Each morning at the PlayStation Experience I was reminded of the similarities to Disneyland as I walked to the convention center, groggy and sore from carrying my laptop around all day. This was my third time at Sony’s annual exhibition, and also the third time it’s been held; in its short history it’s moved from Las Vegas to San Francisco and now to Anaheim, right across from Disneyland, and there were some unmistakable similarities with the Happiest Place on Earth. Long lines. Giant showpieces and stages. Fans adorned in paraphernalia expressing their love and devotion for the company that paid for it all.
This year’s PlayStation Experience was bigger and better than any previous. That meant less clamor and crowds at booths, but despite such big-time announcements as The Last of Us Part II and Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, the games that were actually on display weren’t always the hottest, newest titles. I was always surprised to see a line for Uncharted 4; even though the upcoming Survival mode was on display, I kept thinking about how the rest of the game was out and readily playable.
Throughout I wondered who PlayStation Experience is for, tossing the question around my head while sitting at a table in Roscoe’s Diner, eating fried chicken and waffles for the second time that weekend. (Someone hadn’t been yet, so obviously I had an excuse.) Sitting with seasoned industry vets and newcomers alike, we joked and laughed, sharing stories of other conventions and events. Sony has E3 and more to debut their biggest titles, and really, everything new shown at PlayStation Experience was a brief teaser more than a substantial reveal with in-game action.
Experience is a little bit more about the, well, experience. About being at a show that isn’t all work like E3, or feeling more condensed and packed every year like PAX. It’s a little bit laid back. Overlooked developers get a chance to show their games off to excited crowds, and since most of the big releases are out already, jaded media types like myself get the time to see something we haven’t read about in twenty press releases prior. It’s a place you can stop and chat, discuss the games you’ve seen or how weird e-sports are, right before you jet off to catch the Capcom Cup finals.
PSX is more about good vibrations than reveals, and in some ways, that can sound a little skeevy. But in a year as filled with nastiness, hate, vitriol and fake news posts as 2016, though, it’s a phenomenal escape. It’s the idea that a convention can still be fun, can appeal to everybody and celebrates the indulgence a little bit. You can get the big announcements and still roll out the red carpet for independent developers, intermingle the media and fans, and build something worth venturing out of your way for in the process.
What I’ve found, time and again about the PlayStation Experience, is that it’s a great spotlight for independent developers. PAX used to be that, but in recent years, the focus has shifted. The rise of conglomerations like the Indie Megabooth (and its own offspring booths) turned it into a spectacle, as the top-billed indies rose up and the small teams sank down.
Games like Divide, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap and even Windjammers were highlighted, propped up by PlayStation Blog posts and spots during the press conference. Bids for nostalgia and cult appeal aside, it allows Sony to feature some developers and earn good will, a mutual benefit. Games that often have trouble standing out get extra spotlight here; for example Pyre, the third game from indie developer Supergiant Games, had a huge booth and banner, and tons of foot traffic throughout the weekend.
But alongside the main show this year was a legion of e-sports coverage, in both the Capcom Cup and the Call of Duty World League. I found it strange how little presence the latter had, given its larger prize pool, but Street Fighter V has been a vehicle for Sony for over a year now. I wouldn’t be surprised if Activision starts looking for a main stage spot at next year’s inevitable convention.
The Capcom Cup itself was a huge event. While the preliminary rounds were held offsite the day before, in a Santa Ana venue appropriately called The E-Sports Arena, the top eight portion of the bracket was given the mainstage and four hours of Sony’s showtime. The crowd was a little more curious than energetic, with most of the biggest cheers coming for the Americans. For an e-sports competition, though, the pool of both competitors and attendees was diverse. Many different people from different walks of life were all present on the main stage, and the finals were between a male and female player, both belonging to some of the largest e-sports organizations in the world. There was nothing but support for these two, and the crowd went loud for their grand finals.
In terms of actual new games to show, most of it was third-party, with ambiguous 2017 dates. The Sony offerings were slim, being mostly the same demos shown at E3 back in June. No, The Last of Us Part II wasn’t playable, at least not anywhere I looked, though Shuhei Yoshida might have been hiding a setup somewhere behind that massive The Last Guardian wall art.
This may sound like inside baseball, because it is, but PSX straddles a lot of lines between known quantities in the games convention circuit. PlayStation Experience really isn’t about huge game demos, in the vein of E3, or meeting your favorite YouTuber or web comic animator, like PAX. Panels are sparse, with e-sports getting more floor space and spotlight. Everything is a little more relaxed; developers are gearing up for December vacations, on their last leg of press tour before we all hibernate and wake up again mid-January for the next bout of releases.
PlayStation Experience exists, and continues to exist, because it is a powerful tool for Sony to communicate directly to fans and highlight the devoted. But it also provides a different benefit: a new convention, focused on one specific group, allowing PSX to prop up the developers other shows fail to support, and put on big e-sports events and highlight the growing e-sports culture. So as other conventions shift and transform, trying to identify ways to stay relevant or evolve into something more, PlayStation Experience remains my constant: a no-holds-barred celebration of all things Sony, and my little island of palate-cleansing escape every year.
Eric Van Allen is a Texas-based writer. You can follow his e-sports and games rumblings @seamoosi on Twitter.