By Valerie Norton

In February 2020, I visited London and Paris as a combo business/personal travel trip. From meeting with current Sandbox clients, industry friends and colleagues, and eating a macaron (or four) while visiting the Louvre on the weekend before heading home, I was riding high on travel. I’d booked that trip to be a month prior to GDC in San Francisco, while we had a few Sandboxers handling PAX East in Boston at the beginning of March. I was already looking ahead to E3 in June in Los Angeles and planning fall events.

Everything went sideways, of course, as it did for all of us in some way or another. I doubt I’ll ever forget those days as news of the pandemic swept through and knocked down every industry event I’d known my entire career, and left a big question behind:

What happens now?

We were asking ourselves that, and our clients were asking us, too. 2020 forced us to recalibrate what we considered to be flagship events — PAX South, DICE, GDC, PAX East, E3, SDCC, gamescom, PAX West, NYCC, TwitchCon, and finally The Game Awards all had a chronological place in my mental timeline. There was something comforting about having routine, about knowing what our primary options and recommendations were for our clients, about what shows made the most sense for them and which weren’t the right call for their needs. And in a moment, they all went away, leaving us to figure out what to do in their unprecedented absence.

It’s been almost a year since those first mad scramble days. Eventually, it was clear that all in-person events in 2020 were canceled. There were no more holdouts (I’m old enough to remember when GDC tried to move to the summer, because it was hard to believe the pandemic would last that long), and everyone simply accepted that virtual shows and events were the only way forward.

2020 was full of growing pains as the industry collectively adjusted to the pros and cons of working from home, relying on remote demos to fill the gaps in launch campaigns and an onslaught of virtual shows/events in lieu of those flagship industry events. And while it was rough around the edges, I commend everyone’s efforts to make do and find creative ways to keep the industry going.

But now it’s 2021. Where does that leave us?

2021 is, well, strange. There’s still a collective sense that virtual shows are the way to go, but there’s an underlying question:

How long will that be the case?

As more people continue to be vaccinated and the threat of the virus starts to lessen in severity, international travel and in-person events will eventually return. But it’s really hard to plan around “eventually.”

Even so, I expect a few things to happen in 2021:

Virtual events will still be the dominant form, though we may start to see hybrids in the fall.

After a year of trial and error, I think we’ll see a higher caliber of virtual events in 2021. Companies have had a year to plan for this, and they’ve had the benefit of time on their side and lessons learned. But if we’re indeed to have a higher majority of people vaccinated by the fall, I expect we’ll start to see smaller in-person events (perhaps a PAX West-lite, or significantly smaller events around New York Comic Con focused on highly specific niches, or press demos held at company offices again) that may eventually combine elements of virtual events. Of all the events, I’d expect The Game Awards to have some in-person audience in December, though this may be an overly optimistic outlook if we see a setback in fall/winter like we did in 2020. Last year had ebbs and flows of “bad,” and it didn’t roll out evenly across every state or country, so it’s hard to predict how the upcoming fall/winter will fare.

E3 and the summer will still be king for major events, but not in the way they were in 2020.

After E3 was cancelled, 2020’s summer was an explosion of virtual events and shows. This was partially due to the fact that everyone was trying to come up with their own events once their primary stage was gone, which led to an array of solo events (though some companies did try to combine forces, like the Guerrilla Collective). It led to a bit of event fatigue, a never-ending summer of updates and news, and I think everyone was pretty tired by the time September rolled in. This year, I’d expect E3’s timing to still carry weight, even if E3 itself will likely be in a reduced form. I’m hoping we’ll see more companies join forces to combine their efforts, making fewer but more meaningful events.

More companies will try to “win the day” outside of the summer rush instead of “winning the show.”

We’ve already seen this a bit with Bethesda’s Indiana Jones announcement and Nintendo’s first full Direct in over 500 days, both of which were dropped unceremoniously but led to a lot of surprise excitement. With more companies perhaps expecting the summer fatigue, we’ll see more of these random announcements that “win the day” without needing the fanfare of being tied to a major show.

All in all, I don’t think we’ll have a “normal” games industry year until 2022, but I also doubt the industry will go back to its old ways, either. Virtual events may have one of the greatest impacts on the industry going forward, especially as they’ve grown and refined over the past year. They’ve allowed for greater accessibility and flexibility across the board, not just for industry members, but for fans at home looking to join the fun when content has previously been gated to industry events or were simply not feasible to attend in person. And while I think that’s for the better, I also can’t wait to come back to industry events again…eventually.