E3 Once Again Eschews a Physical Event in 2022

Despite plans for an in-person return, the ESA is assuming the Omicron COVID variant will make it too dangerous to reconvene.

When the Entertainment Software Association announced plans to reintroduce E3 as a physical event in 2022 last April, there was a lot of optimism about the proliferation of vaccines and the hopeful irrelevancy of the COVID virus by the time summer rolled around. Two variants, flagging vaccination milestones, and an ominous bevy of record case numbers later, it seems very clear that optimism is not going to bear fruit. The ESA has confirmed that E3 2022 will skip the physical event and will likely return only as a digital one for the third year in a row.

“Due to the ongoing health risks surrounding COVID-19 and its potential impact on the safety of exhibitors and attendees, E3 will not be held in person in 2022,” the ESA wrote in a statement sent to the press. “We remain incredibly excited about the future of E3 and look forward to announcing more details soon.”

The statement, which talks about the future of E3, has all the tone and tenor of a horse optimistically talking about how fast it’s going to run when its broken leg heals.

The name “E3” probably isn’t going anywhere, even if the event is long-dead in spirit. The weeklong showcase was once a place for retail game-buyers — your Wal-Marts, your GameStops, your Best Buys — to figure out what games releasing in the coming year to buy for their stores. As it became more and more of a gaming news event, and then a public streaming one, the added glitz and glamour made the whole thing a spectacular bubble that inevitably had to burst someday. The fact that it was a deadly virus and not continually increasing costs and logistical challenges is kind of immaterial to the end result.

In recent years before E3 was shut down by the COVID virus, multiple partners were already turning sour on the ESA’s ever-engorging event. Sony, arguably the largest platform-holder in the industry, backed away from E3 a few years ago in favor of its own live events, a hole it has mostly filled with State of Play streams. Geoff Keighley, a former ESA partner and head of the E3 Judge’s Week event, split from the organization around the same time and started up the blithely-titled Summer Games Fest — which used today’s news as an opportunity to say that they too will be back circa E3 time this year.

By and large, no video game publisher has been clamoring — publicly, at least — for a return to the LA Convention Center. The ESA as a lobbying organization made up of these publishers finds itself desperate for the revenue and attention of E3, going so far as to inserting a fake branded event into the movie Space Jam: A New Legacy, and no actual partners in its body wanting to bring E3 back to its former glory.

Because, well, why? Why spend millions on booths and risk your staff and spend months creating playable vertical slices that could easily create bad or at minimum incomplete impressions of your game when you could just not? We’ve had years at this point of streaming events and game sales haven’t dipped at all at this point. What does E3 as an event actually provide?

It is worth mentioning that this year’s E3 cancellation is actually the correct call. With Omicron-variant COVID cases surging, it’s probably wise not to have what would undoubtedly be a superspreader event even among the vaccinated in the summer. But there’s no phoenix rising from the ashes story here, nor will there be one in 2023, even if E3 does somehow miraculously open physical doors once again. The early closing is correct, but it also signals that perhaps buy-in from its members was not super high.

According to IGN, the ESA had never put E3 on the calendars with the Los Angeles Convention Center and uncharacteristically never actually dated the convention publicly, something it did every summer without fail prior to the pandemic. This does not sound like the acts of an organizer that was going full-steam-ahead on a planned event until a very recent COVID surge changed their minds.

I hope E3 does return to its former glory, but I sure as hell don’t expect it.