Before E3, game publishers went to other trade shows like Consumer Electronics Show and the European Computer Trade Show to display new or upcoming products as to pre-sell shipments to retailers for the rest of the year including the late-year holiday season as well as to view for press coverage of upcoming games. As the game industry grew rapidly during the early 1990s, industry professionals felt that it had outgrown the older trade shows. According to Tom Kalinske, CEO of Sega America, "The CES organizers used to put the video game industry way, way in the back. In 1991, they put us in a tent, and you had to walk past all the porn vendors to find us. That particular year it was pouring rain, and the rain leaked right over our new Genesis system. I was just furious with the way CES treated the video game industry, and I felt we were a more important industry than they were giving us credit for." Sega did not return to CES the following year, and several other companies exited from further CES shows.
Separately, in 1994, the video game industry had formed the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA, later becoming the Entertainment Software Association, ESA, in 2003) in response to attention the industry had drawn from the United States Congress over a lack of a ratings system in late 1993. The IDSA was formed to unify the video game industry and establish a commission, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) to create a voluntary standard rating system that was approved by Congress.
E3's first logo (1995–2017)
The industry recognized that it needed some type of trade show for retailers. According to Eliot Minsker, chairman and CEO of Knowledge Industry Publications (which produced and promoted the show with Infotainment World), "Retailers have pointed to the need for an interpretive event that will help them make smarter buying decisions by interacting with a wide range of publishers, vendors, industry influentials, and opinion leaders in a focused show setting." Attempts were made between the video game companies and the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) which ran CES, to improve how video games were treated at CES, but these negotiations failed to produce a result. Pat Ferrell, creator of GamePro which was owned by International Data Group (IDG), conceived of an idea for starting a dedicated trade show for video games, building off IDG's established experience in running the Macworld convention. Ferrell contacted the IDSA who saw the appeal of using their position in the industry to create a video game-specific tradeshow, and offered to co-found the Electronic Entertainment Expo with IDG.
Though several companies agreed to present at this E3 event, Ferrell discovered that CEA had offered video game companies a dedicated space at the next CES, which would have conflicted with the planned E3 event, requiring the companies to pick one or the other. Most of the IDSA members supported E3, while Nintendo and Microsoft were still supportive of the CES approach. After about three to four months, Ferrell was told by CEA's CEO Gary Shapiro that he "won" and had cancelled the CES video game event, effectively making E3 the premier trade show for the video game industry.
Growth and success through first decade (1995–2006)
The first event was held from May 11–13, 1995 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, which would generally be the convention's location in future years. The organizers were unsure of how successful this would be, but by the end of the convention, they had booked most of the space at the Convention Center, and saw more than 40,000 attendees. In the aftermath of its first year, E3 was already regarded as the biggest event in the video game industry. The IDSA realized the strength of a debut trade show, and subsequently renegotiated with IDG to allow the IDSA to take full ownership of the show and the intellectual property associated with the name, while hiring IDG to help with execution of the event. The show remained held at May of the calendar year through 2006.
In 1996, IDG and the IDSA tried a Japanese version of E3, in preparation for a worldwide series of events, at the Makuhari Messe in Tokyo (as E3 Tokyo '96) in association with TV Asahi. Although Sony Computer Entertainment was the show's original sponsor, the company withdrew its support in favor of its PlayStation Expo. Sega pulled out at the last minute, leaving Nintendo the only big-three company to appear. Held November 1–4, 1996, the presence of several other gaming expos and lack of support from Japanese game manufacturers led to turnout reported as poor and rumored E3 events in Singapore and Canada did not take place.
Due to failed negotiations for the convention space in Los Angeles, the E3 conventions in 1997 and 1998 were held at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia. The show returned to the Los Angeles Convention Center in 1999, and continued to grow in attendance, ranging from 60,000 to 70,000 attendees.
In addition to the event, E3 started to support (or became associated with) several websites. One was E365, introduced in 2006, an online community which attendees used to network and schedule meetings.
Media and Business Summit biennium (2007–2008)
Following the 2006 convention, IDGA—now ESA—found that many exhibitors were worried about the high costs of presenting at the event, spending between $5–$10 million for their booths. They had also found that a larger proportion of attendees were bloggers and attendees who were not perceived to be industry professionals by vendors, managing to secure access to the conference. These additional attendees diluted the vendors' ability to reach out to their target audience, retailers and journalists. Both of these reasons had previously caused the COMDEX trade show to shut down. Several large vendors told the ESA that they were going to pull out of the next E3, which would have had a domino effect on other vendors.
To avoid this, the ESA announced in July 2006 that E3 would be downsized and restructured due to the overwhelming demand from the exhibitors, and would limit attendees to those from the media and retail sectors. For 2007 and 2008, E3 was renamed to the E3 Media and Business Summit, and moved into the July timeframe, about two months later in the year than previous shows. The 2007 show was held at the Barker Hanger at the Santa Monica Airport and other nearby hotels in Santa Monica, California, limited attendance to about 10,000. The 2008 event returned to the Los Angeles Convention Center, but also capped attendance at about 5,000.
