While the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo is still scheduled to kick off in Los Angeles this June, the headlines surrounding the next incarnation have mostly been about who’s not attending. After January’s news that Sony would (once again) not attend E3, Wednesday came with confirmation of another major no-show, but it’s not a game developer or a publisher; instead, it’s journalist, promoter, and producer Geoff Keighley.
Gaming fans are likely familiar with Keighley’s work as host of The Game Awards and various journalistic deep dives; his “Final Hours” series will emerge later this year with an insider’s look at the development process of Valve’s upcoming VR game Half-Life: Alyx. But in the case of E3, Keighley isn’t just a guy who shows up to check out new video games. For the past few years, he’s produced the E3 Coliseum series of game debuts and celebrity panels. And for over 20 years, he’s organized the independent, E3-adjacent Game Critics Awards—which are a huge factor for members of E3’s attending press in the West.
Some of that changes this year, according to a Wednesday statement posted to Keighley’s Twitter account. After acknowledging his 25 years of E3 attendance, Keighley confirmed that he “will not be participating in E3” this year and that he “declined” to serve as producer of any E3 Coliseum-style events.
“I’ve debated what to say about E3 2020,” Keighley wrote. “While I want to support the developers who will showcase their work, I also need to be open and honest with you, the fans, about precisely what to expect from me.”
In an email to Ars Technica, Keighley pointed to a blog post written by Electronic Software Association (ESA) representatives at the end of January as a point of contention. The post describes plans to “reinvigorate the show, and, frankly, to shake things up” with “surprise guests, amazing stage experiences, access to insiders, and experiential zones that delight the sense.” Keighley didn’t clarify which part of this blog post led him to step away from E3 production duties.
In a separate interview with GamesIndustry.biz, Keighley also pointed to an E3 website leak—no, not the one last year that revealed attending journalists’ personal information, but rather an unprotected data dump from Wednesday morning that included a list of apparent vendors and game makers who will be part of E3 2020.
“The widest possible group of games”
Meanwhile, Keighley tells Ars Technica that his work on the Games Critics Awards will continue mostly unchanged, at least from his end. “ESA/E3 has had no involvement in Games Critics Awards and never has,” Keighley said. “It has always been an independent group since the beginning. Nothing has changed there.”
However, two major points of excitement around E3 have changed for the GCAs: their award timing and eligibility. “This year, we will likely make the awards ‘Most Anticipated’ games coming out after June 30, versus tying them to products at E3, to get the widest-possible group of games to evaluate,” Keighley said.
The Game Critics Awards began life in 1998, when it was co-produced by former PC Gamer Editor-in-Chief Rob Smith. For more on the GCAs’ history, our own Kyle Orland wrote a 2009 feature about the event for Crispy Gamer (saved by the Wayback Machine). A 2005 statement about membership eligibility pointed to “Editors-in-Chief of major North American media outlets that have consistently covered the video game industry and have clearly shown an interest in critically evaluating interactive entertainment.” [Full disclosure: Ars Technica has been a participating GCA judge as far back as 2012.]
Orland’s 2009 feature describes the GCA process—and its associated “Judges Week” series of pre-E3 demos and interviews—as a “special access” process for participating members of the media. In short: qualified members of the press skip many of E3’s lines and crowds, then get shuttled from one press event to the next, each hosted by a different game studio or publisher with direct access to hands-on game demos. Not every major game company presents at this pre-E3 “Judges Week” series, but quite a few biggies do, including ESA members like Activision and Bandai-Namco, along with a series of independent studios. Because this tour traditionally happens weeks before the official E3 bow, members of the press get time to prepare their impressions and captured videos for preview coverage timed to E3’s events.
The GCAs typically include offers from publishers to cover travel and accommodations for participating members of the press. Ars Technica has consistently declined these offers as attendees.
Because the GCAs have been independently organized, they’ve consistently included stringent rules about award eligibility—including a requirement that nominated games be playable by participating judges (read: not a pre-rendered video) either ahead of or during E3. But Keighley’s statement to Ars Technica about the “widest-possible group of games” suggests that game eligibility could open up more widely from this point on, whether because a game’s build was emailed to judges or otherwise demonstrated at an event with zero ties to E3.
Keighley didn’t answer questions about his relationship with participating publishers for this year’s GCAs incarnation. Many of the GCAs’ traditional participating publishers have been members of the ESA, and Keighley’s pushback on E3 could very well change the relationship. Keighley admits in his emails that he’s still “working through plans” for this year’s GCAs and even went so far as to ask us at Ars Technica, “What do you think we should do?”