E3 2021 is nearly upon us and after missing a year for the first time ever, it’s not only back, but going online.

Last year’s E3 couldn’t adapt quickly enough to the still ongoing crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it just never happened. Now a year later, E3 is happening, and while there’s been growing concern for how the show could possibly carry on in this new format, I’d like to stop and consider: Could an online E3 be good? First though, a trip down memory lane.

In 2017, E3 did something unprecedented: they opened its doors to the public. The most widely known games industry show, E3 is where most of the big-name game developers and publishers come to announce new games and hype up existing ones. It’s a games show for the games industry. Naturally then, this news was cause for excitement among fans who had longed to attend. So in an effort to generate buzz, adapt to the times, and turn a quick buck, E3 2017 happened.

But it was a disaster plagued by lines and mismanagement. The already-busy LA Convention Center barely found the room for 15,000 more people, making for a packed and hot show floor. Attendees were often in lines for games longer than they actually spent playing them and there was little for them to do otherwise. Folks who worked the show felt that E3 was in the midst of a crisis, flitting between consumer convention and trade show and becoming a growing inconvenience for everyone while figuring it out. Though the show has since gotten better about including the public, it still hasn’t emerged from this crisis and is paying for it, shedding developers and publishers in subsequent years.

This all leads to the present moment, with a digital-only E3 that could be a new kind of mess. E3 has not been about just the people who work in games for a long time now — look no further than the press conferences that drive the majority of the traffic for the show to see that. While the halls they took place in were obviously filled with reporters writing up or often just tweeting the news as it happened, these conferences are also live-streamed and have been for over a decade now. And while they used to be packed with announcements and boring statistics, the years have eroded the latter almost entirely from the show.

What’s left are mostly glamorous presentations with wall-to-wall sizzle reels, hype trailers, surprise celebrity cameos (No, you’re beautiful, Keanu Reeves!) and even sweeping orchestras. Sony’s last E3 conference wasn’t even at the convention center, it took place in a church with shifting sets and the aforementioned orchestra. The venue has hardly been the biggest part of E3 for a while now.

This core part of E3 has been online and increasingly popular since the presentations started streaming, and even when the lack of an E3 last year seemed to threaten it, developers and publishers were able to almost flawlessly pivot to hosting their own digital showcases. That doesn’t look to be going anywhere, and if anything a shift further online seems to have made these shows more direct, showing the audiences what they want, with or without the middleman.

In another sense, the way that online games shows and festivals have grown to include their audience points to a model that E3 could learn from, and hopefully has learned from already. Of course, we’re days out from the show and have no idea what it’ll be like (which is probably cause for some concern), but there’s the possibility that this expansion into an online space could turn things around rather than just reinforce the status quo. For many, the cost and work that goes into making trips to expos like these are unfeasible, though they’d still like to participate in the biggest show of the year. Festivals hosted on platforms like Steam have not only offered demos for games for the duration of the show but have allowed developers to stream the games to audiences who could tune in and talk about their games right there. It’s not as elegant as strolling up to a booth at a convention, but it’s an online facsimile of that experience that still has value.

Online is the most accessible any show could be in this day and age and has the widest possible audience reach. Considering the numbers E3 content draws yearly, it’s a no-brainer to get people online just as involved, especially in a year where it’s the only way they can. Back in 2017, one of the primary reasons for allowing the public into E3 was the ability to generate more word-of-mouth buzz among gamers rather than have it come straight from the press. It seems a natural progression then to include online audiences, and now that that’s exclusively who they’re catering to, I’d love to see the show lean into that. Going forward, this could even be the tip of the spear for a mixed-medium approach to future E3s that cater to more than one audience in more than one place.

All this being said, there’s no way of knowing what this E3 will be like because even this close to it, we’re all just still unsure of what it will look and feel like. “Conferences” are just being locked in, media registration is still ongoing, and for virtual attendees, the show’s schedule was just being finalized by midweek. Though we do know there’s an app! Which is some comfort, I suppose.

The point is that this E3 may be far from perfect but an online E3, one that catered to the massive online audience the show does have and could make the show accessible to people who can’t attend an actual one, could be great. In a world where everything is increasingly online, and the possibility of returning to the old days of the Expo is just about impossible. It’s inevitable that the show will continue to grow and change as we all will in a post-pandemic world. Perhaps most important to E3 though, it may need to adapt like this in order to keep up with a gaming landscape moving quickly to pass it by.