It was 1995 and the gaming industry was changing. Gaming companies had spent years relegated to the most distant corners of the CES floor (the Consumer Electronics Show), unwanted and unappreciated in a sea of televisions and appliances. But by 1995, video games finally had their own trade organization, the IDSA, which meant it was time for gaming to start its own trade show.
In May, the very first Electronic Entertainment Expo — the E3 we know and love — kicked off in Los Angeles. The world had never seen a convention where games took center stage, and after spending years in the shadows of CES (where everything gaming was typically under a tent outside) the industry took full advantage of its time in the spotlight with lavish displays and big press conferences. There was a lot in play here for gaming's biggest companies: Nintendo had just delayed the Nintendo 64 (we'd see it at E3 1996) while SEGA announced it had started shipping the Saturn early — and lucky gamers could find at select retailers for $399.
Sony made the biggest splash with PlayStation, in a press conference following SEGA's announcement Steve Race (Sony Computer Entertainment America President) walked on stage and said "$299" — referring to the new console's price — before walking off again. You can imagine the reaction. With gaming's biggest names all gathered together, it's no surprise that 50,000 people attended E3 in its first year.
To know what a big deal this was, you have to remember that in the 90s the internet was just finding its footing. Today we can all easily find the latest gaming news online and watch livestreams of the big press conferences. But it was 1990 before the "World Wide Web" truly arrived and it wasn't until 1993 that visual web browsers, similar to what we have today, were available. Even when web access was starting to become common, not all companies had any presence online — just check out the video from E3 1995 above, where at 9:40 a journalist asks an Atari executive about the company's upcoming "World Wide Web page." That's how new the Internet was.
This meant that most gamers were getting their news from mainstream TV coverage or monthly gaming magazines. News was slow to travel and having this much gaming information all in the same place and at the same time was a big deal. Companies jockeyed for position with more impressive booths and showier press conferences to catch journalist attention and get their names in the press.
Twenty-one years of E3 in a nutshell
Really, it wasn't so much different from E3 today, where companies continue to compete for who has the best booth, who has the biggest press conference, and who can make the splashiest announcement. Beyond the first PlayStation in '95, E3 has played host to plenty of major gaming announcements and previews. Here's an overview of memorable moments from E3s past:
1996: Nintendo unveiled the Nintendo 64 and we got our first looks at Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and StarCraft.
1997: It was the year of the FPS, with Half-Life and Quake 2 making their first appearances. On top of that, we had early esports with the Red Annihilation Quake tournament.
1998: Half-Life and Legends of Zelda: Ocarina of Time both made notable appearances before releases later in the year while we saw the first demo of Duke Nukem Forever (which was finally released in 2011).
1999: Welcome the 6th generation consoles! The Sega Dreamcast was on display and Nintendo announced the GameCube (then known by its codename "Dolphin").
2000: PlayStation 2 showed off its stuff before a release later that year, and an early version of the Xbox and Halo were on display.
2001: GameCube and Xbox were back in the spotlight this year, with tons of new games — both would be released later that year. The Dreamcast made its last appearance on the show floor as it was overtaken by these new consoles.
2002: Games for the PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox were all center stage this year, and Microsoft made a big commitment to online play with Xbox Live. On the PC side, we got a first look at Doom 3 and Warcraft 3.
2003: Sony made a move to disrupt Nintendo's portable gaming dominance by talking about the PlayStation Portable for the first time. Big sequels on display included Half-Life 2, Halo 2, and the Sims 2. But perhaps most notable was Call of Duty, which Activision promoted by hiring actors dressed as Nazi soldiers to harass people on the show floor. Well, I suppose it did get the game attention...
2004: While there were plenty of games on display, this was an in-between year: the next generation of consoles would be announced in 2005, meaning a lot of the biggest gaming news was still under wraps. However, attendees did get hands-on time with the PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS. This year also marked the first appearance of charismatic exec Reggie Fils-Aime, who announced himself by saying "My name is Reggie, I’m about kicking ass, I’m about taking names, and we’re about making games.” How do you follow up on that?
2005: It was all consoles this year, with debut appearances for the PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii, and Xbox 360. For the first time, E3 was broadcast on television via the G4 network (which would continue through 2012 when the network shut down) — this helped bring E3 to the masses, or at least the masses with a cable television subscription.
2006: Again, the latest consoles dominated the show with playable demos of most. The highlight, however, was the Nintendo Wii: motion gaming was brand new and Nintendo was the only big console doing it, which meant long lines for Wii demos. Sony was the definite "lowlight" here when it announced the PlayStation 3 would cost $599, a steep increase over the $249 Wii and $399 Xbox 360. Ouch.
