The History of E3

It’s that time of year again! The time for video game fans around the world to get excited! It’s the Electronic Entertainment Expo!!! But how exactly did E3 begin and how did it become this gaming destination as we know it today? New host, Preston Willke, has the answers!

Episode Transcription

Hello and welcome to Level Zero! This is the show that doesn’t really cover “current events” from the video game industry, but instead explores the history of the defining things in the industry. I am your host, Greg Griffith, and on this episode, the history of E3  and what it’s all about. Let’s go!

Do you ever get really excited when you see a trailer for something upcoming? Maybe you’re sitting in a movie theater and find yourself more excited for the movies to come out than the movie you’re about to watch.

Of course with movies there is always a steady rollout of new movies and along with it, a stead rollout of trailers for those upcoming movies.

When it comes to video games though, these trailers and announcements are mostly consolidated into a single exciting, week long event. And if you are a big fan of video games, this is the event that you look forward to every single year.

And to tell you all about this event and the history of how it came to be, I am excited to introduce Level Zero’s newest partner and co-host of the show. Preston Willke has the story….

E3. A wonderful time of year. What I, and many others like to call Gamer Christmas. Surprise reveals, gameplay showcases, awkward stage presences, and – hopefully – a sweet dance number from Ubisoft. That’s right, we’re talking about the big one. The Expo that, at its peak, drew 70,000 attendees, and has showcased almost all the major game releases we remember fondly to this day. 

It’s the Electronic Entertainment Expo. But how exactly did E3 begin and how did it become this gaming destination as we know it today? 

If you’re anything like me, you may not know the answer to these questions. If you’re anything like the man, the myth, the cheese that usually hosts, you may remember the early days, but not quite know the full story. Either way, let’s find out together!

Before we begin, my main source for this history is Polygon’s article “The Story of the First E3” by Colin Campbell which has much more information if you’d like to know more about this touchstone of entertainment

To talk about E3, we need to first talk about the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, which acted as a sort of predecessor to E3. At CES, major electronics brands would congregate to show off their latest tech innovations, wowing both the consumer and their shareholders. Unfortunately, at the time, video games were still largely considered children’s toys, and, therefore, tucked away by the CES execs in a small tent on the outskirts of the show, underfunded and underrepresented. Tom Kalinske, CEO for Sega at the time, remembers how, at one event “it was raining and the water leaked onto [his] Genesis machines. [He] turned to [his] team and said, ‘That’s it. We’re never coming back here again.’” Many major video game companies, such as Sony and Sega, felt slighted by their treatment at CES and wanted something new. Others, like Microsoft and Nintendo, felt that, considering the size of CES, they were still gaining good traction from the event. Either way, something needed to change, and a new committee, made up of the largest game companies in the world, the Avengers of Video Games Corporations, if you will, which you shouldn’t, was eager to usher in this transition. 

Believe it or not, E3 was created, in large part, thanks to the IDSA, now called the Entertainment Software Association, or ESA, for short! Yes, the ESA! You know the whole, play clips

“Rated M for Mature,”

“Rated E for Everyone”

“Product not yet rated”

The very group responsible for stamping an “age appropriate” rating on every game. This is the group that started it all. In the late 80s and early 90s a belief formed in the US that video games could encourage or even create violent tendencies in their younger audiences. Public and governmental scrutiny led the video game industry to create their own oversight committee in order to assuage fears about content and to create a rating system that they would have direct control over since the US government was planning to create their own rating system if the companies couldn’t agree on one. The Interactive Digital Software Association, which later became the Entertainment Software Association, would be responsible for representing many major games companies in the US, including, but not limited to… are you ready for this list? 

Activision Blizzard, Capcom, EA, Konami, Epic Games, Microsoft, Bandai Namco, Nintendo, Sony, Square Enix, Take-Two, Ubisoft, and Warner Bros… So you know. All the companies. 

