Sony won’t be at E3, the biggest trade show in the video game industry. They didn’t show up last year either, but with the PlayStation 5 coming this holiday season, it’s hard to see the company’s absence as anything except a vote of no confidence in gaming’s biggest dog and pony show.
And while E3 has certainly given companies enough reasons to get out of both Los Angeles and Dodge—like leaking thousands of journalists’ personal details, or cramming the show floor with general public attendees a la Comic-Con—this isn’t just an E3 problem. Major players in the tech industry have been gravitating away from big trade shows for over a decade. Why? It’s all about marketing directly to consumers, instead of trying to woo the press.
If you want a reason as to why Sony and many other large consumer technology companies are shying away from the big shows, look no further than the biggest: CES. My feet still haven’t healed from the 60 miles of walking I did in Vegas the first week of the year, and even so, I know I missed more than I saw, between hundreds of meeting rooms and presentations and thousands of booths on various show floors.
If I’m experiencing FOMO even having been “New Balance on the ground,” imagine how frustrating it is for tech fans at home. Ironically, those covering or merely watching the show from afar are probably much better informed on just about everything announced publicly, simply because attendees can’t be everywhere at once. But even if you’re watching every snippet of news coming out of every tech press outlet, you’re going to miss at least some of it.
Why would any company, big or small, want so much competition for the limited attention spans of their target audience? Without wishing to sound jaded, participation in shows like CES, Mobile World Congress, and E3 is starting to become more of an obligation than an advantage. And the bigger the company, the more the former is true.
Bigger Isn’t Better
I’ve often had cause to wonder about the effort that goes into a huge trade show demonstration. There’s money for the booth, or in the case of larger companies, many, many booths. There’s the physical cost of the materials that go into the play area, plus the labor to assemble it. More labor to operate the booth while the show is running, including physical security if you’re showing off hardware. And that doesn’t even account for, say, the tens of thousands of dollars in electronics a giant booth full of game consoles and televisions would need. (Incidentally, if someone wants to make a documentary on that process, takemymoney.gif.)
The gist of it is, for a booth equal to the task of demonstrating a year’s worth of PlayStation prowess, Sony would be in for a bill of millions, easily—even if they weren’t showing off a brand new console. If you’re going to spend that much money, why share the limelight? A smaller demonstration, possibly even at a venue owned by the company (see presentations by Google and Apple), would make a lot more sense. Not only can you save quite a bit, you control many more aspects of the setup.
If nothing else, the scheduling aspects alone are worth breaking with the crowd. By choosing a presentation days before a major trade show (a la Samsung’s Unpacked events) or months away from anything on the schedule, you can ensure that a majority of the expansive technology press will be exclusively focused on your products for at least one day. It is, in PR terms, a win-win.
Fleeing the Ship
Here’s a brief list of notable companies ditching major industry trade shows, and how they’re taking advantage of their absence.
Apple: Apple makes a yearly phone presentation in the fall, plus the self-hosted WWDC in the summer and periodic announcement presentations for other hardware. The company hasn’t had a significant presence at CES since the early ’90s.
Google: Like Apple, Google has a now-yearly fall phone presentation, plus a developer conference (Google I/O). Google still attends industry shows with lavish booths but rarely announces new hardware there.
Nintendo: Nintendo attends E3, but it’s mostly for games these days. The Switch was announced in a standalone event in October, and notably, the Switch Lite debuted a month after E3 2019. The last time Nintendo debuted a totally new console at E3 was the Wii U in 2011. The company has been focusing on Nintendo Direct, a series of live multilingual web broadcasts, to make major announcements directly to gamers.
Microsoft: Microsoft’s Xbox One was announced at E3 seven years ago, but since then the company has been moving away from large trade shows. Its Surface computer line now gets its own dedicated events, and the new Xbox Series X (nee Scarlett) was announced in December, nearly a year before it’s planned to be available for purchase. We’ll probably learn more at E3, but the cat is already far, far out of the box.
OnePlus: OnePlus has attempted to emulate Apple’s presentation style since their inception (just don’t tell them that). All their announcements are standalone affairs. It still has a presence at some shows (like the recent OnePlus Concept One) but keeps major announcements for its own events.
Samsung: For about a decade, Samsung has been saving its juiciest mobile announcements for its self-branded Unpacked events, paired with a live webstream. These are often adjacent to major trade shows but can be disconnected, too. The next one is February 11 in San Francisco, two weeks and six thousand miles away from Mobile World Congress.
Sony: Sony ditched E3 last year and has been investing in smaller “State of Play” presentations that livestream over the web, very similar to Nintendo’s Direct.
Even outside of the big-name manufacturers, companies can see value in hosting their own events on their own terms. Blizzcon, where Blizzard has made every major game announcement for years, is an excellent example.
Hitting the Right Audience
Thirty years ago, trade shows were an opportunity for technology companies to court technology press. That still happens to a certain extent—I had the not-so-fun experience of being offered a bribe on the CES show floor just last week. But in 2020, the press is a middleman, a mere commentator on news that tech companies can serve up directly to digital native customers.
And speaking as one of those middlemen, it’s not such a bad thing. The value in tech press isn’t in regurgitating press releases or spitting out specifications, it’s in interpreting that information with the consumer in mind. The website you’re looking at is a perfect example: We spend all day testing and doing research to explain, for example, why the best console controller to use with Steam isn’t the one you’re probably thinking about. That’s information you might not have the money or time to track down firsthand.
But I digress. Tech and gaming manufacturers know—or at least should know by now—how to market directly to consumers without relying on a friendly press to do most of the talking for them. Breaking away from expensive and crowded trade shows is an evolution of that skill.
In answer to the title of the article, E3 and similar shows are far from useless. It’s still a great place for publishers like EA or Bethesda to get exclusive attention, if only for a couple of hours at a time, and the business-to-business advantages for smaller developers seeking publishers or talent are easy to spot. But don’t be surprised to see larger companies making the same move Sony has, in the gaming industry and beyond.