The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) turns 22 years old this year, and it’s celebrating with a first by giving the public access for the biggest gaming event of the year.
This year, over 68,400 attendees (15,000 of them from the general public), 293 exhibitors and over 2,000 products worked its way through the turnstiles of the Los Angeles Convention Center to see the latest and greatest in games and hardware, which started Tuesday when LA mayor Eric Garcetti kicked off the event with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
However, not all publishers and brands are playing in the proverbial sandbox. More companies are kicking the tires on one-to-one activations around the city. Some are avoiding the E3 pomp and circumstance altogether. Others are leveraging it as part of an integrated, multi-location strategy. Their approach remains focused, yet simple—it taps into fan FOMO and gives consumers a chance to completely immerse themselves with a brand, thus creating even more loyalty and advocacy.
Industry titan Electronic Arts unofficially kicked off E3 with its own event for the second consecutive year. EA Play, which took place at the Hollywood Palladium from Saturday through Monday, invited thousands of fervent EA followers for their own fan fest.
“Last year we went out on a limb to do something a little different with a view to change the way you interact with products before they launch,” EA CEO Andrew Wilson said during a press conference. “We wanted to do something that put the games in your hands earlier and it showed us how much further we could go . . . playing, creating and sharing with the rest of the world. We built [EA Play] this way for a very simple reason—we want more of you to experience this moment.”
Attendees were able to tour the pop-up space and be the first to try their hand at EA’s newest lineup of games, including Star Wars Battlefront II, FIFA 18, Madden NFL 18, NBA Live 18, Need for Speed, The Sims 4 and Battlefield 1: In The Name of the Tsar.
For those not in Los Angeles, EA recruited over 300 video game influencers and content creators to challenge the brand and share the stories with their own communities. The opening night festivities culminated with a one-hour performance with hip-hop artists Nas and Dave East.
EA was back at their Redwood City, California headquarters before E3 officially kicked off—they were not one of the “participating companies” for the expo—but that wasn’t the case for Bethesda Softworks and game megaliths like Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo and Ubisoft, who paired their pre-E3 press announcements with prime presence on the convention floors.
Bethesda bypassed a sans-E3 strategy by complementing their carnival-like efforts with a cavernous space at E3, too. They hosted a private playground dubbed “Bethesdaland” on Sunday, minutes away from downtown LA. Their press conference, led by Pete Hines, Bethesda’s global vice president of PR and marketing, doubled as a concert featuring a performance by electro-pop duo The Chainsmokers.
Games news and marketing activations were breaking all over Tinseltown.
On Sunday, Chinese games conglomerate Tencent took over The Avalon in Hollywood to announce their content deal with Discovery Channel and the making of the forthcoming documentary Games Vision. However, the world’s largest player in today’s gaming landscape swiftly left the city before E3 even started.
“E3 is always about sharing new trends and technologies and how brands are designing new and high-quality games. It gives us a chance to work with new titles and ideas while reworking our own strategy for our communities,” Mars Hou, vice general manager of marketing for Tencent Interactive Entertainment, told AListDaily. “Although Tencent as a brand does not have presence there, our games do, and Tencent executives are there to meet with other companies to carry on discussions.”
Brands like Atari, LucidSound and Evil Controllers, among countless others, skipped the show floors altogether for more intimate gatherings at adjacent locations like the nearby JW Marriott.
Dan Hewitt, vice president of media relations and event management for the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the organizing body of E3, said brands and exhibitors outside of the ones they host are leveraging the dates around E3 to stage their own events.
“If it wasn’t for E3 being in Los Angeles this week they wouldn’t be having those events,” Hewitt said. “We certainly welcome them to the show. But if they decide that they want to have their own events then that is certainly something that they can do. Those are additives to the overall E3 experience. It’s not up to us to make a determination about what is the right or wrong way to market because each company has their own individual goals and metrics for success.”
Games publisher Devolver Games has been avoiding the halls of E3 for years by hosting a competing indie picnic. They rent out an entire parking lot near the Convention Center and promote their games with a separate industry gathering. With the expo open to the public this year, they had grandiose plans to appeal to their wide audience by renting a bigger space and expand the production with a “mega-booth.” But they had to pull the plug and uninvite the public portion of their guest list because their permits were denied.
Devolver had secured leases on both private- and city-owned lots that were right next to each other. The city-owned lot was previously occupied by the ESA in years past, who parked 18-wheelers as a “blockade” of the renegade operation, according to Mike Wilson, co-founder of Devolver.
Wilson says that after the ESA realized that they forgot to secure the city-owned space this year, as had been common, the ESA allegedly pulled strings with city officials, and the city denied Devolver’s permits. Instead of using the extra space they had secured for the fan-facing event, now Devolver could only park cars there. Wilson says that although they’re a small company who can’t afford exhibitor space at E3, they were seen as a “threat” by the ESA.
“We don’t want to go away quietly and act like nothing ever happened,” Wilson told AListDaily. “It might completely [create problems] for us next year, but in principle, it’s important enough to tell the truth about what happened. It sucks to be bullied.”
Hewitt denied that the ESA played any part in Devolver’s permits being cancelled.
“I think there might be a one-sided grudge match going on,” Hewitt said. “I have nothing bad to say about Devolver, or anything. I can tell you specifically that the ESA put no pressure and pulled no strings. We spent zero energy or focus on that. I think that Devolver thinks that we did. Our focus and our energy is on the 290-plus exhibitors and the 68,000 attendees that we have inside the buildings of E3. We don’t have the time or the energy to go and make life difficult for Devolver. We’d love to have them in the event, and that’s their decision that they don’t want to be.”
Meanwhile, across the street from the Convention Center, Twitch and T-Mobile joined allegiances for a three-day outdoor esports arena, and the ESA and veteran games journalist Geoff Keighley produced the E3 Coliseum at LA Live, a two-day long event that connected fans with celebrities through a variety of panels.
“We wanted to provide a showcase for people in other entertainment industries like music, film and television to talk about their love of video games and the intersection between video games and their industries,” Hewitt said. “It’s another opportunity for consumers and our attendees to connect. So that was the genesis for the E3 Coliseum.”
One of the discussions that took place there was “World Builders,” a keynote with comedian Chris Hardwick that covered building worlds across entertainment mediums, with a focus on video games. Hardwick was joined by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who revealed details on the forthcoming release of Space Odyssey, a real-time strategy gaming experience of space exploration and colonization made in partnership with Space Media Ventures.
“The idea behind the whole Space Odyssey franchise is that it continues to expand, just like the universe, in complementary ways,” Mark Murphy, partner and creative director for Space Media Ventures told AListDaily. “Neil is very hands-on. Conceptually, we’ll come up with ideas. The experience is impactful both on the gaming side, but exceptionally relevant on the science side.”
As E3 experiments with public access this year, the show’s model continues to shape and take mold in new formats. The games dust will settle soon after the week ends, and the ESA will unpack sentiment both from the perspective of the public, and brands that participated.
“It definitely was a good move for us to open the doors and bring the consumers in. The response has been very positive,” Hewitt said. “Every single E3 is different than the previous one. And it’s because we literally start from zero and look at every aspect of the event to ensure that we’re still hitting our marks for our attendees and our exhibitors. If you’re wondering ‘what is E3 going to look like in 2018,’ I can tell you that it’s going to be a remarkable event full of high energy and high investment.”
Follow Manouk Akopyan on Twitter @Manouk_Akopyan