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Videogame Industry Shifts Focus to Web-Savvy Gamers 

At E3 trade show, game companies are focusing on players as much as retail stores

Game enthusiasts and industry attendees walk between the Microsoft XBox and the Sony PlayStation exhibits at the E3 show last year in Los Angeles.
Game enthusiasts and industry attendees walk between the Microsoft XBox and the Sony PlayStation exhibits at the E3 show last year in Los Angeles. 

The videogame industry’s bid to better embrace online-savvy gamers with live events will play out at the annual E3 trade show.

Hundreds of companies at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, which officially opens Tuesday in Los Angeles, will deploy extravagant booths to generate buzz for new games.

Hardware revelations, the chief hype generator, will be in short supply. Sony Corp. said on Friday it won’t show a beefier PlayStation 4 console to handle high-end virtual reality and 4K graphics. Nintendo Co. won’t talk about its next system, code-named NX, focusing instead on Link’s adventures in the next “Legend of Zelda” game. A new Xbox One from Microsoft Corp. is a maybe at best.

E3’s organizer aims to keep consumers amped up anyway by showering them with more attention while still catering to the 45,000 industry insiders expected on the trade show’s floors.

The Entertainment Software Association is creating a side event for 20,000 fans, particularly those who have followed E3 online for years and are gravitating to other consumer-friendly conferences. The players will get access to as-yet unreleased games, interact with developers and mingle with gaming celebrities in a party-like atmosphere.

The move is aimed at keeping E3 relevant with game companies increasingly focused on players as much as retail stores. Two of the biggest publishers, Electronic Arts Inc. and Activision Blizzard Inc.,won’t have dedicated spaces of their own at E3 this year.

Activision Blizzard is opting for private meetings and will run game demos in Sony’s booth. EA is hosting its own gathering outside of the conference. Both companies recently published trailers for their popular war shooters on Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube instead of saving them for E3. The ESA is fighting to keep those experiences a part of the conference.

Opening E3’s doors to gamers also reflects the growing marketing clout of ordinary consumers who use live-streaming video and other social technology. By giving attendees a first look at coming games, publishers count on free publicity as fans spread word to their peers.

“They’ll be the first to play new games and they’re going to tell their friends and social-media circles about them,” Rich Taylor, ESA’s senior vice president of communications, said.

People who download demos and buy games online are making up a growing chunk of game-industry sales. Last year, U.S. consumers bought 86.4 million digital copies of PC and console games, up 13% from 2014, according to industry tracker SuperData Research Inc.

ILLUSTRATION: FRED HARPER

“Publishers need an event that accomplishes more than just selling discs to retail buyers,” said Patrick Walker, an analyst at research firm EEDAR.

There is still excitement around conferences as fans try to glean what new games are under development. A year ago at E3, for example, EA showcased Faith’s new battles in “Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst.” It is possible Activision Blizzard this year will show more of Capt. Reyes from the coming game “Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare” as part of Sony’s or Microsoft’s pre-E3 event on Monday.

To help amplify the party mood, the ESA for a second-consecutive year is admitting about 5,000 “professional consumers” with vast social-media followings. They will have access to the fan event as well as the show’s 350,000 square feet of pavilions and booths.

Last year, people spent an average of 421 minutes a month on Amazon Inc.’s Twitch, which streams gaming and other content. On YouTube, the biggest channel belongs to Felix Kjellberg, whose comedic game reviews under the name PewDiePie boast more than 45 million subscribers, up from 27 million in 2014.

“Content creators matter a lot more today,” said Chris Bruzzo, marketing chief at EA. “They are impacting players’ perceptions and purchase decisions in a significant way.”

‘Publishers need an event that accomplishes more than just selling discs...’

—Patrick Walker, EEDAR

Brad Carr last month preordered a $40 digital copy of Activision Blizzard’s “Overwatch” after watching people play an early version of it on Twitch. “Seeing them have some fun with it reassured me the game wasn’t going be a total bomb,” the 29-year-old from Richmond, Va., said.

Tags: e3 2016