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E3 2021 might be outdated in the digital age, but it’s still necessary

Gaming’s biggest showcase, the legendary E3 convention, is returning in 2021. After getting canceled in 2020 during the initial spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Entertainment Software Association has gone back to the drawing board to reimagine the show as a digital event.

The ESA is going all out with the show, partnering with some of the biggest names in the video game industry. Giants like Nintendo and Microsoft will be present, though not everyone is playing ball. Sony and EA are among the big names missing from the current partner list. That’s reopened questions about the overall health of a gaming landmark that seems to be on its last legs.

E3 may be an outdated ceremony in the age of digital communication, but it still holds an important role in the gaming landscape. The past year of constant showcases highlights exactly why it, or something like it, should exist.

Digital overload

For the uninitiated, E3 is gaming’s equivalent to the Super Bowl, minus the game itself. It’s essentially a string of commercials for upcoming video games that’s built its history on major reveals. While its primary function is a physical event where attendees can get hands-on with new games, it’s more known for its digital component. Live press conferences have been “can’t miss” events for gaming fans hungry for surprise reveals.

E3 2020’s cancellation left a massive void in 2020’s gaming news cycle. Publishers who had stored up their big announcements in anticipation of the summer bash were left without a grand stage to reveal them on. The aftermath was nothing short of chaos.

Summer Games Fest

Multiple broadcast plans sprung up in its absence. Gaming site IGN ran its own Summer of Games festival showcasing a smattering of random games. Publishers like Ubisoft ran their own single-day streams in place of a traditional press conference. Most overwhelming of all was Summer Games Fest, Geoff Keighley’s E3 alternative that dragged on for four months.

Trying to keep up with everything was difficult, though that was to be expected with so many game announcements that needed a new home. The string of digital shows didn’t stop at the end of the summer, though. It feels like there’s a new “can’t miss” showcase every week. Sony’s State of Play, Ubisoft Forward, Square Enix Presents, … the list just keeps going.

In some way, this future has been inevitable. Nintendo set the template for the pivot to digital shows with its Directs, which always garner enthusiasm from fans without fail. It was only a matter of time until other publishers followed suit and E3’s disappearance became a catalyst for many.

Now, it’s E3 year-round and it’s exhausting.

Sifting through the noise

With so many digital shows happening constantly, their power is diluted. It’s becoming challenging to know what’s worth watching and what’s a generic marketing event. Capcom’s first Resident Evil showcase got fans excited to hear some big news about the franchise, but its big reveal was a free short demo of Resident Evil Village.

Events like Nintendo Direct have conditioned players to expect exciting world premieres anytime a publisher announces a stream, but that’s not always the case. Take something like Microsoft’s roundtable stream when it acquired Bethesda. Fans immediately started posting theories that the YouTube stream would contain news on long-awaited games like The Elder Scrolls VI, forcing Microsoft to talk people back down to Earth and reset expectations.

What we’ve taken for granted with E3 is that the show carries an air of importance. In previous iterations, it was the one time players could tune in to get a year’s worth of hype in one compact weekend. There was no question about whether or not an E3 press conference was worth watching. Gaming fans knew exactly when to tune in to get a year’s worth of crucial updates.

In a tweet about E3’s return, Xbox chief Phil Spencer highlights exactly what makes the conference special. “Glad to see the game industry coming together again in June for a digital E3,” he writes. “This and other summer events are proof that our industry is strongest when we work together.”

Glad to see the game industry coming together again in June for a digital E3. This and other summer events are proof that our industry is strongest when we work together. Looking forward to sharing what we have in store this summer.

— Phil Spencer (@XboxP3) April 6, 2021

Spencer hits the nail on the head. E3 works because it unites publishers together under one roof to create a singular bash that celebrates gaming as a whole, not one publisher. That’s the energy these scattershot, one-off events are lacking. They’re divorced from any wider context of the video game landscape. It’s only when every piece comes together that we get the greater picture, like disparate instruments forming an orchestra.

Sure, E3 is one giant marketing event. It’s a place where gamers gather to consume advertisements for games. It’s perfectly fair to have a more cynical take on its importance. It’s just that the current alternative isn’t any better. If we’re going to be bombarded with must-see gaming showcases, at least put them all in one weekend so we can spend more time actually playing.

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