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E3 video game expo to return virtually after skipping 2020…but will it be 'breathtaking'?

By Benjamin Bullard
Keanu Reeves at the Microsoft showcase at E3 2019

After sitting out 2020 altogether, what for years has been one of the world's most-buzzed annual video gaming events for both fans and game companies is planning to make its return this year. Multiple media outlets are reporting that E3 — the Electronic Entertainment Expo organized by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) — will be going online for an all-digital event this spring.

Typically held in early June, E3 had been the gaming industry’s biggest U.S.-based buzz-builder since the early 2000s, when presentations, booths, breakout events and E3’s overall fan con atmosphere would attract tens of thousands of gamers to the Los Angeles Convention Center, the expo’s annual home. But a shifting video game landscape and the COVID-19 pandemic conspired to scrap the event altogether last year, making 2019’s E3 — an event that Sony, for the first time ever, elected to skip — the most recently-held E3 to date.

Thanks to a new report at VGC and later confirmed by both The Verge and IGN, it looks as though fans pining for E3’s return will get their wish in 2021, though not as on-site guests. In keeping with the past year’s move to digital platforms as the preferred way to enact social distancing measures, the revived E3 will be an online-only affair.

“We can confirm that we are transforming the E3 experience for 2021 and will soon share exact details on how we’re bringing the global video game community together,” ESA told IGN in a statement. “We are having great conversations with publishers, developers and companies across the board, and we look forward to sharing details about their involvement soon.”

VGC’s original report indicates that E3 is eyeing June 15-17 as a three-day live-streamed festival online, bringing back the expo’s biggest highlight: keynote presentations from all the major publishers, studios, and hardware makers who take part. The expo also would feature “smaller streams from games publishers, influencers and media partners” plus lots of buzz-worthy action outside the live feed, including “media previews the week before, as well as demos released on consumer platforms.”

Though ESA clearly intends to make E3 a reality for 2021, there is a catch — and it’s a big one: enough game companies must be on board to fill out the three-day schedule. Sony’s big decision to skip E3 in 2019 (and again in 2020, before E3 was canceled altogether) served as an incidental precursor to the larger move away from on-site events in the COVID-19 era, and since then, many media companies — from Sony to Disney to DC to fan cons themselves  — have found success in curating and presenting their upcoming projects digitally.

Plans for this year’s E3 “still require the approval of ESA’s membership, which is made up of the industry’s biggest games companies and who have significant influence over the direction of the show,” VGC reported, noting that one major unnamed company already has said it will stick to running its own digital presentation and won’t be joining in.

Even without Sony, 2019’s most recent E3 managed to give fans a memorable in-person showcase, complete with the sort of viral moments that have made the event such a spectacle — and, in the past, a great place to get fan talking about the games themselves. The internet fell in love with Jon Berenthal’s dog at the 2019 showcase, as well as Ghostwire Tokyo director Ikumi Nakamura’s infectious optimism…and, as everyone knows by now, Keanu Reeves’ breathtaking Cyberpunk 2077 announcement.