As we approach E3 2019, I’ve been thinking a lot about the console wars, which I haven’t been personally invested in since I thought Staind was a deep band (about five years ago), but I’d be lying if I told you that the competition itself isn’t thrilling. Competition tends to bring out the best in its competitors and gamers have traditionally benefited from races between console manufacturers.
It’s why we always spend the weeks following E3 debating about who “won,” even as we remind ourselves that winning such an event is subjective. A company’s presence at E3 has never been about winning the war but rather about celebrating the thrill of the competition itself. So far as that goes, some companies just throw a better party than others.
Historically, few have thrown a better E3 party than PlayStation, which won’t be at the convention this year. E3 2019 won’t quite be the same without Sony.
Sony’s decision to skip E3 2019 is understandable. Times have changed and E3 has, for the most part, stayed the same in terms of its press briefing/expo structure. PlayStation’s own Shawn Layden put it best when he noted that companies used E3 in the old days to compete for space on the covers of magazines. In the age of information, there are simply too many avenues of information to pursue, to much time in the 24-hour news cycle, and enough outlets to ensure that everyone gets a spot on the front page.
What Layden glosses over, though, is how E3’s target audience has evolved. It’s not really an industry trade show anymore and hasn’t been for a long time. E3 has become more of a fan event. It’s a reason for gamers, developers, and media to gather in one place and celebrate the thrill of new game reveals as well as the best aspects of gaming culture itself.
Ironically, Sony is somewhat to “blame” for that transition. After all, the company was responsible for the very first truly great E3 moment when it undercut the reveal of the Sega Saturn by announcing that the PlayStation would be $100 cheaper than Sega’s upcoming console. It was a piece of industry business, but it was done with flair. It also sent a clear message that those who missed E3 would potentially miss out on the spectacle.
Sony’s love for dramatic E3 moments continued in the coming years. In 1996, Sony’s Jim Whims broke a supposed agreement by announcing an additional price drop to the PlayStation. In 1998, Sony sent outstretch Hummer limos decked out with Gran Turismo demos to the airport to pick up journalists and other notable guests. The company’s antics soon set a trend. Sega announced a Saturn price drop the same year as Sony and Nintendo hired the B-52s to play during the show’s opening night the same year that Sony hired the Foo Fighters to play on closing night.
Yet, no moment from Sony’s early E3 history topped what happened in 2000. Despite the hype around the upcoming sixth generation consoles, the hottest ticket that year was the new trailer for Metal Gear Solid 2. It was arguably the first year that a single game was the biggest draw of the show, but it was certainly the first time that a trailer had become the talk of the industry at an event that had primarily focused on hardware until that point.
That’s arguably Sony’s biggest contribution to E3 over the years: inspiring the competition to up their game. In 2003, Sony embarrassed Nintendo by teasing the release of the PSP as Nintendo was left touting the virtues of the suddenly aged Gameboy Advance SP. The very next year, Nintendo brought Reggie Fils Aime, the Nintendo DS, that legendary “mature” Zelda trailer, and the first mention of the Nintendo Wii. When Sony had a rare bad press conference in 2006, Microsoft was there to drink blood out of the water by showcasing Xbox Live Arcade, announcing that GTA IV was coming to Xbox 360, and showing off Gears of War.
In 2013, Sony returned the favor. A month after Microsoft’s infamous Xbox One reveal event, where the company unveiled the console’s ill-advised price point and controversial features, Sony dialed things back, showcasing the more affordable PS4 while emphasizing the console’s games. Sony’s strong showing had a dual effect.
For one, publishers (especially Microsoft) began focusing on games rather than on industry and tech talk. This eventually led to Bethesda’s memorable E3 2015 presentation in which the studio blew everyone away with Doom and Fallout 4, as well as the brilliant 2016 and 2017 PlayStation presentations that almost entirely eliminated industry chatter in favor of shutting up and showing the games.
Yet, that 2013 presentation also demonstrated that E3 has practical limits. Following the disastrous May reveal event, Microsoft had a very hard time redeeming the Xbox One’s initial innovations at E3. Perhaps they were a bit too ahead of their time, but they were also presented at a show where people want to be excited about the future and not scared of it. The Xbox One was clearly too much of a sharp turn in the other direction. Sony, meanwhile, came out swinging that year with a classic E3 presentation full of games, low prices, glitz, and simple messages.
Years later at E3 2018, Sony held a press conference that was outside of some of the norms it had previously established. It was a bit too elaborate, relied on games that had perhaps been shown too many times before, and required an elaborate setup involving live musical performances and a strange intermission right in the middle of the presentation. It was really awkward for those in attendance as well as the many gamers watching the live stream. Perhaps Sony had taken one risk too many.
The truth of the matter is that Sony is probably right to abandon E3 as we enter a future full of subscription services, relatively minor technological upgrades, disappearing exclusives, fewer surprise reveals, and consoles that no longer require discs. We’re entering an age where questions and answers are becoming more complicated, and it’s getting harder to put on the kind of shows that have defined E3 in the past. Besides, the rewards for putting on such spectacles are not quite as great as they used to be.
At a time when E3 is arguably still more about the fans than the presenters, though, I can’t help but feel that it’s the fans who suffer most from Sony’s absence at the show. It’s the company that showed us what kind of event E3 could be. Sony managed to be the pace car even in the years it wasn’t in the lead. Had Sony been at this year’s show, it probably wouldn’t have brought anything more exciting than some new footage from Ghost of Tsushima or The Last of Us Part II’s release date. But will the PS5’s eventual reveal feel the same without the bright lights of a show that taught us all to appreciate the thrill and benefits of putting gaming’s biggest names on the biggest stage?
The new PlayStation State of Play broadcasts, which are not unlike Nintendo’s Direct live streams, might be an indicator of what Sony has planned for the years to come. That is, directly reaching out to its fans online as opposed to in an expensive presentation. Sony hasn’t announced an E3 2019 State of Play broadcast yet, but it wouldn’t be too surprising if the company took advantage of the timing. But what would this mean for the future of E3? PlayStation’s decision to skip E3 entirely could become the last E3 trend it ever sets.