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The End of an Era: The E3 Show Has Left the Stage

It’s hard to know when the decline of the E3 show began, although there were milestones along the way.

Maybe it was in 2007 when rumors had it that E3 was going to close but instead tried to shrink the scope and move to Santa Monica to a smaller cluster of venues. E3 2007 ended up being a scattered, headache-y, and traffic-addled mess. Or the subsequent (also) smaller scope of the E3 show back at the Los Angeles Convention Center in 2008. E3 was known for it’s bigness, boldness, brightness, and it had lost that luster in those two years.

Maybe E3 lost its way when it went the exact opposite direction, expanding by opening E3 Live in 2016 to the public, which generally received a less-than-enthusiastic reception. The following year, the doors to E3 opened to thousands of members of the game-playing public for the time ever in 2017. Long lines, security, and safety issues abounded. And yet, in spite of the pivots (or perhaps because of them), one by one, the major platforms and publishers, like Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and others left the show.

(A supercut-style video from the last live E3, which was held in 2019. Credit: Crowbcat/YouTube)

Then, of course, COVID hit in 2020, and shows that could make the jump were shifted to virtual platforms. E3 2020 was cancelled as the organizer, the Electronic Software Association (ESA), couldn’t adjust to a digital format in time for a show to work. While there was a digital version of E3 streamed in 2021, the attempt to bring back the live shows in 2022 and 2023 failed, even with attempts at bringing in new show management (the mega-organizers ReedPop, who are behind the PAX shows among many others) which then fell apart this September.

After that, there didn’t seem to be a lot of options on the table. The other shoe did eventually drop this week when ESA decided to close the door on the E3 show after over 20 years:

There are many reasons why E3 failed, with no single smoking gun. For one, building and executing on big annual shows are difficult and a challenge to pull off year over year, even for the most successful events and organizers. But, E3 didn’t seem to have a dominant identity or brand was after trying different angles that the ESA thought might have best suited retailers, publishers, the public, the media, and others. And, the game industry was quickly shifting from boxes in brick-and-mortar stores to digital distribution, expanding into mobile, virtual reality, and other emerging platforms and technologies, changes the E3 event didn’t always seem to keep pace with.

And after COVID’s disruptive impact, accelerating the minimization of the traditional retail and events footprint, those circumstances made it even harder for E3 to return to form.

Penny Arcade, Gamescom, Game Developer Conference, and other major trade shows are likely to try to fill whatever vacuum E3 has left on the consumer and trade side. And there’s a plethora of publisher-driven streaming events that allows major players to present their games in a lower cost and more precise digital environment.

But there’s a wealth of nostalgia there naked into the years of past E3 shows, that regardless of whatever comes next to Los Angeles or online, it will be impossible to replace. The memories from E3 will always remain.

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