E3 2020 is on a knife-edge right now – and it could end the gaming show for good

There’s a lot of concerned chatter around E3 2020 right now. As the biggest gaming event of the year, it’s carried a torch for the continued importance of live, in-person gatherings of those in and out of the gaming industry looking to announce, hype, and celebrate everything new and incoming in the world of video games.

E3 is the place that saw Sony first unveil the PS1 to the world in 1995 – the expo’s first iteration. It’s where Nintendo unveiled the Wii U, Sony showed off the PSP Go and PS Vita, and Microsoft announced the Xbox Series X (known then as Xbox Project Scarlett). Not to mention the hundreds of games that have been pushed into E3’s spotlight over the past 25 years, with all of the exposure, criticism, and wonder that entails.

The particular form of the show has certainly changed over the years, with a growing focus on public attendees, fans and influencers rather than the exclusive trade focus of earlier times. Online fandom is increasingly a crucial tool in the marketing and sustained interest in both new games and consoles, and E3 organizers would have been foolish not to respond to this in the digital age.

But the combination of online threats, and medical concerns – given the closure of GDC 2020 (Game Developers Conference) and MWC 2020 (Mobile World Congress) in response to coronavirus health concerns could spell the end for E3 as we know it. Here’s why.

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Don’t gather in confined spaces, please

The closure of such high-profile gaming and technology events makes a lot of sense given official health guidance around the COVID-19 outbreak that began in Wuhan, China – before spreading to multiple countries around the world.

Respiratory illnesses pass on very easily in confined, urban environments, just as the common cold or flu spreads on public transports or in workspaces.

No-one wants to be responsible for a virus outbreak gaining hold in new areas, which means organizers behind these events face a lot of pressure to minimize or prevent tens of thousands of people – from an international audience – flying in and out of a conference center over the course of a few days.

Given today’s online architecture, there are far more opportunities for remote working, VC meetings, and the like – but things get trickier when it comes to a live show tied to a physical location like E3.

E3 is hosted every June in Los Angeles – and while it hasn’t been canceled so far, the city itself has declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus outbreak, after its first confirmed death from the illness in the city (via LA Times).

Previous event cancellations have started off with big-name attendees pulling out of the show, though for much more imminent events. With E3 2020 still months away, we may not know for sure until closer to the time.

Things weren’t looking rosy anyway

E3 has been having an existential year, anyhow. Sony had been widely expected to attend E3 2020, in order to drive up interest around its PS5 console, after skipping out on the show last year. 

But, amid apparent disagreements between Sony and the ESA, it looks like the console maker will be doing its own launches, announcements, and trailers itself. When Sony has its series of State of Play live streams to share information (and excitement) with its fans, why attend E3 at all?

Things have been moving in this direction for a while now, with Nintendo – while still in attendance – opting out of a keynote in favor of its own online video announcements. E3 Coliseum host Geoff Keighley has also opted out of the show this year, for unclear reasons.

That's not to mention the dropout of iam8bit, a creative merchandising company that had apparently been acting as a creative director for this year's show. Whatever's happening behind doors, it isn't good – and even key figures running the event appear to be losing faith in it.

E3 2020: is this the end?

E3 2020 could face cancellation due to health concerns – after all, how would you practically ensure the medical safety of your attendees? Lines of hand-sanitizers, and on-site workers wiping down controllers every few minutes, doesn’t exactly sound like the most thrilling expo experience – especially if the whole site ended up being quarantined.

Once publishers and developers have had to offer an online alternative to the event, it’s not certain that they’d feel the need to go back, especially if months of planning in 2020 was unceremoniously undone by the show’s cancellation. Why gear up for the disappointment again?

The ESA could always pivot to an online or pre-recorded version of the event, which would see E3 continue in a limited form, but when the biggest names in gaming – Sony and Nintendo among them – are hosting their own live streams, it’s already hard to seem like a necessary middle man for developers who can upload their own YouTube videos by themselves.

2020 seems like a turning point for these kinds of expos, but particularly E3, given the melting pot of illness, behind-the-scenes disagreements, and online distribution channels threatening its survival. And the status of E3 2020 could be decided any day now. We’ll keep you informed either way.

  • E3 2020: everything we know so far

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