of my career, and one of the first big things I really did that launched me into this industry. At the same time, though, the convention was closing out another chapter in its storied history, to the point that it’s likely to never be the same event ever again.
The games industry continues to grow and make more money each year, sure, but I think more than growth, this industry is about a life and death cycle. Look at what happened to fads like motion controls, or Guitar Hero. E3 was just as much of the game industry’s history as anything, but now it’s having to change, adapt, and evolve to survive.
In past journalistic work about E3, I posited that it’s likely to die soon, which I was sad about. At this point anything could happen, but now I’m more convinced that the convention will instead rebrand as something new, rather than disappearing entirely. It might sound kind of scary that E3 is in some ways threatening to disappear, but based on the convention’s history, it would honestly be more unusual if it didn’t go through some major changes every few years.
It’s been fascinating to see how the industry is working around the pandemic with all of the virtual announcements, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t something missing from the whole thing. The awkward, slightly out-of-touch presentations and subsequent memes about them are probably what I would look forward to the most from E3 every year, and I think gamers’ love for the hype surrounding them is what makes it feel like something we all really look forward to.
I look back on that weekend so fondly because it was the last real time I looked at games with a certain childlike wonder. It was before I became jaded, before I went through everything in the games industry that put cracks in the rose-colored glasses through which I would view my career. I grew up very sheltered, and honestly led quite a boring life until I became an adult, which was both good and bad. In being shielded from how rough the real world could be, I was blissfully unaware of all of the bullshit I was going to have to slog through.
But that turmoil would eventually come to an end, and although I’m still picking up some of the pieces, I can always look back to that weekend as being a pristine example of my hope in the games industry. That hope may have dulled over the past few years, but it’s still there, and coming closer to the surface every day. Hell, I’m still writing about games, right?
If it was always your dream to attend E3, maybe you felt similarly. Making the trip to LA to be among the throngs of gamers and developers is a pilgrimage of almost spiritual proportions, especially when coming from a small town where everyone looks at you like you’re an alien when let on to your love of point-and-click adventures. Take it from someone who lived it, it might be for the best that that dream stays a dream. After all, “don’t meet your heroes” is a cliché for a reason.
In theory, a physical E3 conference going away shouldn’t be a big deal at all. 99.9% of gamers likely wouldn’t get to attend the event in person, so their experience wouldn’t change anyway, right? Well, I think it’s because E3 is more than just a conference every year — it stands for something much bigger than that.
E3 is a presentation for gaming companies to show off their latest work, sure, but as it grew to be more consumer-facing over time, it became beloved by developers and fans alike. It went from being a more stoic, sterile event to garner the attention of potential investors to a monolith of sentimentality, preaching the hope of a bright future from the pulpit of the LA Convention Center.
If we’re honest with ourselves, most games don’t usually live up to the hype they create through their trailers or gameplay demos, especially when they’re initially received by an audience of thousands of fanpeople foaming at the mouth. It’s not that they always give us empty promises per se — it’s that they have to pack all of the fun you could possibly experience in dozens or even thousands of hours of gameplay into a 2-10 minute package. The amount of coordination and choreography it takes to make a perfect gameplay demo is honestly really cool, and something I’d love to go into more detail about in another piece someday. But I digress.
My whole point here is that everything you’re seeing at these events, whether it’s as a developer or a fan or a journalist, is orchestrated with the maximum amount of care to make sure you’re walking away thinking it’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen in your goddamn life.
Some might say that that’s insincere, or that they shouldn’t be manipulating people, but I beg to differ. Think of it this way — despite all of the garbage that’s floating around in the games industry, it’s an industry that’s incredibly sentimental. “Welcome to the next level,” “Now you’re playing with power,” “Power to the player.” For decades, gaming marketing has been all about power, and agency, and crafting your own life to be exciting and magical. It makes sense coming from an industry that was saved from a huge crash in the ’80s by being marketed as children’s toys.
[Image Source: Sony Interactive Entertainment]
Sure, sometimes we can take this sentiment to cringy proportions, but I think that the desire to create the life that you want to live, outside of what other people might dictate to you, is a noble one. And over the years, E3 has become a tentpole of that ideal.
Are the presentations and lame jokes and weirdly dated rituals kind of uncomfortable to watch? Of course. Games have certainly come a long way in being a more, uh, acceptable pastime in the eyes of the mainstream. However, there will always be a little part of me that will never quite be able to take it seriously — but I think that’s what makes it endearing in the first place.
The whole point of games, and escapism really, is to provide us with ways to indulge us in wild fantasies that reach down into quintessential parts of what make us human — becoming the hero, or romancing our crush, or even doing something as mundane as creating our own cozy farm.
E3 has become the epitome of the love we all share for what is arguably the most immersive form of escapism there is: interactive media. It’s a place we can all go, either online or in-person, to indulge in our unabashed excitement, which isn’t something we’d normally get to do in our adult lives. To me, sharing that kind of childlike wonder is one of the most beautiful things in the world, especially in spite of what we have to face on a daily basis.
It seems like every year I grow older, life just gets a little bit more complicated. But you know what stays the same? The excited anticipation I feel when I start gearing up for E3. The event might look different, sure — it might change venues or cease to be an in-person event altogether. But I am a firm believer in the fact that we will never get rid of the mythos surrounding E3, because it has grown to be bigger than any one convention or moment. Somehow, the life cycle will always continue.
In spite of the bitterness I hold for certain parts of the industry, there will always be a little part of me that retains that childlike wonder when it comes to seeing new announcements or trailers for a game I’m amped about. Those pre-rehearsed gameplay demos don’t seem disingenuous to me at all — in fact I feel quite the opposite. They are the epitome of the fantasy we get to escape into, and when you mix that with the sheer enthusiasm for getting to see it for the very first time, it’s pretty magical.
At the risk of sounding reductive, it’s easy to get down on the bad things in life, whether it’s something as big as a global pandemic or something as small as our favorite gaming convention potentially closing down. The cool thing about humans, though, is that we’re really good at finding meaning in things, especially when it’s something bigger than ourselves. It’s pretty silly that I’m speaking about our collective love of gaming like it’s some kind of religion, but if it’s something that helps me or anyone else live a happier life, who cares? Embrace the cringe.
Noelle from 2018 would be shocked to see how much she’s changed, for better and for worse, but I’d want to tell her to remember to find the hope in the things she loves, even when they don’t stack up to the exceedingly high expectations she set up for them. In the same way I’m able to rediscover my joy in an industry that hasn’t always been the kindest, we will all continue to find our passion for games, regardless of how E3 continues on from this point. It’s a bummer to maybe lose what we once had, but I think it’s more important to remember why we grew to love it in the first place.