2007: This was the year everything changed. E3 decided to severely scale down to be a small expo for an extremely limited number of industry professionals — locking out a lot of online media outlets not seen as "professional." This meant 10,000 attendees (down from 60,000) and 33 exhibitors (down from over 400). Still, some notable games came out of the event, including our first look at big franchises Assassin's Creed and Uncharted. The Wii Balance Board, Wii Fit, and Mario Kart Wii also debuted, making it another big year for Nintendo as the Wii continued to distinguish itself from the competition.
2008: This year's event was even smaller, with just 5,000 attendees. The focus was primarily on upcoming games, though I wouldn't say any of them were earth-shattering.
2009: Finally, a return to form. E3 2009 was another gaming extravaganza with over 40,000 attendees. Microsoft and Sony both made a move to play catch-up with Nintendo by announcing their own motion controllers and games: the Move and Kinect, respectively.
2010: I'm sure other stuff happened, but, really, all I remember is the Nintendo 3DS.
2011: The Nintendo 3DS continued to impress with Mario Kart 7 and Star Fox 64 3D — though Sony was trying to hone in on the mobile gaming action with the PlayStation Vita. Many of the games this year were a world of sequels — though many of them good sequels — like Halo 4, Final Fantasy XIII-2, BioShock Infinite, Mass Effect 3, Uncharted 3, Far Cry 3, Gears of War 3... and just too more many to list.
2012: The now rather maligned Wii U made its debut... and was often mischaracterized in the press as a Wii accessory. Oops.
2013: The console wars took off as Microsoft announced the Xbox One and Sony announced the PlayStation 4. This was another pricing mic drop for Sony: the $399 PS4 undercut Microsoft's just-announced $499 price. Sony followed it up with another jab to Microsoft by saying that you would own your games — that's how games have always worked, but with the Xbox One the system would make sure you had the license to play a game (requiring an always-on internet connection). After bungling the PS3 announcement, Sony definitely managed to get this one right.
2014: After a console year, it was time for a game year, with previews of Grand Theft Auto 5, Halo 5, Destiny, Uncharted 4, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Nintendo's super adorable Amiibo.
2015: This was a breakthrough year for VR, with the Oculus Rift, Sony's Project Morpheus, Samsung's Gear VR, and Microsoft HoloLens, all of which were on display with game demos. But without brand new consoles, E3 was once again about the games — though I expect you'll recognize all of these recent titles, like Dishonored 2, Fallout 4, Doom, Dark Souls 3, Fable Legends, Star Wars Battlefront... and at this point you can let your memory take it from here.
Whew! That's a lot of years of gaming.
The exclusive club of E3
Over the years, the convention has ranged from a low of 5,000 attendees (in 2008) to a high of 70,000 (in 1998 and 2005). But despite its popularity, one thing about the convention has stayed the same: it's always been industry only. If you don't have an industry affiliation — as a journalist or working for a game company — you wouldn't get through the door.
Up until 2007, E3 was a massive event with publishers spending an increasing amount of money on big-budget displays and attendance ballooning to include more online press who might not be considered "industry professionals." The event decided it was time to go small — instead of renting out the entirety of the massive Los Angeles Convention Center, E3 2007 had no show floor at all. Instead, it was a collection of private press events held in various places in Santa Monica. 10,000 people attended, far less than E3's 50,000 attendee debut in 1995. The next year's event was even smaller with 5,000 attendees.
In 2009, E3 returned to Los Angeles, once again a big-budget event for game companies — and big excitement for gamers. But it wasn't until 2015 that E3 surpassed 50,000 attendees again, and this year we may well see those numbers decline.
Catering to the fans
In 2016, the gaming industry is still changing. While E3 has stayed exclusive, fan-focused events where anyone is welcome have proliferated. PAX's 70,000 attendees make it much larger than E3 — and Gamescom in Germany brings in more than 340,000 gamers, making the world's biggest gaming convention.
The it's getting easier for game companies to talk to us directly, without using E3 as a middleman — and, increasingly, they're doing just that. This year EA is holding EA Play, offering everyone hands-on game demos across the street from E3. Activision is skipping E3, too, though some of its games will be playable at the PlayStation booth. On top of that, Nintendo has been downsizing its E3 efforts for years. Is it a coincidence or a trend?
But until E3 wraps up and the dust clears, we can't say for certain where the convention is heading. Perhaps 2016 is another bump in the road for this long-time gaming convention and gaming's biggest names will be back in action in 2017.
In the meanwhile, there's plenty happening at E3 2016 with pre-event press conferences from Sony, Microsoft, EA, Bethesda, and Ubisoft where we'll be able to catch the latest. And whether this year's E3 is bigger or smaller than the last, I'm still breaking out the popcorn to watch.
Image courtesy Electronic Software Association