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E3 2021 remains a mystery even as shows like CES successfully pivot to digital

CES 2021 is in full swing, though in a much different form than attendees are used to. Like many in-person events over the past year, the tech show pivoted to an all-digital show filled with creative Zoom sessions. While the showcase signals a forward-thinking reimagining of physical events, the video game industry remains a Tale of Two Cities. While some of gaming’s biggest events have gone digital without a hitch, others are still struggling to adjust to the times, if not downright resisting it.

Take E3, for instance. The legendary gaming expo was one of the first major in-person events forced to reckon with COVID-19. The show’s organizers insisted that it would still go on as planned in June. With no digital back-up plan in sight, it was ultimately canceled just a few months before the show. The Electronic Software Association planned to hold online events that week but ultimately canceled those too, leaving studios to do the creative heavy lifting instead.

Shortly after the cancellation, the ESA set the dates for E3 2021. Organizers said that the show would be “reimagined,” but gave no indication of whether or not that translated to “digital.” Since the April announcement, there’s been no further news on that front. Digital Trends reached out to the ESA to check in on the show’s progress and received no response by the time of publication.

Considering that video games themselves are an entirely digital medium, it’s a little ironic that some of the shows built around them are so reluctant about embracing virtual meetups.

The expo power vacuum

With a physical E3 2021 looking more unlikely by the day, the continued mystery threatens the expo’s once-dominant position in the gaming world. For decades, the convention has been the ultimate marketing stop for games, with studios holding their biggest announcements for the show. E3’s tight grip on the industry’s pulse was already starting to loosen in recent years, with companies like Sony and Nintendo opting for separate digital events over proper press conferences. Even before 2020, fans were asking if E3 was really necessary at all anymore.

The ESA’s reluctant pivot during the pandemic has only made that a hotter question. With a power vacuum forming during the months of silence, others swooped in to fill the void. Geoff Keighley organized the Summer Game Fest, which was a suitable replacement for E3 in 2020. He doubled down later in the year with a successful online version of The Game Awards filled with major announcements. Elsewhere, IGN and GameSpot held summer gaming showcases, while Wholesome Direct stepped in to spotlight smaller indie developers.

These various broadcasts prove that digital gaming conventions are not just possible, but necessary to stay relevant in a rapidly shifting landscape. The longer details on E3 2021 remain sparse, the harder it is to imagine that giant companies like Microsoft will risk holding their biggest announcements for a show that might not even happen.

In denial

E3 isn’t the only conference that’s been slow to adjust. Back in August, the organizers behind the Game Developers Conference announced that it intended to hold a hybrid show in 2021 that still included a physical component. Just last month, PAX set the dates for this year’s show and expressed confidence that it would be fully in-person. Culturally adjacent shows like GenCon and San Diego Comic-Con are still plotting normal shows as well.

With optimism and safety in mind, we're announcing our #PAX 2021 Dates. Read the full statement below:

— PAX (@pax) December 4, 2020

The plans are optimistic considering the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is worse now than it was when those shows were forced to shut down last year. While vaccines are finally out in the world, rollout has been notably slow, making it unlikely that enough people will have it in time to return to a packed convention center. That’s not to mention skeptics of the vaccine who don’t plan on taking it at all.

It’s hard not to feel frustrated watching physical convention plans shape up across the industry. Expos like PAX had a long runway to figure out creative alternatives for 2021 that took advantage of the digital shift. While organizers say they’re aware of the COVID-19 situation and could go virtual if need be, even hypothetically planning for a massive in-person event at this juncture feels like a denial of reality.

CES 2021 provides a strong case study of how a digital show can work with unwavering commitment and resources behind it. Rather than waffling and hoping for good news, CES locked in an all-digital approach back in July. Those months of focused planning led to a confident event that’s been robustly built-out with virtual meetings in mind. It’s not the party attendees are used to, but it’s safe. At the moment, that takes precedence over anything.

When it comes to E3, the ESA may just be keeping details under wraps because it’s not entirely sure what a “reimagined” show is going to look like yet. The lack of commitment may have less to do with secret hopes for a physical show and more to do with not knowing what a virtual one really looks like. Still, a little extra transparency could go a long way for fans and partners alike. If E3 is going to keep its position as the gaming industry’s super bowl, the ESA needs to instill confidence that the show is as modern and quick-moving as the industry it’s built around.

E3 2021 is currently scheduled to take place from June 15 to June 17.

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