Barnum & Bailey used to boast of putting on the Greatest Show on Earth. But the world’s best-known circus can’t hold a candle to the riotous videogames extravaganza known as E3 that holds court every June in downtown Los Angeles.
No superlative – “biggest”, “fastest”, “most powerful”, “smartest”, etc – goes unthrown in this week of one-upmanship. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to link the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo to the demise of Barnum & Bailey, which shut down last month amid falling ticket sales. Many of their customers now seek more modern wonders such as games, an industry which has quietly built itself into a cultural behemoth worth €80bn a year.
In LA this week, an attendance of more than 60,000 poured through the doors of the Los Angeles Convention Center every day for the three days of E3 in search of the next big thing. Industry movers and shakers, media, millionaire YouTubers, retailers and – for the first time – 15,000 members of the public crammed the halls of the hulking venue.
That’s 13 acres of more than 2,000 exhibits desperately trying to catch everyone’s eye. Inevitably, the efforts run the gamut from the equivalent of a carnival barker to monstrous branded booths with gigantic screens pumping out booming soundtracks.
It amounts to a sensory assault, as punishing on the eyes and ears as the odour of tightly packed humans in manmade-fibre T-shirts is on the nose.
However, E3’s umbrella has spread well beyond those three midweek dates now that the major companies host their own press conferences in the days leading up to the main show. This is as much about controlling the news agenda as it is staging the elaborate unveilings in venues away from the chafing confines of the Convention Center.
In a repurposed basketball arena, Microsoft filled us in on what it describes as “the world’s most powerful console”, as it has dubbed the new Xbox One X, due out in time for Christmas priced at €500.
“We have the most diverse range of games ever and we are pushing the boundaries of the art form,” said Xbox boss Phil Spencer, addressing the crowd of several thousand invited guests and the millions watching the live broadcast on the internet.
In a breakneck presentation of 90 minutes, Spencer showcased more than 40 new games headed to the Xbox. There was even a couple of minutes carved out for Irish developer Brendan Greene, who took to the stage to announce his wildly successful (albeit clumsily titled) survival game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was also coming to Xbox before year-end.
Twenty-four hours later and just yards away at a beautifully ornate theatre across the street, Sony made its pitch to a similar live audience, the internet masses and thousands watching the broadcast in cinemas around the world.
However, only we in the theatre suffered the ear-shattering flashbangs and whiff of cordite that accompanied the on-screen action in some of the dozens of new games destined for PlayStation 4. “Every year we continue to push the envelope of storytelling, imagination and technology,” proclaimed PlayStation America president Shawn Layden as he introduced a stream of titles including Spider-Man, Monster Hunter World and a remade Shadow of the Colossus.
E3 is where the biggest games intended for the coming 12 months frequently get their first airing. Some disappear off the radar for years only to resurface after a troubled development. But familiar blockbusters such as Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and Forza Motorsport can always be counted on to show up like clockwork – this year was no exception.
Even though the industry shows an uncomfortable fondness for established franchises and genres, there remains room for smaller projects, some produced by teams of just one or two. E3 acts as a giant shop window for these minnows hoping to be picked up by a major or garner attention from the media or, more likely, a YouTube star with a fanbase of millions.
If all else fails, there’s always the celebrity route. In past years, stars such as Snoop Dogg, Jamie Foxx and Zac Efron have plugged product. This year was low on celeb wattage but was notable for the appearance of Elijah Wood, AKA Frodo in Lord of the Rings. But Wood is no shill in it for the money, his production company Spectrevision is making a psychological thriller in virtual reality called Transference.
The game, a co-production with Ubisoft, is slated for release in spring 2018 and looks decidedly weird, in a good way.
E3’s decision to admit such a large number of the public in 2017 comes after many years of clamour from fans for access to the world’s biggest game show. The price of admission didn’t come cheap – up to $250 for a three-day pass. But there were plenty of takers and the allocation of 15,000 tickets sold out last month.
“Me and my friends had been dying to attend for, like, forever,” said Luisa Vasquez (26), from New Mexico, as she relaxed in the baking sunshine outside the Convention Center while waiting for the doors to open on day one. “When I heard they were selling tickets, I just knew I had to get them. I just go crazy for Nintendo and really want to see Super Mario Odyssey.”
She had driven with friends for 12 hours straight from her home to Los Angeles and they were planning to sleep in the car to save money.
Like gaming itself, E3’s gender demographic – which had been heavily skewed to men since its inception in 1995 – does seem to be slowly shifting, accelerated this year by the influx of women from the general public.
But the dominant image from the halls of the Convention Center in June remains that of serious-looking young men in ill-fitting black T-shirts. As they bark into their video cameras on selfie sticks, they’re feeding the insatiable online demand for scraps of information about new games.
They are the new ringmasters in the Greatest Show on Earth.
READ MORE: Ronan Price reviews the latest instalment of the Tekken franchise
Highlights of E3 2017
(PS4, out 2018)
The umpteenth Spidey outing could well prove his best, with the webslinger soaring around a skyscraper and saving the citizens of New York with consummate ease. It looks spectacular and comes from Insomniac, a developer with a pedigree for action and humour.
Beyond Good and Evil 2
(Platforms & release date unknown)
A sequel to a much-loved 14-year-old platformer, the trailer for BGE2 told us little or nothing of how the new game works. But fizzing with energy and boasting a wisecracking talking ape as the lead, this was a carefully crafted spectacle to melt the heart of any cynic.
The Last Night
A glorious cyberpunk adventure rendered fetchingly in retro-styled 2D, The Last Night appeals to fans of dystopian fiction like Blade Runner. But there’s more to it than just homage, with elements of stealth and infiltration whetting the appetite.
Super Mario Odyssey
(Nintendo Switch, October)
Another tantalising glimpse of Mario’s latest adventure serves to highlight Nintendo’s mastery of offbeat, joyful worlds. Who knew you could have so much fun and wield so much power with a mere hat.