The silence is deafening. Last night, Microsoft and Bethesda hosted a 90-minute Xbox E3 2021 showcase, using the global platform to both outline an alluring array of upcoming Xbox Series X games and to further solidify Xbox Game Pass as, arguably, the best value subscription service in entertainment. It was able to do all of this completely unchecked. That's because Sony decided to sit E3 out entirely, again; it's hard not to feel as if the PS5 was sidelined as a result.
At its best, E3 shows us where video games have been and where they are going next. That's a narrative crafted by platform holders, executed by game makers. One that unspools over a few days to outline the broad strokes of a conversation that will endure through the months – and in some cases, years – to come. By sitting out E3 2021, Sony removed itself from that conversation. It left Microsoft free to showcase what billions of dollars in acquisitions and investments into first-party studios and services over four years can get you – exclusives, a lot of them, from some of the most respected and creative developers in the world.
And regardless of your feelings on E3 as it exists today, this point can not be understated: the whole world is watching it. E3 is where perceptions are set in stone, and they can be difficult to break. Where Sony's State of Play showcases may garner the attention of the millions out there with a PS4 or PS5, E3 pulls everybody, including international media organizers, into its orbit. CNN wasn't covering the Horizon Forbidden West gameplay reveal, but it sure as hell was pointing people towards the Xbox exclusivity of Starfield, Bethesda's "Skyrim in space" – an irresistible proposition. Skyrim is one of the best-selling, and most beloved, games of all-time; the fact that Starfield won't be available on PS5 will have a material impact once the information seeps into the mainstream and settles into the consciousness of the general public.
I want to go back to that point on perceptions for a second, because it's important. Pre-pandemic, I would still occasionally meet parents and casual gamers who believed that the Xbox One couldn't play preowned games. Now that's an idea Microsoft floated at its infamous E3 2013 press conference. Sony resoundingly mocked that presentation from its own stage (opens in new tab) and the aftermath to help instill the idea that the PS4 was "for the players", and further enshrined in the consciousness of the general public by the intense scrutiny of worldwide, mainstream media coverage. Microsoft never completely escaped this perception that the Xbox One was a mess, even as it ditched many of its more controversial features before the console had even hit shelves, and worked tirelessly to improve the ecosystem over the ensuing generation.
Xbox's future comes into focus
E3 2021 was the culmination of that effort for Microsoft. Since 2017, it has upped its collection of developers under the Xbox Game Studios umbrella from seven to 23. It's done this through investment (founding of studios like The Initiative, currently working on a Perfect Dark reboot, and pouring money into tentpole games like 343's Halo Infinite) and acquisitions (purchasing studios like Bethesda, Playground, and Obsidian). It established Game Pass and has grown it into the heart of the entire Xbox ecosystem with over 18 million subscribers, and has even stormed into the realm of PC and Cloud gaming. With Xbox and Bethesda offering a united front, the E3 showcase was a breathless sprint through 30 games, 27 of which are day one for Game Pass, and the majority scheduled for 2021 and 2022 as console exclusives. And Sony has nothing to say about any of it.
Now I'm not suggesting that Sony and Microsoft should be constantly prepared to outdo one another. The console wars are reductive, a product of a different time that many would love to see left behind as video games become bigger, more mainstream, and more diverse. But competition makes the market healthier for everybody, and seeing Microsoft score something of an open goal while Sony watched on from the bench was a little disheartening. You can imagine a world where Sony had put a State of Play in place to run today or tomorrow, revealing Horizon Forbidden West gameplay alongside updates from Sony Santa Monica, Naughty Dog, and its other world-class first-party studios – all as it detailed new releases into its sterling PlayStation Plus Collection and announced different colored faceplates for the PS5 to match the new DualSense controllers. It might not have been enough to spoil Xbox's night, but it would have taken some of the sting out of it.
Sony bowed out of E3 some time ago, deciding to instead focus on its own presentations far from the ESA. And the all-digital composition of E3 2021 meant that pre-recorded presentations had to be made, leaving less room for reaction and last-minute alterations to run-of-shows. That means that those classic E3 moments, where the platform holders seem to respond to one another in real-time, with announcements fueled by the energy of the crowd and general sentiment on the ground, aren't possible. Still, Sony skipping E3 this year has only left a widening gap which Microsoft is quickly filling. You felt this a little in 2019, as Xbox pulled Keanu Reeves on stage to show off Cyberpunk 2077 alongside a slew of other Xbox Series X announcements, but 2021 felt different.
Sony will never struggle to sell PS5s. The PS4 is estimated to have sold over 115 million units, with PlayStation dwarfing Xbox in just about every area and aspect of the video game business. Right now, there's a perception that PlayStation is the best place to play. That's now a sentiment that Xbox is beginning to chip away at. E3 2021 was one of the best showcases that Microsoft has ever pulled together, and a lack of immediate response to the slew of exclusives coming to Xbox, or the inimitable allure of Game Pass, will mean that the general public is seeing the Xbox Series X and Series S in a way it would never have seen the Xbox One. Like I said, the silence from Sony is deafening, and Microsoft is only too eager to make enough noise to fill the void.