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The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) disappeared from the landscape during the pandemic, as it just wasn’t possible to gather 65,000 people in downtown Los Angeles last June. The Entertainment Software Assocation (ESA) canceled the event outright, but this year it will hold an all-digital E3 from Saturday June 12 to Tuesday June 15.

Industry stalwarts such as Microsoft (with Bethesda), Ubisoft, Square Enix, Capcom, Bandai Namco, and Take-Two Interactive are showing up at the online event to reveal their big games coming out this year or later.

I spoke about the event with ESA CEO Stanley Pierre-Louis, the game publisher trade group that puts on the show. We talked about the structure of the new digital E3, which will have 40 or so companies present on a back-to-back schedule from Saturday through Tuesday. Pierre-Louis said it was important to get the big companies there as well as to show some diversity through the indies who will be on the digital stage for the first time. He talked about the fact that the digital show will reach wider crowds than ever around the world through streaming partners, and he shared some of the ESA’s policy priorities and diversity focus. We even talked a bit about the trade show metaverse.

We also touch on the absence of Sony, Activision Blizzard, and Electronic Arts as well as the value of showing up at a time when all the world’s eyeballs are on games. One of the new things this year is a virtual expo floor as well as an awards show that comes at the end of E3.

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Before E3, we’ll see today’s Summer Games Fest created by Geoff Keighley, who isn’t part of the big show this year. But GamesBeat will be there. I’m moderating a session with some familiar names on Saturday morning on the official E3 channel, and Jeff Grubb and Mike Minotti of GamesBeat will have a podcast at 2:45 p.m. Pacific time on Saturday on the official E3 channel.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Stanley Pierre-Louis is CEO of the Entertainment Software Association.

Above: Stanley Pierre-Louis is CEO of the Entertainment Software Association.

Image Credit: ESA

E3 2021

GamesBeat: How is your first digital event turning out?

Stanley Pierre-Louis: We’re excited about the show and about being able to present a different E3 for audiences around the world.

First and foremost, we’re happy to be having an E3 together. Last year we had to cancel because of COVID. Everyone understood that. One thing we heard from media and from fans was that it would be great if we could convene around an event. E3 seems to be doing that. It’s the center of gravity for our events, and we’ve seen others trying to draft off of it, because it has the force of bringing people together. We’re excited that it is that center of gravity. We have great companies participating — Xbox, Nintendo, Capcom, Square Enix, Warner, Ubisoft. We also have indies participating. That’s exciting.

The other thing is, because this is a digital program, we’ll have additional programming around it, including some panel discussions about games and game development, also about topics of the day. We’re trying to do it in a light fashion. We want to reflect what the community is talking about, but we also want to honor the spirit of E3, which is to celebrate games and have fun. For the first time we’ll have hosts. Since this is a four-day event, we thought it would add some continuity to have people guide us through the experience.

We’re excited about seeing how that goes and what learning we can have for future E3s that will probably, necessarily, have to be hybrid in some way. People appreciate a live event and being able to convene, but more people want to access it than can get to it. If we can work out the right formula to reach audiences in a broad way and an exciting way, while preserving the excitement of being together in person, that would be an ideal outcome for E3.

GamesBeat: How many companies are participating? How does that compare to the 2,000 companies that usually used to arrive?

Pierre-Louis: There are around 40 companies participating in some way, shape, or form. In this kind of setting, that makes a lot of sense, because it’s sequential, as opposed to simultaneous, the way it would be with a physical event. It also allows for a diversity of presentations, what people are sharing and what they want the audiences to know today versus later. They have to think about how they sequence their announcements all along. Different companies now have different product release dates, game release dates and the like. E3 has been able to fit into their marketing cycles, which we’re excited about. We’re also looking to use E3 to share messages about who we are as a community. All those things make for an exciting show.

E3 2019

Above: We won’t be in L.A. to see signs like this for E3 2021.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: That process of narrowing down to about 40, was that a painful one? Or did you wind up having fewer people rushing in to do this?