Shortly after the creation of the IDSA, which we’ll call ESA from here on out for simplicity’s sake, the organization realized they needed a source of income and looked to create a trade show of their own that would exclusively showcase the work of games companies. Two people showed up to pitch their ideas. One, the button-ed up, lawyer backed head of CES Gary Shapiro. The other, a sauce stained, late arriving Pat Ferrell, who ran GamePro magazine. And I mean that about Ferrell. He stated that after the presentation he realized his “tie was still tucked in, and there was a big splash of tomato sauce on [his] shirt.”

Both presented their ideas to the ESA and other heads of the industry, and while Shapiro had numbers and figures to back him up, Ferrell had the industry connection, both in name and in style. He was simply more connected to the pulse of video games. Ultimately, though, opinions were split. Sega and Sony, eager for a new show, sided with Ferrell, while Microsoft and Nintendo, nervous about splitting with the known quantity, stayed with Shapiro and CES. Lines were drawn. Now it was time to draw up the battle plans. Shapiro based the new CES led show in Philadelphia, while Ferrell based his initially in Las Vegas. Soon after, Ferrell realized that the CES show would land in May, which would be the better calendar spot, so in a pinch, he transitioned his show, E3, to the Los Angeles Convention Center and selected the exact same dates as Shapiro’s trade show. This forced companies to draw lines and decide who they would side with. 

After booking 180 booths in a very short time, Ferrell received a call from Shapiro who simply said, “You Win,” before hanging up. Ferrell had done it! He had succeeded in creating a new video game trade show independent of the leadership that had for so long pushed games to the side and intentionally ignored them. Holdouts like Microsoft and Nintendo were forced to book with E3, and, being late to the party, were given what was considered poor placement, such as the South Hall in the convention center which was much older than the newly built West Hall that housed Sony and Sega. 

As a fun aside, when Ferrell first decided on Electronic Entertainment Expo, he nicknamed it… you guessed it! E-Cubed. You know, E three times, so it’s E Cubed! But he says that the games media was having none of it, and immediately dubbed the show E3, which of course stuck. 

Regardless of the nickname, in 1995, the first E3 took place and it was a doozy. Records show that at least 55,000 visitors came through the doors, and, even though the booths were small and the presentation was much more humble than it is today, the event was deemed a massive success, combining industry giants with smaller independent companies looking for representation. With the Nintendo 64 still a year away, Nintendo had little to say about their next big console, but they still had plenty to show off! Donkey Kong Country Two was there! And we wouldn’t dare forget the little piece of hardware that taught us to be wary of Nintendo innovations for the next decade: The Virtual Boy. 

Plenty of third party companies had showings as well, with games like Myst, Mortal Kombat, and the legendary Chrono Trigger making appearances. Heck, Michael Jackson was there on the show floor, playing demos! 

Ferrell remarked that the companies even took their rivalries to the show floor. “Sega kept turning their music up,” he said. “They turned their speakers towards Sony. The Sony guys couldn’t hear themselves talk in their meetings with retailers. I had to tell them to turn it down. I felt like the guy at a high school breaking up fights.” 

This rivalry extended to their stage presence, where E3 got it’s first big internet-breaking moment. Each set to release their consoles in the US soon, Sony and Sega both created presentations intended to undercut the competition. Sega appeared first, and, in order to beat Sony to the punch, announced their console, the Saturn, would be available immediately for 399. That’s right, a shadow drop at the first ever E3. It would turn out to be a terrible one, but it was a shadow drop nonetheless! The hype was built. Eyes and outlets were turned to Sony, wondering how they could respond. And what did they do?

That’s right! At the end of an admittedly dull presentation, Steve Race, announced that the Sony Playstation would be 100 dollars cheaper than the Saturn! Incredible! Unrepeatable some might say! Those people would be wrong, but they might say it!

