Earlier this week an announcement of who will be E3 partners from its governing Entertainment Software Association body notably left out Sony PlayStation, later Variety would confirm with Sony on its intent to not exhibit at E3 2019.
In the hours following the announcement, both fans and publications shifted into uproar about what Sony’s (as of this moment) single year absence from the largest gaming trade show in North America means for the company. Most saw it as a sign Sony had nothing to talk about and that we certainly wouldn’t be getting new PS5 hardware in 2020.
This news is coming in a year where PlayStation opted not to have its PlayStation Experience again this December. A show, which celebrated all things PlayStation annually these past four years, but we’ll get to why that’s important in a bit. Sony themselves have already answered a few questions about their decision to not have a presence at E3. For one, shortly after Variety’s story, PlayStation put out a statement saying they would not have any sort of activation or press conference around E3. It means those attending E3 2019 will not see Sony in an official capacity outside of some third party publishers and devs who use PS4’s to show off their games.
PlayStation not having anything to talk about could be blamed on firing its guns off too soon. The Last of Us Part 2, Ghosts of Tsushima, and the 70 years its felt like we’ve known about Death Stranding don’t leave any surprises that could potentially be in game enthusiasts hands soon. Every developer such as Sony Santa Monica and Guerrilla Games has shifted into next-gen development on no-brainer follow ups to their massive PS4 hits. However, these just aren’t ready to be talked about outside of a possible logo or single piece of art. So why try to sell snake oil when you need goodwill heading into a new generation of hardware?
It would be hard to dispute Sony may just not have anything to talk about, the big three have made no secret their R&D teams are in full development mode on next-generation hardware. PlayStation being the unquestioned winner of the hardware sales (as of April 2018 was around 76 million units sold) this time around isn’t feeling a pressure to be first out of the gate. It sits in that sweet spot where you can’t be too comfortable but certainly able breathe just a bit. The company has also been proving this generation that while E3 can be helpful for most, it isn’t crucial for everyone. Instead of competing for headlines and the attention of a splintered audience, PlayStation has invested in outreach. Their Road To Greatness tour has pulled its trailer into various events from sports, college campuses, even military air shows. A single truck going across country isn’t setting the sales world on fire but it does show a desire to be more directly in touch with consumers. Showing off your best stuff to the general audience that’s constantly on the fence about gaming was definitely a step in the right direction. Then there was Sony’s pat on the back, PlayStation Experience. An entire 2-day convention that made several game announcements and had fans from all over the world fly in to create one of the ultimate expressions of brand loyalty. Let’s not forget this was also where we were first introduced to The Last of Us Part 2, not E3.
PlayStation is far from first to depart E3 as Electronic Arts has shifted to holding an off site event just down the street in Hollywood. This year, Xbox moved out of the convention center and into the Microsoft Theater in a branding move that was long overdue, but they still remained a listed partner to E3 itself. As to whether the company felt the move to Microsoft Theater was the right one, as of writing this the company would not say. Recently Xbox even held their own mini keynote press conference during Fanfest in Mexico City. While that crowd looked and sounded good on video, the level of news Microsoft had was rather tame with nothing solid teased from its studio acquisitions and just a Crackdown 3 preview to show.
Sony’s been slowly pivoting to not relying on E3 to create buzz for years. After all why put everything into one Superbowl ad of a summer presentation when you can consistently reach millions throughout the year? Something Sony said in a statement best illustrates what’s likely going on. In a quote to GameInformer, “We are exploring new and familiar ways to engage our community in 2019 and can’t wait to share our plans with you.” One of Sony’s recent dives was into the world of consumer Virtual Reality with PSVR. Though the headset has moved over 2 million units, it isn’t quite what Sony were hoping for in terms of expectation. Yet the company hasn’t abandoned support for PSVR like it did with the handheld Vita system. Games such as Firewall and Tetris Effect are still adding to what’s becoming a robust library of VR centric experiences. The problem is with VR itself. In a YouTube and screenshot writeup world these mediums simply don’t do games like Arkham VR, Superhot, and Creed justice.
Traditional commercial advertising isn’t going to work and long lines that require appointments at trade shows or conventions isn’t enough. Sony needs to practically reinvent the way games are marketed when it comes to selling the large audience on the accessibility and fun of VR, but that doesn’t mean it has to limit any new initiatives to that platform. We are indeed getting close to circling the wagons for a new cycle of gaming hardware. If Sony does have some new form of outreach to its fanbase, testing the waters on how it affects PSVR would be a great indicator on whether or not to go all in for PS5 or go back and spend around $4-6 million on booth space alone at E3 2020.
Before you believe I just threw out a random number, a few years back I met a gentlemen at the ESA’s official E3 party who sold space to publishers for the show. Some of the numbers he threw out would make Comic-Con International gasp, so it was only a natural evolution that an industry that’s leading revenue generating in entertainment would have companies seeking to move past the need to be confined to specific trade shows and find ways to use the emerging culture of creation to radicalize its own messaging.
Sony leaving E3 (for at least 2019) ultimately doesn’t signal anything to cause concern over PS5 other than they already have their marketing team and portfolio managers on it. This move also isn’t a death rattle for E3 itself. As Electronic Entertainment Expo integrates more of the general public, companies who don’t mind sharing the attention of 70k people for a week will still want to exhibit. Perhaps space prices won’t be at a premium causing consumer ticket costs to raise but the likely hood of the show completely going away is still a problem for future us.