Pierre-Louis: Different companies had different experiences with their digital presentations. Some hadn’t done them before and some had done them before. We were able to bridge gaps with those who wanted some of the expertise our team could bring, but also harness the power of some of the brands that do this uniquely well on a global stage. It’s a mix of various needs, and we were excited about the companies who wanted to participate and engage in this digital format. We’ll take that learning into the next E3 to see what works and if we want to carry over, particularly for the audiences who can’t make it.

GamesBeat: I’m glad to see the representation of indies in the show. That should generate some goodwill, I think.

Pierre-Louis: They’re doing a lot of exciting things in terms of distribution, in terms of monetization. A lot of good and different stories will get showcased because of E3 that otherwise might not have been.

Who’s missing?

GamesBeat: Is it still tough to not have EA and Activision Blizzard and Sony there?

Pierre-Louis: We want to provide a platform for the companies who find the value in marketing in this fashion. As the ESA, we want to make sure that all of our members, but also all video game companies, have a platform to showcase video games. Being able to showcase the positive power of games writ large is a very great story for our industry to be able to tell, and E3 plays a key role in that. We want to make sure we’re providing that platform.

GamesBeat: The argument in favor of participating, I guess, would be that there’s more eyeballs on games during this week than a lot of other times, and so it’s good to participate, because you’ll be part of that.

Pierre-Louis: What E3 does, and what convening all these companies in one place does, is it brings your audience and it brings other audiences to what you’re doing. That’s one of the big values of E3 in any year, but particularly in this year, when it’s digital, being able to harness various audiences is exciting. Gamers love particular games. We all love games, but people also have games that they play with friends or with family or on their own. Bringing that passion to games you may not be aware of, or companies you’re not as familiar with, is exciting. E3 provides that opportunity in a condensed way.

GamesBeat: Based on what you know, what are you looking forward to? What’s interesting to you about the presentations?

Pierre-Louis: I can’t speak to the presentations, because I think we’ll all get to see them together. What I like is that there’s a variety, and so there’s something for everyone. As I mentioned, we have triple-A titles and we have indie titles. Providing opportunities for them to co-exist and get billing on this platform in a way that’s unique for E3 is exciting. We’ll also have these conversations that reflect a lot of what’s going on today. That’s an innovation that’s different than in previous years. We had panel discussions in the past. They weren’t on the main stage. They were mainly focused on particular games that were in development. This will have more variety in the kinds of conversations that happen. And of course we’ll have hosts. I love the fact that there’s a variety of presentations and programming, and that we’re allowing people to join in this unique way.

Looking back

Fortnite booth at E3 2019

Above: Fortnite had a big booth at 2019’s E3.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: Looking at the contrast between this year and last year, was it simply more experience with digital that prompted you to go ahead with it this time?

Pierre-Louis: Last year we cancelled in March. That left a very limited window in which to organize an E3. That was true for the companies as well. For them to figure out what to showcase — many of these companies are thinking about E3 six, eight, 10 months out. And not just E3. I should say they’re thinking about their product release cycle months in advance. Switching to a new format means you have to think about how this impacts the rest of your cycle. Last year, it was just the timing crunch that made it difficult to organize all the companies who wanted to participate.

We had more time this year. We were also able to make an earlier decision that this would be a digital show, given the risks of trying to plan an in-person event, even 10 months out. Once we made that decision, it crystallized for folks, what the opportunity would be and how they could organize around a digital show.

GamesBeat: There are some new things here. You have the official awards show. GamesBeat gets to do a session, which is nice. What sort of thinking went into the things that are new for digital?

Pierre-Louis: We wanted to harness the things that people liked about E3 proper, but also some of the things they were looking for in E3, to see how it works in this format. It’s a different kind of programming, and it shines a light for the audience on what the media reviewers are anticipating in the game releases for the coming year. We wanted to bring in a lot of what people see at E3, even if it hasn’t been part of traditional E3, and see how it resonates and whether it’s something we continue in the physical format. This is an audience that’s not shy about sharing its feelings and ideas about the presentations, and we want to harness that to make sure that we’re producing and reflecting a program that’s in tune with where the audience is.

