Summer Game Fest: The Journey to Evolve What E3 Left Behind

The year’s biggest gaming event is shaking up how we promote video games.

In July 2020, a PlayStation representative showed up at Geoff Keighley’s door with an unreleased video game controller in hand. Instead of being presented on a shiny, bright stage at E3, the PlayStation 5 DualSense would have its first hands-on demo recorded from a small, unassuming spare bedroom in Los Angeles. With no snazzy presentation planned, it all came together in just two days.

It’s not how it was supposed to be. With E3 canceled for the first time in 25 years, publishers and developers were frantically trying to figure out how to promote their video games and peripherals without that massive summer audience. And so they approached Keighley, who had partnered with the ESA (the Entertainment Software Association) for many E3s and who hosts the Game Awards, to find a solution. How would they promote upcoming video games without a physical space to coalesce?

“Summer Game Fest came together in May [2020],” Keighley tells Fanbyte. “It was not something that was planned in the back of my head. The circumstances dictated it, and the pandemic drove the creation of it.”

The concept behind Summer Game Fest — a global livestream to promote video games — is far from new. First-party publishers have been doing it for years: Nintendo has its Nintendo Directs, PlayStation has its State of Plays, and so on. But without E3 or any other in-person events in 2020, there was no longer a unified banner for publishers and developers to come together under. This vacuum spurred the beginning of Summer Game Fest and may mark the end of a tentpole trade show that has a storied history and legacy in the games industry.

Changing Direction

In 2018 and 2019, Keighley traveled to Washington D.C. on numerous occasions, visiting the ESA headquarters to pitch a new vision for the trade show. Keighley had been taking note of E3’s growing troubles as companies increasingly pulled out to market video games on their own digital platforms. One of the first examples of this can be traced back to 2013, when Nintendo — one of the Big Three — stopped holding its E3 keynote presentations in favor of livestreamed Nintendo Directs through its own channels. Through social media and streaming, publishers could reach their audiences more directly, and sometimes more effectively. They could execute game reveals and communicate updates on their own terms, all without the expensive costs of hotels, travel, and show floor booths.

As the years passed, E3’s relevance waned, becoming a shadow of what it once was. By 2019, PlayStation followed Nintendo’s footsteps by skipping the show altogether, and to make matters worse, the ESA accidentally leaked personal information such as addresses and phone numbers of thousands of journalists who had registered for the event. It was a massive security risk, eroding the trust that participants and partners had placed in the organizers. The convention’s future felt cloudier than ever. The red flags piled up, and Keighley could no longer ignore them by 2020.

“To me, the fact that PlayStation wasn’t going to be there the year that the PlayStation 5 was coming out was, you know… that’s not really E3, right?” Keighley says.

Keighley proposed a more digital and global approach. He spoke from experience, pointing to the growing numbers of digital viewers The Game Awards was accumulating each year. And while E3 already livestreamed its showcases, Keighley felt doubling down on the online side would be beneficial. He also noted E3’s identity crisis, veering further away from a business show and morphing into a consumer attraction as it opened its doors to the public in 2017. E3 was interested in reinventing itself, but ultimately, the two parties’ visions failed to align.

“E3 had this legacy that was challenging to figure out how to reinvent,” he says. “I had concerns about how the industry was going to be represented at that show. And I think it was vitally important to the industry in how gaming is represented to the wider world.”

Super Smash Bros. tournament during E3 2014 in the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Exactly how E3 hoped to revitalize itself as an industry show giant is something Keighley declined to share specifics on, explaining he feels it’s “not his place” since the 2020 show never happened. By February of that year, the ESA asked Keighley if he was still interested in hosting the E3 coliseum, or participating in the event at all. Keighley refused, and for the first time since its inauguration in 1995, he wouldn’t participate as either a consumer or partner.

“I just ultimately decided no,” he says. “It’s easier to make a clean break, which was a very difficult decision for me. [I started participating in E3] when I was 15 years old or something. So it was emotional for me.”

At first, Keighley was “not planning anything else” when he first split from E3. He considered taking time off to travel in Europe, but by mid March, a global pandemic struck. This guided him down a new path as industry events were canceled left and right. With E3 no longer in the cards, and with both industry professionals and consumers wondering how to prepare for the next generation of consoles, Keighley seized an opportunity.

