E3 2020 was cancelled in early March due to the novel coronavirus. Following this cancellation, plans for an online replacement event circulated, with the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) – the organisers of E3 – rumoured to have been courting a variety of production partners for an alternative online event.
While plans for that fell through, a new digital event set up by IGN appears to be the E3 replacement people were hoping for.
The Summer of Gaming
IGN's Summer of Gaming is an online event taking place in June that aims to bring "the latest news and impressions around upcoming games and the next generation of console hardware" to global audiences.
The event is set to include a range of live broadcasts and on-demand programs including publisher presentations, developer interviews, hands-on demos, gameplay and news segments — all the typical features of a traditional E3. SEGA, 2K, Bandai Namco, Square Enix, Google, Devolver Digital, Amazon, THQ Nordic and Twitter have all signed up, all companies that would have ordinarily contributed to E3 either by taking out booth space, appearing in press conferences, or in Square Enix's case, holding a conference of their own.
Noticeably absent are the first-party publishers Sony, Xbox and Nintendo — but Sony was skipping E3 anyway before coronavirus complicated matters. Both Xbox and Nintendo are also companies that don't strictly need a platform like E3 because they've cultivated their own communities and large online presences. Microsoft has already run their own digital events in-house, taking just two weeks to arrange their Game Stack Live online talks after GDC was officially cancelled.
IGN's event, which effectively replaces E3 2020 in the gaming calendar, puts the ESA in a tight spot — and it could just be the final domino in a decade of changes for E3.
The Changing Importance of E3
While E3 was once the pinnacle of the gaming year, its importance has diminished over the last decade. As companies began developing their own online games presentations like Nintendo Direct and Sony's short-lived State of Play, it became increasingly clear that larger developers simply didn't need an event like E3 to connect with their audience and share gaming news.
The opportunities that E3 presents for smaller publishers can't be denied — it presents an essential means for indie devs to create needed connections and exposure for their work. But larger publishers are what ultimately draw crowds for E3, and it's their support that organisers lean on for public interest.
E3's official cancellation has been expected for weeks, but the actual act of shifting a physical event to an online-only presence is still an enormous undertaking. It's one that's doable for large publishers like Sony and Microsoft, both of whom have run their own online and offline showcases at various points throughout the year. But for indie developers looking to secure deals with smaller publishers or the first-party platforms, E3's cancellation poses a greater problem: the prospect of a long, hard winter without funding, or even the opportunity to pitch.
In 2019, Sony announced that it would not be attending E3, with the reason given being a renewed focus on the evolution of the games industry and a need to look for more inventive opportunities to engage their games community.
This need for greater inclusivity and community-building has become a key concern for games companies as they look towards the global gaming community and how they can best engage with it. In 2020, the online space is essential. It's where companies can build communities and share announcements on their own time.
E3's looming deadline for game announcements no longer matters — and the ESA is aware of this changing dynamic.
Even if coronavirus hadn't changed the viability of this year's event, it's likely that E3 2020 would have been a very different show. As reported by PushSquare, E3 was set to focus on influencers and fans over media in 2020, with an additional 10,000 tickets being made available to members of the public and the even being referred to as a 'games festival'.
It was this direction that encouraged veteran industry host and The Game Awards showrunner Geoff Keighley to pull out of the event. In a Twitter reply, he said he believed the failure of 2020's E3 was due to it not being a more digital and global event.
Someone like Geoff Keighley won't have the same financial impact for E3 as, say, Sony refusing to buy booth space. But when it comes to the broader narrative about where E3 is headed, it's not a good look.
With the continued spread of coronavirus now a threat to in-person events around the world, the digital future of E3 is becoming clearer.
The Future of Gaming Events
In recent years, companies like Nintendo have led the charge for digital gaming news announcements and community building with Nintendo Direct livestreams, and other companies like Sony have followed suit.
Gamers have become accustomed to a trickling news cycle, where companies share updates in bite-sized presentations — it's part of the reason why E3 has become less essential with each passing year. This change has allowed companies to share updates when they're ready, rather than forcing them out the door on E3's arbitrary schedule.
More personal, company-led presentations have a great impact on online communities — they create a global inclusivity and online chatter that's hard to share at an event like E3, where game previews often take place for select audiences and news is delivered behind closed doors. It's not hard to see how an online event could create a more positive and involving event for gamers around the world.
Should IGN's Summer of Gaming event succeed, it's likely an online format for gaming events like E3 will become more common. Organisers were already trialling online activations alongside their real-life events, such as Steam's Game Festival, a series of demos that were accessible through Steam as a tie-in with The Game Awards.
While we've reached out to the Entertainment Software Association for clarification on what an event like the Summer of Gaming might mean for E3's future, the larger ramifications are clear. E3's long-term viability is in question without the support of major developers and publishers. Sony has already walked away from the show, while other major publishers like EA withdrew their presence to focus on EA Play, a live event where the publisher could control ticket sales and access wholly on their own terms.
In Nintendo's case, scattered Nintendo Directs throughout the calendar year have created an ongoing sense of excitement and anticipation around its game releases — so much so that fans clamour to hear more from the company when Directs are rarer.
E3 2021 is set to take place between June 15 to 17 next year but if it's to succeed in the current games landscape, things will need to change. Whether that be efforts to better engage the global games community or rethinking expectations for presenting partners, 2021's E3 will be an important deciding point for the event's future.
In a statement provided to Kotaku Australia, IGN Entertainment confirmed The Summer of Gaming event is designed to fill the gap left by E3. "Our Summer of Gaming showcase is certainly a response to our audience’s desire for filling that content gap this year, but we’re looking forward to E3 2021 when the world is (hopefully) back to normal," said Tina Amini, Editor-in-Chief of Games at IGN.
IGN did not confirm whether the Summer of Gaming will become a reccuring annual event.