The weekend experiment

Bethesda's event at E3 2019

Above: Bethesda had its own event at E3 in years past. This year, it’s part of Microsoft’s.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: The weekend format, does that suit consumers a bit better, so they don’t have to watch during work?

Pierre-Louis: It’s one thing we wanted to try and see how it works. Doing it over the weekend allows people to engage at a deeper level. We also saw that some of the presentations over the past year were done on weekends, so we’re trying to harness a bit of all of that.

GamesBeat: The schedule came in kind of hot. Is it a bit like herding cats, trying to get all the companies to commit to times?

Pierre-Louis: We like to share what we’re cleared to share. How’s that? We want to ensure that each of the presenters, each of the participants in the program, are able to market the way they want to market, and that also allows people the ability to see what’s coming when.

Gamifying the expo

GamesBeat: There was meme about sharing personal information with E3 on Twitter. What was some of the thinking around gamifying the expo and participation there?

Pierre-Louis: Let me talk a bit about the portal. One innovation we wanted to try was to see if people had an interest in connecting with one another as part of the show, and also gamifying part of it to see if that resonated with the audience. No personal information is being shared. There is the capability of participants to create avatars or profiles and connect with people who may have like interests. They share as much or as little information as they want, and only that gets shared, but no personal information gets shared with others. It’s a profile you create as you want, and you can withdraw at any time. You can go on as your avatar and talk to people in that fashion.

There was some confusion about the issue of personal information. Really, it’s not — it’s just the information you want to share in the “About Me” section with anyone who may want to connect with others who have similar interests. There will be some forums where people can connect and talk about some of the issues of the day, or some of the panels or some of what they’re seeing. It was an opportunity to see if people had that interest. We’ll listen to the feedback and see where it leads.

The trade show metaverse?

The metaverse is ready for you -- if you are prepared to be responsible.

Above: The metaverse is ready for you — if you are prepared to be responsible.

Image Credit: Unit 2 Games Limited

GamesBeat: With the gamification, was there any exploration of the whole metaverse idea that we like to talk about? Could we do a gaming event that should be fun and should be entertaining inside some kind of virtual place? I don’t know if you’ve explored that and found that we’re not quite there yet, but is there interest in heading that direction?

Pierre-Louis: We certainly weren’t taking a foray into the metaverse per se, because that’s such a complex undertaking. Given that we’re the leaders in this space, all the work that goes into it and how complex it is, putting that together for a four-day event would be tough. But there is this concept of, could you do a show within a show? Or within a platform that’s interesting? That’s an intriguing idea. It’s not something we explored for this year, but I do think there are some interesting opportunities to explore what gamification means for this kind of an event. Our intent was really to allow people to connect with one another and build communities, more so than entering into the metaverse.

GamesBeat: It feels like the trade show format has the opportunity to go deeper into that area than we are today: the interactivity, being able to do meetings with people in the expo, taking that step in that direction. I’d be interested to see where the thinking goes, what kind of feedback you get, and what happens next year and in years beyond.

Pierre-Louis: We’re trying a few different things to see what works. We’re excited to see what the fans have to say. But we know that today’s savvy user engages online in multiple ways. They like being part of communities. They also enjoy connecting with other people and learning what they’re seeing, hearing their opinions, sharing memes. E3 is thinking about all of these things, but we’re trying to execute at the highest level on what we can do at the highest level.

The ESA’s policy focus

The darker areas have the most video game jobs.

Above: The darker areas have the most video game jobs.

Image Credit: ESA/Teconomy Partners

GamesBeat: Is there a point where you get a chance, during these four days, for the ESA to get its message across? Where are you doing that? 

Pierre-Louis: We’re using E3 mainly to market, but we will have opportunities within some of the panel discussions to talk about who we are as a community. More about the conversations of the day than about, “These are our top five policy priorities.” When you’re trying to showcase what’s best in games and where we’re going as an industry — we want to make sure we’re reflecting the conversations people are having, but we also want to make sure that what makes E3 fun stays fun. What makes E3 exciting stays exciting. That’s a focus on games, game development, product releases. Our focus is on ensuring that message gets out.

