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Summer Game Fest isn’t yet the E3 replacement the industry needs - but it’s getting there

I still miss E3.

The old E3 logo alongside the logo for Summer Game Fest.
Image credit: ESA/Summer Game Fest

E3 was a horrible, loud, expensive nightmare - but there was doubtlessly a magic about it. Thinking about it gives me a bloody headache, but it’s a nostalgic headache - and I will forever mourn that old, mad format. It ain’t ever coming back - but this week, I think we got a glimmer of what the future could and probably should look like.

I’ve just spent the week in Los Angeles attending ‘Summer Game Fest’, which in this article doesn’t just refer to the event that Geoff Keighley laid on, but all of the broader activities around LA. For the sake of argument, let’s call it ‘new E3’.

Keighley’s event is sort of the tentpole that draws others in, with LA this week a host to the SGF stage show and stream, the ‘Play Days’ campus where many publishers set up shop, a similar offering from our colleagues over at IGN Live, plus separate events spaces from Ubisoft and Xbox. Other publishers camped up in hotel rooms for top-secret hands-ons and the like.

None of this amounts to what E3 was. But it does feel like something is emerging from the cloud left behind by E3’s inauspicious immolation. And what’s emerging… is sort of quite good? Some of this is likely to be a bit inside baseball, a bit business-to-business - but I think it’s worth talking about, as I know some of you are deeply interested in how the industry works. So let’s do just that, yeah?

From my perspective, that of a veteran of a decade’s worth of E3s, countless Gamescoms, and so on, the ‘new E3’ week in LA cuts across what was important about old E3 at its best pretty well. The various campuses were accessible, manageable spaces. On a few occasions I marveled with colleagues about how we were technically on a games event ‘show floor’ and were carrying a conversation without screaming at each other. I can listen back to my interviews with developers without the recording drowning in the sounds of the latest Splinter Cell trailer blasting at 140 decibels next door.

E3 convention centre outside
Ah, what have we lost without E3? Well, a lot of shouting for one. | Image credit: VG247

This was always a bit of a problem of E3 - the arms race of those stupid oversized stands, each louder and more outrageous than the last. Publishers burned more and more money in an attempt to draw attention and impress - until suddenly, executives realized it was becoming wasteful, and the show’s ecosystem buckled. EA gave up its giga-sized stand, and Square Enix rushed in to take that oversized spot. A few years later, Square too realized that expense was a folly. These were the first glimmers of E3’s vital signs fading; this week had little to none of that waste.

I have to give a shout out to the Play Days Campus in particular which had a lovely vibe despite being in a pretty ratchet bit of town. It was easy to get a bite to eat and a drink, where at E3 I basically used to starve all day, too busy to eat except for maybe wolfing down a slice of cold pizza stolen from the back of Konami’s business stand or something. Likewise, I really enjoyed Microsoft’s event space. At a lavish venue that’d been carefully decorated to host an event where executives mingled with us peasants in a surprisingly disarmed fashion, it carried the energy of the old, slightly over-the-top E3s. Though Xbox’s showcase was a pre-record, it was shown in a theater at that event, complete with fans whooping and hollering like the whole world could see them. When I was there, I felt like a little bit of the old E3 was still alive - but not so much that it triggered my dumb-events PTSD.

Ultimately, the reasons E3 stopped working were myriad. A huge part of it was a lack of industry consensus - different publishers and stakeholders wanted different things from the show. The ESA, duty bound to try to please everyone, naturally failed to do so - because you can’t. It’s impossible. But what’s interesting is how this new world feels slightly more democratized than even when the summer showcase was in charge of an industry body designed to be neutral.

Phil Spencer in front of an Xbox logo.
Xbox's bigwigs still regularly show up at plenty of not-E3 events and showcases, even if the console maker is now doing its own thing too. | Image credit: VG247/Xbox

The idea of one man controlling one of the gaming calendar’s most important events is grim - but the truth on the ground this week was just that, well, he didn’t. You had Keighley’s SGF and Play Days, but you also had IGN Live. Xbox was off doing its own thing, and so was Ubisoft. Companies exhibited at one or more of these - or mixed and matched. Xbox had its own event space and did most of its stuff there, but had smaller things on offer at both Keighley and IGN’s offerings; Phil Spencer and Sarah Bond were sure to visit and be seen at both events as a show of solidarity. Ubisoft was the same, controlling its own messaging in its own event space, but still featuring titles in the SGF stream - and so on and so forth.

Publishers seemed to approach the event with less of a laser focus on this week, too. At E3, typically everything would be revealed on that big press conference Sunday and then shown at the show. Often, smaller games would be lost. This week, I saw many games that I won’t even be allowed to talk about for another week, or two, or more. If at home you think this ‘Gaming Christmas’ was a bit lacking, know that you haven’t unwrapped all your presents yet. Spreading it out in this way ends up better for everyone - every game has a chance to breathe, and those of us marketing them publisher side or covering them in the media are less swamped and stressed. It’s all a win.

This, I think, is the template that could stick. Rather than one event in one sprawling, overheating, overcrowded venue that charges $20 for a single slice of cardboard pizza, the answer really does appear to be a suite of events that interlock, interact, collaborate, and compete. That way individual publishers or brands can feel like they have choice about how they approach the week - but the benefit to the industry is that everybody is there, in one city, in one space, all at once. The competition between the different spokes of the ‘new E3’ will hopefully serve us well - that competition spurring each event to be a little bit better in value, delivery, and quality.

Sure, the fractured nature of the event means those covering it on the ground will be sitting through lots of LA’s worst traffic as we criss-cross the city from site to site. But, y’know, if past E3s proved anything, it’s that we love having something to collectively moan about. And the end content result is still pretty good.

The ‘new E3’ week of events has grown tremendously already - and I expect it’ll grow more next year. Exactly how good things are always depends on the wider market and the release schedule - but I’ve got high hopes for next year. What’s needed now is for more companies to take part. If Sony and Nintendo had similar campuses to Xbox next year, it might well feel like the good old days are back again - just without a lot of the worst bits of the show that occupied the LACC. Either way, I think my yearly gaming pilgrimages to LA are back - and I’m thrilled about it.

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