ESA was harshly criticized for these smaller events. Industry analyst Michael Pachter said that because consumers had been eliminated from attending the events, there was little external media coverage of these E3's, reducing the visibility and commercialization opportunities for publishers, and postulated that without a change, E3 would become extinct. Pachter also found that retailers were less interested in E3 due to the later calendar date.
E3 onward: 2009–present
Responding to the complaints from the previous two years, the ESA announced that E3 2009 would be more open, but capping attendance at about 45,000 and closed to the public, as to achieve a balance between the two extremes. All subsequent E3s have taken place in June of the calendar year at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
Starting in 2013, some of the major video game companies, particularly Nintendo and Electronic Arts, have opted not to showcase at E3. In Nintendo's case, they have foregone a large keynote presentation and instead have used pre-recorded Nintendo Direct and live video events during the E3 week since 2013 to showcase their new products, though they still run floor booths for hands-on demonstrations. Electronic Arts since 2016, have set up a separate EA Play event in a nearby locale to announce and exhibit their titles, citing the move as a result of the lack of public access to the main E3 show. Other vendors, like Microsoft and Sony have used pre-E3 events to showcase hardware reveals, leaving the E3 event to cover new games for these systems.
By 2015, traditional video game marketing had been augmented by the use of publicity through word-of-mouth by average gamers, persons not normally part of the "professional" development community. The ESA began to seek ways to allow these people to attend E3 in limited numbers without overwhelming the normal attendees. For E3 2015, 5000 tickets were distributed to vendors to be given to fans to be able to attend the event. E3 2016 featured a separate but free "E3 Live" event at the nearby L.A. Live space that was to help provide a small-scale version of the E3 experience. While it drew about 20,000 people, it was found to be underwhelming. In 2017, the ESA reserved 15,000 tickets to the convention for members of the public to buy; these were all sold, leading to more than 68,000 attendees during E3 2017, which led to noticeable crowding and floor management issues. ESA confirmed that E3 2018 would include public passes, but that for two of the days, the event would be open only to industry attendees for three hours prior to admitting the public.
The ESA unveiled the new logo for E3, replacing its previous one using three-dimensional block letters with a flatter, stylized graphic, in October 2017.
While the ESA has the Convention Center space reserved through 2019, ESA's CEO Mike Gallagher said, following the 2017 event, that they were considering other options due to lack of modernization and upgrades that the Center has had to make the space more appropriate for their needs. Gallagher said that the ESA was working with the City and Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) which owns the Los Angeles Convention Center and the space around it, with plans to have nearly 500,000 square feet (46,000 m2) of additional exhibition space added by 2020, but they would have judge this in the 2018 show. With E3 2018, the event drew 69,200 attendees, the largest since 2005.
With announcements of the dates for E3 2019, the ESA declined to state where they have planned to hold the 2020 event. The ESA later affirmed they have renegotiated use of the LACC through 2023, but retain the rights to break that contract if desired. Sony Interactive Entertainment has announced that it would not be participating in E3 2019, having had participated in every E3 since its launch. Sony stated that they "are exploring new and familiar ways to engage our community in 2019". Sony's CEO Shawn Layden stated in a February 2019 interview that with changes in retailer procurement, their own switch to fewer but more quality titles, and the rapid spread of news via the Internet that having a trade show as late as June is no longer helpful, and that Sony had to create its own Destination PlayStation experience in February as to secure retailer sales. According to Industry Analyst Michael Patcher, speaking to GamingBolt, he said, "I think it’s a mistake to skip the show, they will probably be there without a big booth. It was a surprise to me".
During the last day of the event in 2019, it was confirmed that E3 would be held at the LACC for at least another year, with the 2020 edition.
On August 3, 2019, it had been found that unsecured list of personal attendee data was publicly accessible from the ESA's site. The list contained the information of over 2000 people, most of them being the press and social media influencers that had attended E3 2019. ESA removed the list after its public visible was found, and apologized for allowing the information to become public. However, using similar techniques to access the 2019 data, users found similar dates for over 6000 attendees of past E3 events still available on user-authenticated portions of their website; these too were subsequently pulled by ESA once notified.
ESA's membership approved to increase the number of public passes from 15,000 to 25,000 for the 2020 show. Alongside this, the ESA has presented proposed, but not finalized, plans, to make the 2020 event a "fan, media, and influencer festival", bringing in more events for attendees while they are waiting in lines, a concept called "queuertainment" that is used as Disney theme parks, as well as priority key influencers to provide them appointment-only presentations on new games. Additionally, with these changes, the ESA are considering to add an extra day on the Tuesday of the convention week that would be an industry-only day before the floor of the convention was opened to public passes.