GamesBeat: So it’s not going to be a policy event. But speaking of policy, though, are there things on your mind that you’d like to get across? Things that are priorities for the game industry now.

Pierre-Louis: One of the things that has come out of the pandemic is the fact that games meant so much to people. In many ways it has enlightened people to the power that games have, the healing power of games, the connectivity of it, the fun it brings. Many policy makers are seeing games in a different light, and that allows us to do our jobs more effectively. If you had a kid or a cousin or another family member playing games, and you saw how meaningful that was, how meaningful that community was, it changes your perspective on where games are. We also have more people coming into office who played games growing up. They have a very different view of games than those who were in office 20 or 30 years ago. That’s been exciting.

We’re continuing to focus on all the federal and state issues we care about, everything from intellectual property protection and trade and privacy to ensuring that the marketplace allows for experimentation in how we deliver our content and services to consumers. We continue to do all those things. But the pandemic has created more of an understanding around games and what they do.

We’ve also had positive stories around the economic impact of the video game industry on jobs, on creating opportunities for people in different industries, through our economic report. That meant something to people at a time when they were looking for a positive story out of the pandemic. Games being a part of the positive cycle was meaningful to people.

More diversity

ESA Foundation scholars at E3 2019.

Above: ESA Foundation scholars at E3 2019.

Image Credit: ESA Foundation

GamesBeat: Will this schedule in some way reflect some of that emphasis on talent and recruiting and diversity that you’ve been talking about a lot?

Pierre-Louis: There will definitely be discussion in some way, shape, or form around diversity, equity, and inclusion within E3, in some of those discussions. We thought it was important to showcase where our industry is and what our thinking is. Not as ESA, but as the people who make up the industry. We think it’s important to highlight those conversations so that we as a community can acknowledge where we are and where we can go, and that it’s part of all the things we care about. We’ll definitely take moments to showcase those things.

GamesBeat: What do you think absorbing all of the change in the industry that’s happening now, all the deal-making that’s happened — Ed Fries was telling me that he was in contact with 80 or more game-focused venture funds now. From a couple of different sources, I hear that the first quarter’s worth of deals for acquisitions, investment, and public offerings was greater than it was for all of last year. It’s this unprecedented amount of financial activity around games and the industry now. What do you think about what’s happening?

Pierre-Louis: Our ambition, our focus as ESA tends to be more on policy issues than economics. The only observation I’ll make is that investors are always looking for growth opportunities, and if they’re coalescing around games, then it means that from their perspective, the trend of growth will continue. It’s unclear whether the same case will continue from this past year, but the trend lines for over a decade have been growth. They must be seeing the same things that our industry has been seeing.

Gaming conquers all

More data on gamers

Above: More data on gamers

Image Credit: ESA

GamesBeat: Are we fairly confident when we say that gaming is the biggest entertainment industry now, in many different ways of looking at it?

Pierre-Louis: I’ve heard it explained that way. I’m trying to answer this in the right way. The video game industry — I don’t know where we stand with respect to all of television. And when I say that I mean all the streaming services and everything else. I don’t know how you bundle all of those. But when you talk about the traditional media and traditional modes of entertainment that people gravitate toward, gaming is the largest medium. Whether you look at it by revenue or by number of people who are playing, which is 1-in-3 around the world, it’s an enormous amount of people playing games. It’s certainly the largest form of entertainment when you look at it through traditional means.

GamesBeat: I thought you were going to say, “We’ve done a slam dunk on Hollywood.”

Pierre-Louis: I don’t know how you gauge that. I can’t tell you how Netflix and Hulu and all of those combine. That creates a new window for a lot of programming. I don’t want to overstate the case if I don’t have those numbers. But some people will say it’s the largest in the world period. Depending on how you define it, that’s a true statement.

GamesBeat: It’s a good time to be in the industry.

Pierre-Louis: It is. And it’s a great time for people who love games to be in games, because great games are still coming out, as we’ll see at E3. There’s a lot to come, even though we have a great store of games already. There’s even more coming.

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