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The cancellation of E3 took years to prepare

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The last in-person E3 was in 2019, which was significantly reduced from previous years.

Alessandro Fillari/CNET

What do Metal Gear Solid 2, the Nintendo Wii and Final Fantasy 7 Remake have in common? These are all blockbuster reveals that happened at E3. For decades, the Electronic Entertainment Expo has been the gaming industry’s biggest event and showcased everything from new hardware to hot games to indie projects.

At the end of March, the Entertainment Software Association announced that E3 2022 has been canceled. This is the second time the show has been canceled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, there was an online-only show, but that won’t go ahead this year.

While the ESA predicts the show will go on in 2023, gamers and industry watchers may not care. Other events, both online and in-person, cover much of the same ground and with greater frequency throughout the year. And since the last E3 in-person three years ago, the relevance of the once most important event in the industry seems fragile at best.

Still, the loss of E3 – or rather what it stood for – leaves a big vacancy that could be filled. Given the immense flow of information and the number of outlets that have sprung up, it can be difficult for the general public to keep up with what is happening in the gaming world. With that in mind, we wanted to take a look at the history of E3 and where things are heading.

Trace your own path

So where have game publishers and developers put their energy? Along with other in-person consumer-focused shows like Gamescom and Penny Arcade Expo, individual companies have embarked on making their own showcases via livestreaming. In a interview with CNETformer PlayStation President and CEO Shawn Laydon said trade shows have become less focused on actual commerce and the internet’s 24/7 news cycle has reduced the need to attend a major annual show like E3.

In many ways, the decline of E3 was inevitable. In fact, it was something that industry watchers had predicted in previous years. After a few years of mostly average broadcasts alongside the growing prominence of online event streams, the traditional broadcast of E3 is hard to justify. Even though the ESA says E3 is coming back next year, it’s hard to see a future for a massive trade show like this.

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The early years of E3 introduced new hardware and games, the impact of which is still felt to this day.

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When it debuted in 1995, E3 was already a significant gaming event as it marked the gaming industry’s first serious opportunity to stand out and distinguish itself as more than an extension of mainstream technology. The show was originally an offshoot of the annual CES event where publishers, developers, press and some general attendees could take an annual trip to Los Angeles (or Atlanta, Georgia, in the late 90s) to see the latest games.

And with the exception of the last few years, when regular players were allowed to attend, the event was always industry-focused. General consumers could only see what was happening on gaming websites like GameSpot, or in magazines or cable TV highlights on G4 and Spike TV. It gave E3 a certain mystique.

Big E3 press conferences from major industry players like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, which once took the time to show off sales figures and projections, have been transformed into big media events featuring full orchestras, theatrical performances and celebrity appearances like Keanu Reeves.

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More than 66,000 attendees visited E3 2019, the majority of which were general public visitors.

James Martin/CNET

Nintendo’s abandonment of the traditional E3 stage press conference was, in many ways, the first death knell for E3. It was an odd choice at the time, but it set a new standard. In the months and years to come, Sony, Microsoft and Ubisoft (among others) would host their own Direct-style live streams, creating well-produced online events at their own pace throughout the year. And the further companies moved away from on-stage conferences, the less relevant E3 became.

At the same time, events like PAX and Comic-Con had become more welcoming conventions for the general public. The ESA would eventually adapt by letting the general public in at E3 2017, giving fans what they’ve wanted for years. But in some ways it was too little too late.

The last major in-person E3 was in 2019, and that show had some notable absences. Nintendo, EA and Sony, all of whom had been regulars at shows in previous years, were missing. E3 2020 would be canceled due to COVID, and in 2021 it was an online-only showcase of new games and interviews.

Don’t blame COVID, though

But even before COVID-19, there had been discussions about E3’s position in the games industry. A longstanding complaint for both large and small companies about attending E3 has persisted: the expense. Occupying space at the Los Angeles Convention Center for nearly a week is not cheap, and quite simply be at a fair does not guarantee the success of any game or business. It’s often the other way around: competing with other publishers for attention is costly. It’s no surprise, then, that many companies have decided to go their own way as the mystique of a massive trade show has faded in the information age.

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The big game at E3 2019 was CD Projekt Red‘s Cyberpunk 2077, which saw a surprise appearance from Keanu Reeves to promote it.

James Martin/CNET

But perhaps the main reason E3 has dropped is that the general public now has much greater access to breaking news. Whether it’s news sites, streamers, social media, or even watching highlights on YouTube, audiences are now better informed than ever about the latest in the gaming industry.

The collapse of E3 2020 left a power vacuum. Video game companies and media brands are churning out their own E3 replacements. What was once just a single, week-long event in June grew into a loose collection of virtual events that lasted through August.

In 2021, the colloquially named “Summer Games Season” has found its way without the big influence of E3. Part of that was due to former journalist-turned-media personality Geoff Keighley’s Summer Games Fest event, which filled much of the void left by E3.

After associating with the ESA for years, Keighley’s Summer Games Fest was an offshoot of its familiar E3 stage shows and The Game Awards. The inaugural showcase of Summer Games Fest in 2021 was impressive, providing an alternative experience to E3 that would surpass the actual online broadcast of E3 in 2021 thanks to new trailers for the games, including the gameplay clip world premiere of Elden Ring.

Even if E3 never returns, the summer games season will continue without it. Industry and the general public have already embraced the new, year-round approach of regular online publisher and developer showcases.

The “E3 experience” as we knew it is over, which annoys me. I think unifying events for the industry are important, but E3 may just not be able to deliver that anymore. Whether ESA and E3 will be able to regain footing is an open question. However, Geoff Keighley’s seasonal online show, which will return in June, already has a head start on the topic of summer for gamers.