He started talking to publishers, having ongoing discussions about what sort of summer gathering could be possible. Keighley would plan, they would talk, and then he’d pitch to companies like Nintendo and Sony — a collaborative process similar to how The Game Awards is built, he says. But with no travel options and publishers planning things months apart, finding a solution for everyone proved difficult.

“People couldn’t even figure out how to produce events at that point,” Keighley says. “I said, ‘Well, maybe we can gather everyone together for a new celebration of games that isn’t about one point in time, but really a season of events that has an organizing principle or an umbrella that would capture all the events across the summer.’”

That became the first Summer Game Fest, livestreamed over the course of four months in the summer of 2020. Since publisher events were often announced with only a couple days notice, it was unevenly planned and lacked much of a schedule. Keighley taught himself how to use livestreaming programs like Open Broadcast Software (OBS), and learned how to stream to Twitch and YouTube. He turned his home into a make-shift studio after buying lights, cameras, equipment, and upgrading his internet connection. And then he crossed his fingers.

Geoff Keighley’s first hands-on with the PlayStation 5 DualSense in 2020.

“It was daunting when I was streaming the PlayStation 5 DualSense reveal just off my PC, [because] there was no backup,” he said. “Usually, I’m used to having all these satellites and redundancies and things like that for The Game Awards. So I was like, ‘Hey, I hope the power doesn’t go out.’”

The following year, things went more smoothly. The four-month festival was reduced to a single month; Keighley had a better handle on livestreaming; and Summer Game Fest was able to rent out a stage with guests. The event showcased several big titles, premiering the first footage of FromSoftware’s Elden Ring and revealing Borderlands spin-off Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands.

For this year, Keighley has some more big reveals planned, with “lots of updates” for existing games and “fun surprises.”

Third Time’s the Charm

As he begins the third year of producing Summer Game Fest, Keighley promises a more “compact” show, as well as an in-person event limited to industry professionals and media to play newly announced video games in Los Angeles. A partnership with IMAX also allows viewers to watch the livestreams on the big screen with popcorn in hand. With E3 canceled for the second time, Keighley continues to hear his production dubbed the ‘new E3,’ ‘fake E3,’ and so on by both critics and fans — nicknames he has “conflicted emotions” about.

“I say to people, ‘When you compare it to E3, are you comparing it to the E3 that could have happened this year, or the E3 that happened 10 years ago?’” he says. “I think we all have this sort of wistful remembrance of E3 from 10 years ago, and all the insanity of that. I don’t think that’s a fair comparison, even to what we’re doing this year.”

Keighley says viewers can expect more third-party developers to showcase their games within Summer Game Fest 2022 rather than solely through their own platforms. This is optimistic, considering publishers like Square Enix had long, strewn-out livestreams with few surprises last year, which disappointed some viewers. Xbox and Bethesda have a merged showcase on their own platform, and Sony’s short State of Play occurred late last week, focusing on third-party and PlayStation VR2 announcements (along with the official reveal of Resident Evil 4 Remake). For the core Summer Game Fest show, Keighley says we can expect some more first-party reveals too.

Keighley told Fanbyte that over 30 different video games will be presented at the core event — many with “raw gameplay,” which hopefully means more trailers with longer gameplay sequences and fewer with just cinematics to show. He hoped to expand the games line-up to include more developers around the world to achieve a more global feel, but some of those titles “won’t be ready to debut new content” due to forces beyond the developers’ control.

This year’s event comes after a particularly tumultuous year as reports shed light on game studios with toxic work environments, harassment, and sexism behind their doors. Activision-Blizzard is facing a sexual harassment suit from the state of California and has had several high-profile resignations, among many other problems; indie studios like Funomena shuttered following crunch and poor management, and PlayStation is being sued for gender discrimination. And that only scratches the surface of labor issues rattling the industry.

Last year, Keighley made the decision to not include Activision-Blizzard in the Game Awards outside of nominations. Although he hasn’t confirmed whether the company will be present within Summer Game Fest 2022, he tells Fanbyte it’s a “big debate and question” and “something we certainly think about.”

