Is the ESA creating a closed loop with their E3 Expo media requirements?

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I have been accepted to E3 for 2011 and have had a media pass for the last 8 years. However, I have seen many great journalists denied entry for E3 2011 that have always been able to go in the past.

Every year the E3 Expo is the industry’s biggest showcase for games to be released over the next year or two. Major announcements are made at E3, media is able to get early impressions of games behind closed doors, and general attendees can play games that are still months from seeing a release date. For those that aren’t too familiar with the requirements to enter E3, here are the ways to get in:

  • Qualified Media – The ESA gives free E3 passes to qualified media members. This is how I’ve been going for the past 8 years. To qualify, you have to prove you are employed by a member of the gaming press and the site you represent must meet certain standards (traffic, quality, reputation, etc.) defined by the ESA for entry. The number of attendees from each media outlet allowed depends on how prominent your site is in the industry (usually defined by traffic numbers).
  • Exhibitor – If your company is showing games, hardware, accessories, or industry related services off at E3, you’ll be allowed to enter. A company can only secure a limited number of exhibitor badges, which depends on the amount of floor space they purchase.
  • Exhibits Only – Exhibits only badges are for people who are part of the industry but do not qualify for media or exhibitor badges. This can be developers, hardware makers, entertainment outlets, or anything related to the industry; even if the connection is rather loose. These passes are not free and must be purchased. Journalists that don’t qualify for media badges may get an exhibits only badge, but they must pay the $400 ($500 after the early registration deadline) for entry.

Nobody under 18 is allowed in the show, but exceptions are made for VIP guests (usually famous teen actors/singers). VIP passes may be handed out by the ESA or certain companies may secure them for special guests or contest winners. All of that looks fine, but I have issues with how the media passes are doled out.

What is happening with E3 is that only the bigger media outlets are being given free passes. I spoke with someone in the registration office and they said it is to cut down on overall numbers and that publishers have been asking for tighter control for years. Again, I ¬†understand the need for crowd control, but the ESA is going about this all wrong. Rather than locking out the smaller sites, it would be far better to limit the numbers being sent by qualified sites. By locking out the smaller media outlets and the enthusiasts, they’re basically killing the best chance each year that these sites have at increasing their readers since they won’t have access to E3 demos and to publishers for interviews. Everybody will still flow to IGN, Gamespot, 1UP, etc. since they’re the ones allowed into the show with full media access. Also, the companies that can most afford to send people to Los Angeles for three days are getting their passes for free.

The ESA is playing a huge role in deciding the shape of games journalism, and it’s disappointing that the locking out of the little guys from E3 will be far more harsh this year than ever, despite the growing swell of support for the enthusiast press by the gaming audience. While this is all disappointing, it’s even more unnecessary to give large outlets a disproportionate presence when you consider all of the pre-E3 events.

Publishers understand that E3 is a busy convention and there’s not quite enough time for every game to get covered in great depth. They also know that the show floor is loud and crowded. In response to this, many publishers hold pre-E3 events where they invite top media sites and freelancers to come see their E3 offerings ahead of time. These sites get quality hands on time with the E3 demos before the kiosks have ever even been set up in the Los Angeles Convention Center. When IGN rolls into E3, they’ve already played most of the stuff they’re worried about and the stories have been written. So why do the big boys need to send 50 people? Well, they don’t really. In speaking with editors from larger sites they’ve always told me that E3 is an excuse to get away for a few days, attend some parties, and hang out with other journalists. They don’t have to sit up until 4:00am each night trying to pound out demo impressions on their computers because they wrote them up the week before after attending a pre-E3 event.

Given that these pre-E3 events are becoming more and more common, it seems that the ESA should be more lenient about letting smaller sites into the show. They can still have restrictions on entry, but maybe they need to scale back the numbers being sent by large companies and reduce the number of attendee passes they sell. Obviously the ESA is hoping that those that don’t quite make their thresholds for media clearance will buy their way in, but ultimately most smaller sites will just have to sit the show out.

Maybe publishers will be happier with the smaller crowds this year when they’re able to have more breathing room in their booths, but I have to wonder how much they’ll love the decreased chatter from the enthusiast press when it comes to impressions of their demos that they spent millions of dollars to put on exhibit at E3 2011.

I’m hoping that those that struggle to get into the show this year are able to make their voices heard and that for E3 2012 the ESA will re-evaluate their approval process and allow for the little guy to attend the show again. If anybody is left out of the show this year, and they need a hands on preview or two, let me know and I’d be happy to do some freelance work free of charge in exchange for a link or two my way.