Summer Game Fest Is the New E3, For Better or Worse

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Summer Game Fest Is the New E3, For Better or Worse

For three days, a large part of games media had one thing in common: an annoyance toward a single tree.

At the media lounge inside the venue for Play Days, the E3-lite portion of Summer Game Fest exclusive to media and content creators, there were a couple of communal tables on an outdoor patio, right next to a frequently-attended coffee shop. Despite providing a much-needed cover from the sun to protect a swarm of non-anti-glare screens, the wind would show up every couple of minutes shaking the tree above them, letting a layer of leaves fall each time.

Every now and then, I would listen to colleagues and friends asking whether they wanted to sit under the shade or the sun, doing a courteous back and forth to switch seats. It was a choice between having to write with little to no visibility, or look like a Greek Olympian for the rest of the day with leaves on your hair. These small exchanges could only happen during those three days, at that specific spot in Los Angeles.

I attended my first Summer Game Fest under the preconception that it was the “chill” subversion of the usual event sprint that is June. Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, I had the chance to cover E3 and PAX West in 2019. Both were intensive undertakings, but E3 was particularly excruciating, leading me to write 18 stories in the span of a week. Once it became clear I was attending SGF, I told myself I didn’t want to repeat that experience, and instead give myself moments to rest, grab a bite, and recharge before the next preview session.

As I began reaching out to publishers for opportunities to start planning my schedule, that initial intention became wishful thinking. As a freelancer who covered both flights and accommodation out of his own pocket, the goal was to try and make the most out of the event. The thing is, the concept of a smaller E3—especially during the precarity period that games media has been going through in recent times—equals a smaller need for external resources, with most publications sending a few staff members as correspondents for the whole event. I reached out to 15 sites, of which I only heard back from eight of them. Five rejected freelance coverage, while I worked with the remaining three, including the one you’re reading now. Needless to say, I didn’t break even in the end. It wasn’t as bad as I expected, however, for which I’m grateful. But my schedule looked the complete opposite of “chill” ahead of the event.

And yet, those moments of respite presented themselves either way. Summer Game Fest’s Play Days venue (of which I have to be vague about, as per PR guidelines, but there are plenty of vlogs out there for you to watch) is largely an outdoor space. The constant vitamin D exposure was an immediate far cry from the AC-fueled and RBG-lighted hallways of the Los Angeles Convention Center where E3 used to be. It also helps that, even with no shortage of booths, tents, and halls, the space is fairly accommodating in terms of distances. You could go from one extreme to the other in only a few minutes. Crucially, I didn’t show up to any appointments covered in sweat, as was likely to happen after running between halls of the convention center. It also allowed me to not stress too much about stopping to shake hands, take a selfie, or hug people. More often than not, I could do all three of them.

The closeness meant higher chances of bumping into people pretty much anywhere. Despite how busy everybody was, it was always welcoming to see a familiar face while waiting for my food during lunchtime or if my appointment times lined up with a mutual. Even the silent nod when crossing paths in the bathroom wasn’t really that awkward. The fact that this year’s edition was three days long as opposed to the original two helped to create an unintentional familiarity with this space. By the third day, I knew what I wanted to pick from the food trucks, as well as the location of all water stations. I had learned where to sit if I wanted the shade or the sun.

It’s the small things that we don’t often experience when we’re all in our respective corners of the world. Unless you’re lucky to work in an office, the chances to witness these innocuous moments are far and few between, let alone live them yourself. Sure, at the end of the day, it was still a work event. Even with our busy schedules, though, people just seemed eager to take five and chat with one another.

But as precious as these moments were, most of the evening conversations and aftermath discussions seem to indicate that the event is already in a transitional period, becoming more in line with what E3 used to be. I wasn’t the only one with a packed schedule; some folks were already fully booked weeks in advance. This was aggravated by the fact that a considerable number of publishers hosted their preview spaces off-site, which meant making decisions about what to cover and what to inevitably skip. Some of these opportunities demanded a longer-than-usual time commitment. When taking into account the back-and-forth commute in an expensive LA Uber, you end up having to allocate almost half a day for one of these opportunities.

While Play Days itself lasted for three days this year, some companies offered previews and interviews ahead of time. For some, it was a week-long event, if not longer. Some colleagues theorize that SGF will continue to expand itself, in both length and sheer number of attendees, which seemed to have been at an all-time peak this year. While bittersweet, it’s not unfathomable to think that Play Days will relocate from “mystery venue” to, say, a convention center at some point in the next few years.

My first time attending E3 was also during a transitional period. By 2019, companies like EA, Microsoft, Nintendo, and PlayStation had already ditched the event in favor of hosting their own showcases. Attendance was falling compared to previous years, even after the decision to open to the public in 2017. After a few attempts at reanimating it, the ESA announced late last year that the event won’t be returning.

As of now, the Summer Game Fest conglomerate stands as a hybrid of sorts—a fading summer vacation with the preview commitment traditions of old. Perhaps it was naive to expect the “chill” vibe to remain as one of the event’s pillars, as it’s already becoming larger than its intended place and runtime. It’s clear that this ambition is deliberate. But I’m glad I caught it during this period. In a few years, I’ll be able to look back at my first time in SGF and remember the fleeting moments that could only happen in that space. Opening my laptop after returning home to find a dried leaf sitting on the keyboard will forever be a memory of the last chance we had to take five before the cycle began anew.

Diego Nicolás Argüello is a freelance journalist from Argentina who has learned English thanks to video games. You can read his work in places like Polygon, the New York Times, The Verge, and more, and he’s usually procrastinating on Twitter @diegoarguello66.

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