“When does that change?” he says. “And who decides when it changes? And what’s the metric? Why do we decide? And are we in the business of banning companies from our shows, or individuals, or teams? And how do you go through that? It’s a constant dialogue that we’re having. Sadly, it’s not just Activision-Blizzard. There are lots of companies that have had their challenges in dealing with that.”

Overwatch 2 recently had its first PvP beta, following a tumultuous year for Activision-Blizzard.

He feels he has to be “mindful of the zeitgeist of what people are talking about, but also look at the games” and recognize the work and talent behind those games, which deserve recognition despite the executive failings of their corporation.

“Oftentimes, there are really talented developers working on games inside these companies, and how do you recognize the developers’ work?” he says. “It’s just like at the Game Awards, where it wasn’t like we pulled nominations from those companies. We talked about that. Like, ‘Is this fair to the developers that they lose their nominations?’”

Ultimately, The Game Awards decided against removing nominations. For Summer Game Fest, however, as there is no awards component, Keighley recognizes its “promotional” feel. With such a large platform to essentially market these games comes accountability. He is “trying to navigate it.”

“I get that we have a platform that is used to promote games,” he says. “But also, you get to decide if you want to buy the game or not. Certainly, we’re not telling people to buy anything. It’s similar to some of the game platforms. It’s not like they’re de-listing these games, but they’re obviously concerned about the situation.”

Keighley believes Activision-Blizzard’s situation has “evolved” since December’s airing of The Game Awards, especially as Microsoft announced it is acquiring the company for $68 billion in January. However, Activision-Blizzard’s Bobby Kotick remains CEO months later despite calls and petitions from employees for his resignation after his alleged mishandling of sexual harassment cases. Keighley doesn’t think the distressing labor issues within developer workplaces are “going to magically go away one day,” making these determinations all the more paramount.

“I still think it’s right to call out some of these challenges that we face,” he says. “But it also doesn’t mean that you call those out and then never refer to the company, or pull their nominations, or never allow them to showcase their content. It’s complicated. So, it’s part of a conversation — and I’m sure the conversation won’t end anytime soon.”

When deciding which games and teams to showcase, Keighley and his team make “editorial decisions” on whether a project is the right fit for a spot in Summer Game Fest. They discuss not just a game’s quality, but also the developers behind them, taking into account their gender, race, and more for inclusivity, as well as their larger studio’s culture — an approach he shares for The Game Awards.

“We have a platform and it’s the same thing we think about with Game Awards, right?” he says. “It’s always a debate about who’s winning the awards. We don’t decide who makes the games or who’s up for them, but it is concerning if you’re a young kid and you see a bunch of white males winning all the awards at an award show.”

For both shows, he and his team discuss who is put on stage and what the gender and racial balance is for different development teams. Because they don’t “assemble the game team,” he says it’s important to be thoughtful of that balance when the show is viewed by millions.

“We’re not always gonna get it perfect. There’s lots of factors that play into it, but we’re conscious of it, and people will always have comments on Twitter about this stuff. And we read it all.”

A Brighter Indie Spotlight 

During packed summer events like E3, indies have a hard time standing out. The show floor is crowded with flashy booths for big-budget AAA projects; smaller, more affordable booths are tucked to the side for indie developers and usually out of the way of passersby. During first-party streamed showcases, indie darlings sometimes get longer previews if they’re higher profile. However, most are jam-packed into lightning-fast trailer reels in favor of more screen time for popular IPs and juggernaut studios.

E3 has rarely been a favorable pit stop for small-time indie developers, and Summer Game Fest predictably also pays a lot more attention to AAA. But Keighley wants to carve out a bigger and better digital space for indies to promote their games to a larger audience, and he’s done so by partnering with Day of the Devs since 2020.

“We’ve really tried to find ways to organically and editorially integrate indie games into our programming,” he says. “Day of the Devs is the best example of this.”

If you’re unfamiliar with it, Day of the Devs is an annual event that showcases unreleased indie games from a wide range of developer applicants. Beginning in 2012, the event began as a means to show Kickstarter backers peeks at the development process for “Double Fine Adventure” (which later shipped as the game Broken Age). Eventually, it morphed into an event dedicated to indie games across the board in order to give them better exposure.