After this incredible first showing, the ESA continued to grow E3 every year, and, after the massive success of the Nintendo 64, the Playstation, and, eventually, the Xbox from Microsoft (all three covered in previous episodes by the way), the industry landed on “the big three” as the headliners of the E3 presentations. Over time, third party publishers joined in and produced shows of their own. EA, Ubisoft, the infamous Square Enix, and even Bethesda took to the stage to showcase their latest games and tech reveals. E3 became a media powerhouse and destination for all things gaming. That’s not to say the ESA was without blunders, however. Due to scheduling errors with the LA convention center, they were forced to relocate to Atlanta twice, which was a hindrance to the Japanese developers more than anything as it created a longer commute. The ESA’s greatest misstep, though, was when they tried to rebrand E3 in 2007 and 2008 to the “E3 Media and Business Summit” and limited attendance to only 10,000 members of media and industry. In addition to the smaller audience, the ESA spread the event throughout hotel centers in Santa Monica, making the task of scheduling and traveling between events all the more difficult for those who could attend. The reasoning behind this move was that games media had grown to be so large that the ESA believed they couldn’t create a venue or destination experience that could possibly house everyone wanting to attend. This plan backfired spectacularly, of course, given that independent media and games bloggers drove much of the excitement that supported E3. Those without the connections capable of getting an invite were left out, and the general public was drip fed information. This was largely considered a “bad move.” 

Another aside here, one of the worst presentations in E3 history occurred in 2007 when Activision hired Jamie Kennedy to host their presentation. Kennedy, clearly under the influence, spent his time on stage mocking the audience and stereotyping them as basement dwellers who needed to get out more. At a celebration of games. It was a disaster of a presentation and an insult to those that supported the industry so fervently.

Luckily, the ESA learned from these mistakes, and pivoted back to a more open model in 2009, and, in 2017, even allowed the general public to start buying tickets to the event. Attendance recovered and steadied out around 60,000 per year.

Throughout these intervening years, developers came and went as presenters, the first major hits to the line-up came when Nintendo started doing their own digital presentations in 2013 in lieu of appearing at E3. These presentations, called Nintendo Directs, allowed the company to directly address their audience online without the fear of technical difficulties or the expense of renting out a convention center. While they still maintained a presence in the form of the Nintendo Treehouse, which showcased gameplay demos alongside larger than life set pieces depicting a new world each year, Nintendo ultimately found that a digital form of presentation was the more attractive way to reach their audience. 

In 2019, Sony followed suit, calling their form of digital event the “State of Play”. However, rather than hold a presence on the show floor at all, Sony skipped out on the event entirely, instead opting to create their own events throughout the year where competition for media coverage would be minimal and their games would be allowed to shine alone in the spotlight.

And of course, ultimately in 2020, the ESA canceled E3 due to the Covid-19 pandemic to ensure the safety of the fans and games media. In addition to the general public health precautions, this cancellation allowed the ESA a year to strategize and re-direct their efforts to create a more engaging show that would bring back gamers that had grown tired of the spectacle as well as those who were new to the event. This method? Follow Nintendo and Sony’s plan. Go digital. Partner with many of the same major companies that had believed in Ferrell’s original vision; create a digital destination where games could be celebrated and where developers could connect with fans from all over the world. 

These digital events largely make sense. They’re cheaper, safer, and allow the consumer to focus solely on your products. However, a charm is lost in the cheering of a crowd or the utter silence to a flubbed joke. And while Sony and Nintendo may believe that a controlled, pre-recorded digital event is a more concise way to promote products and communicate with fans, the reality may be that these companies are losing touch with their biggest fans by disconnecting them from a truly memorable moment. 

E3, for me, and for many others, is a time of year where we get to relish in conversations about our favorite hobby. Where even those outside the typical gaming audience are clued into the industry because of the sometimes surprising, often wonderful, regularly terrible presentations and the media coverage surrounding them. It would be a huge hit to the games industry to lose the feeling of catching a live presentation complete with disconnected corporate speeches, technical hiccups, and awkward presenters. I hope that the ESA is able to recover from these last few years, and really create a live destination for developers and fans alike again. 
And that is all for this episode. If you liked what heard, please consider giving this show a follow on your podcast player of choice. And consider leaving a review over on Apple Podcasts. It really helps a whole lot! 

Drop a question or leave a suggestion here!


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