The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is big. Really big. For three days in June, every inch of the Los Angeles Convention Center’s 720,000 square feet is transformed into the mecca of the virtual world. Coinciding with the start of the searing California summer, E3 recently wrapped up its 22nd year with a record-breaking attendance of over 68,000 people.
The spillover is remarkable. Banners, posters, and gigantic outdoor screens festoon everything within a square kilometre of the convention centre – from mailboxes and streetlights to the grand atriums of downtown L.A.’s most lavish hotels, where sharply-dressed executive types hobnob with tech gurus and developers (whose style is decidedly more punk than three-martini lunch). It’s not the modish that are the stars of this show.
The input is unavoidable. To step outside onto Olympic Boulevard is to be greeted by a trio of sixteen-storey murals advertising Star Wars: Battlefront II – painted by hand. In the shadow of the Staples Center, you can buy a hot dog from an official Far Cry 5 themed food truck while a YouTube employee in a top hat recruits a livestream audience from the entrance of the Ritz-Carlton. Out in a spacious, sunbaked annex, roadies are completing the load-in on a towering stage setup that one would assume is being prepared for a pop star.
Turns out it’s actually the Twitch Esports Arena, where a new breed of aspirants will gather by the hundreds to watch a new breed of digital athletes duke it out in Street Fighter V and Tekken 7. The grand finale of this tournament will be the unveiling of the official Overwatch World Cup USA National Team, who will be taking on Team Canada in a little exhibition. Events like this used to be reserved for the ballrooms of unassuming suburban hotels – now you have to walk past statues of Wayne Gretzky and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to get in line.
There’s a quintessential Los Angeles atmosphere about the proceedings. The sun is shining, the service is fawning, the environs are chic, and there isn’t a necktie to be seen. In the luxury penthouses that encircle the L.A. Live complex and in the modernist mansions peppering the Hollywood Hills, staff are preparing for a blitz of lavish, ultra-exclusive parties for movers and shakers from across the entertainment industry. At E3, the engine of bravura American showmanship is running at full tilt.
The message here is clear: video games have entered that rarefied position where technology, hobbyism, culture, and marquee entertainment converge. Grandeur isn’t just for the movies anymore. Neither are we.
Celtx went to E3 with the objective of taking our newly launched Gem system into the heart of the medium, and it was a genuine blast. We had the opportunity to show our product off, learn from gaming savants, and take in just a little of the glitz and glamour at some of the rambunctious industry mixers.
We weren’t the only ones for whom attendance was a first. E3 2017 was the first ever to open its doors to the general public – some 15,000 badges were up for grabs (at a pretty substantial price) and promptly sold out. For those that couldn’t get their hands on one, joining the ranks of millions of online viewers and watching a deluge of livestreams is the only alternative.
For business veterans, E3 is more of a marathon than a sprint. For the gaming public its an all-out, endlessly enthusiastic grind. Lineups swell to the breaking point hours before the doors open. When they do, a raucous cheer explodes from the crowd.
Walking onto the show floor itself is a somewhat surreal experience. You move from a sunny, airport-grey lobby into something that is part high-tech theme park, part nightclub, and part bazaar.
It’s loud, crowded, energetic, and dark – with the exception of the huge, dazzling displays from the game industry’s biggest players: Nintendo, Ubisoft, Bethesda, Activision, and Sony spare no expense on making you feel like you’re entering into an inner sanctum. These aren’t so much booths as they are miniature compounds-cum-art installations.
Sony has Spider-Man crashing through a wall atop a life-sized helicopter. Bethesda situates the demo for alternate-history shooter Wolfenstein II inside a full-scale 1950’s diner that chillingly blends golden age Americana with sinister Nazi style. You can pose for a picture with a Tolkienian dragon by the Warner Brothers’ Shadow of War exhibit, and if you can’t get into Super Mario’s enormous ‘New Donk City‘ you can always hang out in a giant ball pit staffed by girls with matching Nintendo-red wigs and bathing suits.
There’s another dominating factor beyond the ‘booths’: media coverage. The likes of Twitch and IGN have full-on media centres with enough equipment and staff on hand to cover the Superbowl. Everywhere you turn there’s a camera crew, an interviewer, or an experts panel calling the plays and dissecting the big announcements for a massive online audience. The eyes of major business entities tangential to gaming are present too, albeit a bit more discreetly. It causes a bit of a double take when one opens a drab door in one of the convention centre’s quieter hallways to reveal a synthetic Day-Glo arboretum operated by Facebook (and then being politely asked to leave).
As impressive as the production is, it’s all window dressing for what people are actually there to do: experience the cutting edge in gaming and its peripheral technology. This can require some dedication. Lineups for a shot at a 10-minute session with the headliners can last for hours. Getting in with the indie developers can be a bit easier, but nothing is guaranteed. For the fans, waiting a couple of hours to get your hands on Call of Duty: WWII or Destiny 2 is a no brainer, especially if there’s a free t-shirt in it at the end.
In the three days we were there, the enthusiasm of the the crowds never dwindled. Fascinatingly, their desire to play was closely paced by their desire to watch. Tournaments and competitions were everywhere, and they drew crowds. There’s very little sense of novelty to any of it. For the thousands that flock to E3, games are a cultural touchstone as valid as cinema, literature, music, or even professional sports – and they’ve got a hundred billion dollar industry to back themselves up.
That enthusiasm and sincerity is one reflected by the game-makers themselves. Everyone we met with to showcase Gem exuded the same flicker as the fans. Their work represents the future of entertainment, and we’re very excited to be building tools for them.
Leaving E3 is a little dizzying. It’s a heady, spirited, and enticing confluence of hard science, art, storytelling, and showbusiness. To put it more succinctly, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.