At E3 2019, Microsoft shows Sony the importance of simply showing up

(Image credit: Casey Rodgers/Invision for Xbox/AP Images)

The official PlayStation account on Twitter is a strange old thing at the moment. One tweet last night points out that Spiritfarer, one of the five dozen games shown off at the Xbox E3 2019 briefing yesterday, is coming to PlayStation next year. Scroll around a bit and you’ll be reminded that, yes, Cyberpunk 2077 is also being made for Sony’s console. As is Fall Guys, a new Mediatonic game announced by Devolver Digital last night, and Final Fantasy 7 Remake, which got a release date at a fan concert yesterday. Oh and hey, we’ve got a sale on too. Avert your gaze from the hype machine! Ignore all the new stuff! We’ve 35 per cent off Red Dead Redemption 2.

This is all a bit weird, a bit worrying and, as someone who still loves being swept up in the E3 measuring contest, also quite sad. Whatever you think of E3, it remains the video game industry’s focal point, a single week every year where everyone important goes to Los Angeles and everyone else gets very excited (and often quite cross) about what is unveiled. Sony is here too, no doubt: In meeting rooms and restaurants it is no doubt shaking hands and doing deals ahead of next year’s expected launch for PS5. But that counts for naught in the eyes of the public. Yes, Microsoft gave its best showing in years on stage yesterday – possibly its best ever. Sony needn’t have made it quite so easy.

I get why PlayStation didn’t show up. The logical consequence of building your E3 conference around games that are typically two or three years away from release, as Sony has spent much of this generation doing, is that you eventually run out of things to talk about; all you have left are games in development for a console you aren’t yet ready to unveil. But the fact that Microsoft managed to assemble its biggest-ever line-up of games shows that the well has far from run dry. There were 60 games on the Xbox stage yesterday. Fourteen of those were first-party. Chop the remaining 46 games in half, lean a little heavier than usual on the first-party games you have announced for the current generation, and there’s still plenty of material to build a press conference around. 

Microsoft was left to stand unopposed

Xbox E3 2019

Credit: Casey Rodgers/Invision for Xbox/AP Images (Image credit: Casey Rodgers/Invision for Xbox/AP Images)

"E3 may be intended as a showcase for everything the industry has to offer, but it is really a battle for attention"

In a parallel universe, there was a Sony E3 2019 press conference. That beguiling eight-minute Death Stranding trailer opened the show, rather than being snuck out a week or so before it. At the end there was another look at the stellar The Last of Us Part 2, and in between another dive into the intriguing Ghost of Tsushima. Mark Cerny came on stage and outlined the vision for PS5. Sony, realising that still wasn’t quite enough, reached for its chequebook. Namco had some crazy new thing, a hook-up between Hidetaka Miyazaki and George RR Martin. Sony got Elden Ring (and while we’re dreaming, let’s say it didn’t leak). CD Projekt Red had unveiled Cyberpunk 2077 on Microsoft’s stage in 2018, and quite fancied a change of scenery. An offer of some stage time from the generation’s runaway winner was impossible to resist. Sony got Cyberpunk, and Sony got Keanu. They said it was one of the best E3 conferences of all time. 

Instead, Microsoft was left to stand unopposed, and has naturally won by a landslide. It was an excellent conference, certainly, but was not without its problems. There was too much CG, and not enough gameplay. The running order was all over the shop. The plan for Project xCloud was poorly explained, and the Project Xbox Scarlett announcement lacking in substance. But with no point of comparison, there is nothing to particularly criticise. Perhaps it could have been better but hey, it’s all we’ve got. And anyway, they had Keanu. 

E3 may be intended as a showcase for everything the industry has to offer, but it is really a battle for attention. It is not about owning the conversation so much as being involved in it, and you ignore it at your peril. Yes, some of the biggest players in the industry have pulled back a bit over the course of the generation. Nintendo abandoned press conferences in favour of Direct broadcasts. EA launched EA Play, Activision has no booth this year, and even Microsoft has decamped to its plush new digs down the road. 

That doesn’t mean E3 is dying; it just means it’s a bit more spread out, and in duration and square footage it actually gets longer and bigger every year. I’ve been going to E3 for the best part of a decade, and for the first time nobody is talking about PlayStation unless it’s to question what the hell they’re playing at. They’ll be back next year, no doubt, with a new console and hopefully a banger of a launch line-up. But they’ll be doing so on the back foot, starting the new generation having willingly handed the advantage to their biggest rival. They may yet regret it. The world, after all, is run by those who show up. 

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Nathan Brown is a video game consultant and writer, and former editor of Edge magazine. He's now a freelance journalist, still writing for Edge magazine, but his main passion is writing Hit Points, a regular newsletter about the videogame industry.