Day of the Devs began as a sneak peek for development progress updates on Broken Age.

Largely, it’s worked. The main Day of the Devs show in November has grown to reach thousands rather than hundreds. Summer Game Fest’s version drew over 700 indie developers to apply in June for a shot at showcasing their game in this year’s Day of the Devs livestream.

“We have long admired Day of the Devs, and worked with iam8bit and them to curate our Independent Evening event we did during our Judges Week for many years leading into E3, so it was a natural progression,” Keighley says.

The event, created and organized by production, publishing, and merchandise company iam8bit and developer/publisher Double Fine, was held in-person at separate venues during E3 and the Game Developers Conference until 2020. Attendees could show up for free, meet developers, and play their games. With live music, it’s all meant to feel like a “festival” rather than a convention. When the pandemic decimated any safe possibilities for in-person gatherings, Day of the Devs went online with the help of Summer Game Fest.

“Our alliance with Summer Game Fest was born [out] of a friendship with Geoff Keighley,” says iam8bit co-owner and co-creative director Amanda White through an email Q&A with Fanbyte.

Keighley and Day of the Devs organizers have discussed what the future of the industry may look like for prospective gaming events. One of the bigger issues they flagged was how indies struggle to gain traction when news, especially coming out of big shows, is so focused on AAA blockbusters. Gibson and White believe Summer Game Fest can “shine a big, voluminous spotlight on all different types of games.”

More on Summer Game Fest:

“We had often talked of putting on some kind of show in the summer, possibly adjacent to E3, but it was Summer Game Fest that brought us that opportunity,” says James Spafford, director of marketing and communications at Double Fine.

Day of the Devs has always operated independently, relying on funding through sponsorships from different game companies in order to keep the event free. Working under Summer Game Fest doesn’t change that. The partnership allows Day of the Devs to cast a much wider net with a bigger audience — it’s become the most-watched digital indie showcase ever, according to iam8bit — without sacrificing values.

“We want Day of the Devs to be as independent and non-partisan as possible, to allow us to show off games of any kind and genre, on any and every platform out there,” Spafford says.

“The trick here is that what we’ve created is completely agnostic: No favoritism, meaning no single company, regardless of sponsorship, gets to muscle their way in and control the content,” iam8bit co-owner and co-creative director Jon Gibson tells Fanbyte through email.

Looking to the Future

When the ESA canceled its planned E3 2022, no reason was given. The public was already aware of the in-person portion being canceled because of COVID-19 safety concerns, which was announced earlier, but a digital version of the event was expected to go on. Exactly why the online version was discontinued, though, was never deliberated. Fanbyte reached out to the ESA for comment and did not hear back by time of publication.

In its original statement about canceling the show, the ESA promised a “revitalized physical and digital E3” and an “all-new format and interactive experience” for summer of 2023. But it’s hard to feel optimistic when this is the show’s second cancellation in its history and it’s been on a downtrend for years.

Geoff Keighley says E3 and Summer Game Fest could potentially co-exist.

When Fanbyte asked Keighley about his sentiments regarding the future of E3, he was hesitant to divulge his thoughts. “I don’t know what the future holds for that brand, and I’m always open to discussions — but right now, I’m focused on Summer Game Fest.” He feels confident in Summer Game Fest’s future and believes it will only continue to grow in the coming years. When asked if E3 and Summer Game Fest could co-exist side-by-side, sort of like how it was in 2021, Keighley says, “potentially.”

“We’re focused this year on growing Summer Game Fest, but yeah, we work with Gamescom every year in Europe and we love working with those guys,” he says. Conceivably, there could be a way that everything all comes together, or we just continue to build Summer Game Fest.”

Keighley feels the organizers of E3 have been “somewhat unpredictable” with their direction and what they’re able to deliver. He is instead choosing to focus his efforts squarely on what he can control. Summer Game Fest is meant to be not just a celebration of video games, but also of that freedom.

“It’s nice to own our own destiny,” he says. “[It’s the] same thing I found with the Game Awards — it’s nice to be able to just be in control of it and not be waiting for other people to make decisions or plans. So yeah, we’re gonna keep doing what we do.”

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