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Summer Game Fest’s first physical event showed me the future of E3

When I launched VGC in May 2019, if you’d have told me I’d only have six months of events at which to source interview content, build awareness and conduct the all-important networking at the bar, I probably would’ve been terrified.

But when the world’s borders slammed shut at the start of 2020 that’s exactly what happened, and the environment in which we operate today – more than two years later – is unrecognisable.

To be clear, this is no sob story: video games were one of the few industries to benefit from stay-at-home restrictions as the world turned to gaming to pass time and connect with friends. This in turn meant that more people were reading websites like VGC and we’re incredibly grateful for it.

But let’s be honest, most of the digital events thrown together in the wake of in-person gatherings being impossible were painful.

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And that’s not just for consumers, who were disappointed when publishers like Capcom struggled to fill their live streams with enough content to justify their runtime, but also for journalists like me, used to returning from E3 with 20 interviews and a bunch of news leads obtained at the bar.

(I’m sure this viewpoint is not reflective of the broader games media, but I’m 36 years old and live with two young daughters, so a week in Los Angeles is still preferable to trying to conduct a Zoom call during the 42nd rerun of Encanto.)

My experience with digital events so far has been filled with tedious marketing and PRs tightly controlling any interaction at all from the press – if indeed they offered any.

So it goes without saying that when the Summer Game Fest team reached out about a real, actual event in the slot that E3 would’ve taken, called Play Days, I was enthusiastic to support it.

SGF is of course the latest venture from presenter and journalist Geoff Keighley, who has become synonymous with the phrase ‘WORLD EXCLUSIVE’ via his Game Awards and Gamescom’s Opening Night Live shows. So it made sense when at the start of the pandemic he swooped in to fill the gap left by the cancelled E3.

But a physical event presents a whole new set of challenges for the industry personality, not all of which he can control: partners need to provide content, the media need to want to travel, and of course you need to prepare an event space suitable for the requirements of a modern media showcase.

Summer Game Fest’s first physical event showed me the future of E3

To be frank, I was initially skeptical of how much value Summer Game Fest’s physical show would offer. Especially when the first line-up confirmations came through as – in all fairness to their quality – Cuphead DLC and Power Wash Simulator. Great games, no doubt, but not exactly megatons nor justification for a 10-hour flight.

The final line-up turned out to be better, with exclusive demos of Sonic Frontiers and Street Fighter 6 and more – plus Power Wash Simulator, it turns out, is excellent – but still far from what would usually be expected from a major E3 show. As discussed at length in our various reactions to the Summer Game Fest live show, this is a symptom of the industry’s ongoing struggle to complete triple-A blockbusters disrupted by the pandemic.

Geoff Keighley and his team can’t control this, of course, especially when some publishers have ruled out creating pre-release hands-on demos until they’ve had more time to recover. But for what they do have a hand in, the Summer Game Fest team have done a great job.

The event is held in a social space in downtown LA’s Fashion District. Merchandise company Iam8bit has helped put it together, and it certainly bears all the hallmarks of something created by people who know how to put together a top-tier event, including plenty of branding, lovely catering and crucially, free socks.

The space is one large room filled the demo kiosks, along with an outdoor space with seating and food trucks, a bar, and a theatre where press can charge their laptops in exchange for forced re-viewings of the Summer Game Fest live show.

“Plays Days was an intimate, informal event where attendees could go from playing Street Fighter 6, to chatting to a colleague at the bar, to interviewing the head of Sonic Team within the space of 30 minutes”

The small venue and limited number of attendees – which Keighley claims to be in the hundreds, but I estimate to be more like 50 journalists, unless you include the terrifying Twitch robots driving around the event space – made for a totally refreshing experience compared to the chaos of traditional E3.

Plays Days was an intimate, informal event where attendees could go from playing Street Fighter 6, to chatting to a colleague at the bar, to interviewing the head of Sonic Team within the space of 30 minutes – all without having to sprint across a convention center the size of a small airport.

It was frankly a far better experience than E3 could be at times, but that is of course because it’s accommodating a few hundred people and not the 60,000 who would annually flock to the Los Angeles Convention Center.

In the coming days, I think consumers will see the benefits of this as attendees publish their content and the various embargoes expire.

I arrived expecting Summer Game Fest: Play Days to be precursor to something compelling in a future iteration. I left hoping they don’t tweak the formula at all. But I’m concerned it won’t last.

Keighley has already confirmed Summer Game Fest will return in physical form in 2023 and hinted that it could evolve from what we experienced in LA this week. But for me, its strength was in its small scale and informal setting. Pilling in more content creators or even inviting the public would threaten to spoil everything I loved about the Play Days event as it scaled up accordingly.

Summer Game Fest’s first physical event showed me the future of E3

The games line-up definitely needs to improve for Play Days to become more important, but as mentioned that’s sort of out of its control right now. If it can solve that issue then perhaps, should E3 actually follow through with its promise to finally return as a physical show in 2023, Summer Game Fest could finally solve the identity crisis that has plagued recent expos.

Over the past decade E3 has struggled to offer value to business attendees – for whom it was originally created– and at the same time cater to the millions of consumers who made it such a huge tentpole in the gaming calendar.

Geoff Keighley knows how to get video game fans excited and, as evidenced by the great time the press seemed to have at Play Days this week, he can throw an excellent business event at the same time.

Despite letting in some consumers in recent iterations, the LA Convention Center isn’t big enough to hold a Gamescom-style dual public and business event. Could Play Days offer the solution as the invite-only brother to a fully public E3 show in 2023? I’d find that considerably more appealing than returning to the old E3 crush.

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