A couple of weeks ago, the CTA sent me a questionnaire about what they could do to make me feel safe at CES 2021, which by the way is totally happening in Las Vegas in January. That seems optimistic at best and dangerously aspirational at worst. I have an alternative: let’s all play Fortnite.
The CTA survey indicated that the Association seriously wants the Consumer Electronics Show to happen despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and isn’t ready to start thinking about canceling it or moving it online. (Or at least, it’s not ready to indicate that thinking publicly.) A bevy of questions asks whether attendees would be comfortable with air travel, whether mandatory masks and social distancing would be enough, and whether submitting pre-show health screenings or on-site rapid COVID-19 testing would help.
To be blunt, there’s no way a major American city could justify CES six months from now—it’s right at the border of “possible, but not at all likely.” Without wishing to delve into topics beyond the scope of consumer tech, I think it’s fair to say that even in January, most people won’t feel safe attending a famously crowded indoor event that attracts 180,000 visitors from all over the world. The CTA asked if proof of COVID-19 vaccination would be enough (in the event that a vaccine is even available), and many of the Review Geek staff say that’s the only way they’d be comfortable with business travel.
The solution is obvious, and has been implemented elsewhere: take the presentations and meetings online. Every major tech event since February, from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to E3 in Los Angeles to major product announcements from Apple and Sony, has been cancelled and replaced with online presentations. The CTA seems to be insisting that CES is still going to happen, but you have to assume that it’s hard at work on contingency plans.
Which leads me to the point: let’s have CES in Fortnite.
Tech Conferences Are So 2019
Don’t close the tab. Hear me out.
Assuming that CES is either impossible in January or so diminished that an in-person conference is pointless, an online conference is the next best thing. We’ve seen something similar in scope and scale with E3: in a year with two brand-new game consoles due, we managed to get everything we needed from E3 season in terms of announcement and promotion without the annual pilgrimage to gamer Mecca. The industry was already transitioning to smaller events, now we’ve just taken those events online.
In the last couple of months, I’ve seen more press-focused presentations than the last three years—all online, most including some kind of question and answer system for the audience. The bigger announcements, like Apple’s enormous shift to its own silicon for computers, didn’t require the usual rigmarole either. And, they let anyone tune in and see the cool new stuff at the same time as the press. That’s pretty great if you’re a newshound without a press badge.
Now, Fortnite. If you’re not much of a gamer, you might not realize that it’s become more than a flash-in-the-pan trend, like Angry Birds or even the battle royale genre. Because of its ubiquity across all game and mobile platforms, and its free-to-play can’t-buy-an-advantage egalitarianism, it’s become something of chat room for kids and teens. They’ve been known to do their homework with their friends in Fortnite. Without really trying to, Fortnite has achieved what SecondLife set out to do way back in 2003.
Even if you haven’t noticed, Fortnite’s developer Epic has. In addition to adding creative and social modes that don’t require players to engage in the non-stop shooting-and-building gameplay, Epic has been holding concerts and other promotional events within the game’s party mode. Famously, a bit of pre-movie lore for Star Wars Episode IX was dolled out in a Fortnite event. If you wanted to know what the hell the opening crawl was talking about, you needed to be in the game (or to watch this recording).
Fortnite has gone on to host digital concerts for Marshmello, Travis Scott, Young Thug, Deadmau5, and Thomas Wesley. I don’t know who most of those people are, because I’m a senior citizen compared to most of Fortnite’s player base. But I have heard of Batman Begins, Inception, and The Prestige, three Christopher Nolan movies that were screened for free in Fortnite in June as a promotion for the next one. These events aren’t merely streams accessed with the game client, they’re concerts with custom-made avatars, or in the case of the movies, a full film shown off from the third-person perspective of the game.
In short, big promotional events with thousands of watchers work in Fortnite. It’s weird. It’s awkward. And, at the moment, it’s a pretty decent alternative to meeting your friends in person.
Everything You Want
So, what makes Fortnite better than, say, a bunch of Zoom calls? For one, it has the backbone. Epic handles tens of thousands of concurrent players without breaking a sweat. So, getting everyone who wants to attend CES a free account and a digital avatar, complete with conference badge, isn’t a problem.
For another, it’s huge. Each Fortnite map is designed for a hundred people, but it’s mostly empty space—you could push it to five hundred or a thousand, with big screens and “hologram” avatars, without any spacial problem. Heck, you could replicate the entire Las Vegas Convention Center in 1:1 scale if you wanted to. (Nobody wants to.) Uber and Lyft could even pay for sponsored bounce pads and gliders to get to different parts of the stage. All without any concerns for social distancing.
So, you’ve got the grand size of CES, with the bonus of not actually having to walk across it. You’ve got the capacity to handle tens of thousands of exhibitors and attendees. What’s missing, aside from the finger foods and the expensive taxis? Why, the booths, of course. CES is nothing without the ridiculous extravagance of a million-dollar mini-mansion, set up, used, and gone in less than a week. I’ve seen entire semi trucks, house-sized flying drones, and a two-story replica of NBA Jam on the CES show floor.
Here’s where the brilliant part comes in: Fortnite is all about building stuff. If a player isn’t shooting something or booking it across the map, they’re building a giant fort to block and confuse other players. Honestly, it’s damned annoying as a game mechanic—I can’t build half as fast as the people who keep beating me.
But as a built-in method for creating elaborate trade show booths, it’s freakin’ perfect. Epic can give exhibitors the tools to create few custom assets, import some logos and product demos, link out for videos or PDFs, and you have everything you need to get around a digital convention hall filled with booths.
Stop Trying to Make CES Happen, It’s Not Gonna Happen
Organizations like the CTA and GSMA are going to continue to postpone cancellation for these big events. Even before the Coronavirus shifted how we think about work and travel, their relevance was on the decline. If this goes on for another six months—and all signs point to that happening—then big industry-wide trade shows might vanish from corporate culture altogether.
The idea that CES would take place in a game where John Wick can chop a gingerbread man in half with a lightsaber is laughable. But it’s slightly less laughable than cramming 180,000 people from all over the world onto the Las Vegas strip six months from now.