A look back at E3's long and storied history

By Robert Workman, Jun 05, 2014 1:00pm PDT

It's funny how far the Electronic Entertainment Expo has come in its nearly 20 years of existence. It's had its fair share of ups and downs, but overall it's been the go-to show for surprise game announcements, system reveals and other information about forthcoming titles. In addition, it's also become a huge social center for journalists and attendees alike, whether it was during the show or the many after-parties that surrounded it.

Join us now as we take a look back into the past of E3, when it began as a small idea that broke away from the Consumer Electronics Show and flourished into something bigger and spectacular, only to drift off and be reborn again.

Getting Its start

The show began in 1995, when the revolving Summer and Winter CES shows just weren't getting the job done for video game enthusiasts. The ESA had formed the IDSA (Interactive Digital Software Association) following the Senate's investigation into violent video games. Shortly thereafter, the divorce from the CES shows began, resulting in the birth of the Electronic Entertainment Expo.

Although only a few companies jumped on board at first (namely Sega and Nintendo), it grew over the years, with more and more companies attending with each passing year. It gained even more popularity when it returned to Los Angeles., after a brief stint in Atlanta.

Nowadays, it continues to be held in the Los Angeles Convention Center, which seems like just the right place to house two full halls of gaming madness over a three day span.

The Very First E3

The initial Electronic Entertainment Expo took place in the L.A. Convention Center in 1995, where Sega, Sony and Nintendo would all go to war in their own ways. Sega, attempting to get a jump on the competition, launched the Sega Saturn console that week in stores, with five titles available. Unfazed, Sony responded with one word ("$299") and proceeded to make game history with its anticipated fall release date. Meanwhile, Nintendo kept busy on its own terms between the forthcoming Ultra 64 hardware and the Virtual Boy, which would turn out to be a failure.

This initial E3 introduced a competitive aspect to the show, but one that was interesting for attendees and reporters alike. Seeing what each company was up to, and what projects they were bringing to the table, added an edge for each year's show, and it continues to be a defining factor today, with many companies set to reveal surprise and expected titles for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and other hardware.

Still, E3 '95 was the birth of it all, and seeing the hardware and software at the event set the pace for many shows to come. Take that, CES.

The Competition Grows

In 1996, Sony introduced a new trend that would become one of the major sticking points for E3 to come: the price cut. It lowered the price of its PlayStation hardware from $299 to $199, and, just like clockwork, Sega followed suit just a day later with the Saturn. Nintendo, meanwhile, tried to stay competitive by introducing many must-have titles for the Nintendo 64, including Super Mario 64.

As a result, companies grew even fiercer in competition, and as a result, attendees benefitted from the many surprises.

The PC is a Player, Too

Not to be outdone by console cohorts, PC gaming took E3 1997 with a thunderous roar, with such games as Quake 2, Daikatana and the announcement of Duke Nukem Forever changing the landscape. Still, many other surprises from publishers on consoles kept it well balanced, including the final titles for the Sega Saturn and Nintendo's one-two punch of StarFox 64 and Goldeneye 007. Indeed, a glorious year.

Enter the Next-Gen

Another trend emerged in 1999 when Sega introduced its Sega Dreamcast console, while Sony talked PlayStation 2 specs and Nintendo came clean on its Dolphin technology. As a result, E3 became the de facto home for hardware announcements, and the place where attendees would learn about the forthcoming systems before anyone else. These days, such announcements continue to be popular with E3, and manufacturers will often save their hardware announcements for the event. And how.

The Emergence of Big Titles

No matter what anyone saw at past E3 shows, there were always those singular titles that stood out above all else, mainly because of how they innovated compared to the rest of the field. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty managed to dominate one year with just a trailer, and no playable kiosk. Doom 3 took center stage the following year, prompting players to find any information they could about the sequel.

So called "hot titles" continue to be big draws at these shows, with growing trends on the Internet pointing out must-see opportunities at the event. This year is no exception, as EA's Star Wars: Battlefront could be the leader of the pack. However, don't be surprised if another formerly unknown or underrated game takes the spotlight. They're known for doing that.

When Press Conferences Took Over

E3 continues to be a big event in itself, but all eyes these days turn to press conferences for the latest information. These take place before the event officially starts, as Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft each hold them to make a singular focus on their own big announcements.

E3 2004 was a defining year for press conferences, mainly with Nintendo, as Shigeru Miyamoto charged the stage with Link's sword and shield in hands to announce The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Since then, many big moments (good and bad alike) came out of the shows, and they continue to be a huge draw today. The advent of online streaming has made the spectacle even larger, as companies cater to the fans watching at home with pep rally fervor.

The End of the Booth Babes

One trend that grew a little too quickly for its own good during the 2000's era was "booth babes," models that appeared at booths in skimpy clothing to advertise forthcoming titles and promotions. For a much of the show's history to that point, it had been a relatively uncontroversial practice. But for one year, the ESA cracked down and insisted their removal from the show. They're now allowed again, but as the industry has grown more inclusive, models have been used less often. Plenty of women still represent their gender at E3 to promote games, but more often they're developers or producers themselves.

The Fade of Kentia Hall

In E3's heyday, there was one place to go to see some of the best independent stuff at E3. That place was Kentia Hall. Hidden beneath the two main halls in the L.A. Convention Center, Kentia Hall was the place to be to see many quirky Japanese developments, as well as other up-and-coming games, such as Guitar Hero. For years, it was the ideal place to kick back and have fun with smaller developers.

Sadly, Kentia Hall is no more, as the ESA simply uses the two main halls to advertise upcoming products. Still, the memories remain… especially of an awesome grilled cheese sandwich shop. Yum.

An Unfavorable Change of Venue

In an apparent effort to tone down the increasingly unmanageable crowds and spectacle, E3 2007 took place in Santa Monica. All of the games stuffed away inconveniently off-site at the Barker Hanger. Meanwhile, companies shacked up in nearby hotels, making it rather inconvenient for travelers to go from building to building to make their appointments. Worse yet, the Santa Monica-based E3 was the birthplace of one of the worst press conferences ever: Activision's disastrous conference hosted by Jamie Kennedy.

As a result, the ESA listened, and a year later, it returned to Los Angeles Convention Center in a slimmed-down format. That would change, though, and now both halls are used extensively again. As great a city as Santa Monica is, it's just not the place to spread out E3 across several buildings. Especially in a hangar.

Bigger and Better

E3 returned to business as usual following the 2007 debacle, and nowadays remains a truly dependable show. For good measure, several companies have taken their presentations online and through network specials on the cable network Spike TV, allowing people who couldn't get to go the opportunity to see what happens live. E3 2014 will continue this trend with even more streaming specials, as Twitch has already posted a full schedule from the event, and all the press conferences will be viewable in one extent or another. Sony even went as far as setting up theirs in select movie theaters.

No doubt the show will continue to grow as the years go on, and the industry's annual to-do grows alongside the medium it supports.

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