E3’s Death Is Good for Gaming and Bad for Gamers

E3 2023 is canceled, and E3 itself may be gone forever. The decision makes a lot of sense for an ever-growing gaming industry, but it makes a little less sense for gamers grappling with a strange sense of loss.

Photo: Frederic J. Brown/Getty

You’ve probably heard the news. E3 2023 has been canceled, and the future of E3 itself is very much in doubt. There is some hope that E3 could return in some form, but pretty much everyone agrees that E3 as we knew it is probably gone forever. 

When I heard the news, I didn’t think of E3. Not right away. Instead, I thought about a video store.

See, I used to work at a video store in Manhattan. Due respect to my current employer, but it was the best job I ever had. The pay was lousy, but the work was easy and the atmosphere was irreplaceable. For most of the day, I talked about movies with employees and customers who loved them most. They loved them so much, in fact, that they were still coming to a video store long after video stores had popularly been declared dead.  

You probably know where this is going. The video store I worked at also shut down as pretty much everyone expected it would from the moment I took the job. Some employees stayed with the company as they tried a new venture and many more left. It was disappointing, but it wasn’t a shock. There were no illusions about which way the industry was going. 

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It was different for the customers. I always got the impression that our regulars relied on their trips to that store more than they may have cared to admit. You even got the sense that, for some of them, the video store was quite possibly one of the only places they visited outside of their home and almost certainly one of the only places they enjoyed visiting outside of their own home. 

I always wondered what happened to them after that store closed. After all, there weren’t really any video stores left. Where did they go? Where did they look forward to going? Did the world feel a little more empty now that this strange kind of temple to their interests and the community they built around it was just gone? It probably sounds silly, but I know it sometimes felt that way for me. It was another in a string of ways the world sometimes seems to ask, “Are you sure this whole (*gestures broadly*) thing is for you?”

If you happen to follow our website (thank you, by the way), you may know I’ve publicly been an E3 doomsayer for quite some time. Privately, I’ve probably been even more adamant about E3’s pending demise. Then again, you never had to look hard to see the signs that E3 has been on its last legs. The pandemic obviously didn’t help, but E3’s problems go back further than that. 

After all, E3 was established in 1995 as an industry event for a much different video game industry. It was a way for consumers, studios, and sellers to create bridges of communication and distribution that had never really been there before. That E3 grew into a spectacle is a testament to both the growth of the industry since that time and the desire for gamers to participate in such a spectacle. 

In its prime, E3 was almost a mythical concept for many. Those too young to get jobs in the industry would try to scheme their way into getting an E3 invite by running hastily assembled blogs designed to help pass them off as proper “media.” I know I did. When you didn’t get to go, you resorted to waiting for updates via dial-up internet connections. They were like transmissions from another world that proved that we were not alone in our universe. Studios were more than happy to fill the show with the latest announcements that they didn’t yet have a better platform for, and the organizers were certainly happy about the money the whole thing drew. The glory days of E3 are closely tied to the commercial necessity of the thing. It was the same with video stores. It’s a realization that shouldn’t diminish the cultural impact of the show or your memories of it. It just…was.

The necessity of E3 was the first thing to go. As coverage opportunities expanded, and the cost of E3 suddenly felt disproportionate to the results, it was pretty easy for studios to justify scaling back and, eventually, remove themselves from the event entirely. Those who remained often battled prolonged development and news cycles that didn’t always gel with what E3 had become. Some resorted to teasing projects years ahead of their intended release (looking at you, Elder Scrolls 6) while the strategy of cooking up “E3 footage” that may or may not represent the final product remained popular for too many years. The whole thing became a burden it was never meant to be. All the while, expectations for E3 remained high. Everyone was still expected to deliver something special, but delivering it in a way that made sense for everyone involved was suddenly much more difficult. 

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There are many (too many) examples of people clinging onto an institution long after that institution has stopped fulfilling its intended purpose. People and institutions are slow to accept and facilitate change, which is why they often get along pretty well. From an industry perspective, it’s long been time for E3 to be replaced with whatever comes next. In recent years, the event has contributed more to crunch culture, disappointing delays, prolonged release/news cycle dry spells, and the pressure to present sometimes disingenuous early footage than it has to the advancement of the industry and the benefit of those in it.

E3 was leaning hard one way as gaming was generating tremendous force in the other. The snap was bound to happen, and you’ll probably find a lot of people in every aspect of the gaming industry who will at least privately tell you that they’re relieved it finally happened. The tension was becoming unbearable. 

Yet, I keep thinking about those video store customers. It made every bit of sense in the world for many of the last video stores to shut down around the time they were. Netflix and other forms of digital distribution made that clear. Even the regulars probably used those digital services.

However, all the logic in the world can’t properly fill the void of a certain feeling. The touch of the products, the thrill of seeing what was new on the shelves or in the used bin, the joy of talking to (or even seeing) the regulars and employees who looked at you like you belonged there because you felt like you belonged there. That feeling doesn’t go away so easily, and it becomes more and more powerful the longer that you live without it. Some will tell you that you can always fill that void with something else, and they’re right. However, those people are often woefully misguided regarding how easy that can be or even if the new thing will fit the void quite right. It’s more likely you’ll fill it with worries before you replace it with something as meaningful.

In the same way, I wonder about those who had the pleasure of experiencing E3’s glory days. Yes, there are other industry events, but the organizers of those events will tell you that they are not what E3 once was. Yes, there are digital reveal live streams, but none of those live streams have been what E3 once was. Those who got to attend (or even regularly attend) E3 have their own stories about what E3 meant to them, but even those who only saw the event from home will soon feel its absence.

Being a gamer may not feel as lonely as it could when E3 started, but loneliness isn’t the only kindling for excitement. Even modern gamers with so many ways to connect to gaming and to each other found cause to celebrate this event that created a genuine and powerful energy. What would we see, when was it coming, and who would be there…even E3’s worst moments were often worth sharing.

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The shared idea that E3 was a spectacle was often enough to elevate it to that status long after its actual luster had faded. It was an annual refresh of the passion and excitement that draws many to gaming, and it reached even those who perhaps only thought about the greater gaming industry once a year. Maybe it was only ever a feeling during those final years when things were looking grim, but it was a damn good one, and good feelings sadly don’t always come as regularly as E3 once did. 

I don’t think anything can ever replace E3 as it was. In fact, I’m pretty sure the same reasons E3 shut down are the same reasons nothing will replace E3 as it was. If anything, E3’s death is a sign of the gaming industry being stronger and bigger than ever. It can no longer be contained by such an antiquated concept for an event. Everyone’s moving on, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

Yet, anyone who knows me knows that I always say I’d open a video store if I had enough money. I wouldn’t even want to make a profit from it. It’d be closer to a public service for those who need that sense of belonging that such places and things can give them. The desire to belong is a powerful urge that can help you understand the entirety of humanity. Belonging in your town, in your home, in your profession/hobby, or even belonging in your own body. Your version of that desire doesn’t have to be the same as someone else’s, and you don’t even have to understand their own. You just need to accept and respect the power of anything that instills that feeling, no matter how silly or small. 

I’ll miss the power E3 had to instill that feeling so much more than I’ll miss the practicality of the event. Gaming outgrew E3, and no bit of dust on the bottles romanticism will change that. Something will fill that space on the calendar, and something will certainly fill the halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center. I just wonder how many more things like E3 can go away before we realize that losing these various embodiments of our passions out in the real world, no matter how practical they may be, can make that world feel a little more lonely.