What Marketers Should Look Out For at This Year’s Gaming Conferences

Summer’s coming, and in the world of video games, that means one thing: conventions! Just as the movie industry moves through a cycle of popcorn blockbusters in the summer and more prestige movies at the end of the year, so too do games follow a reliable pattern. The end of the year generally brings a crush of major releases lined up for the holiday season. The summer features a series of conferences and conventions, during which publishers debut new titles and give updates on previously announced titles.

It all constitutes a huge surge of activity in the gaming landscape, but there’s a lot of hype and a lot of noise to sort through. What should marketers be paying attention to throughout the season? We’ve weathered a few collective decades of experience covering, attending, and even throwing gaming conferences. We have a few pointers to keep your head on straight amidst the hubbub.

But first, a quick primer.

Gaming Conferences, explained

Conferences are built around one of three things: content, business development, or education. The vast majority of gaming conferences are based around content — specifically, fan-focused content. But there are still some variations among them that are worth delineating. Let’s run through some of the heavy-hitters. And yes: They’re all better known by their acronyms than by their full names.

E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo)

Attendees: 66,000

Cost: $160+

Date: June 12-15

Location: Los Angeles, normally. Online this year

What you need to know: E3 is the goliath of the gaming landscape, dating back to 1995. While originally constructed as an industry-only event, largely to pre-sell shipments to retailers, its legacy of major announcements has attracted the attention of fans. In 2016, they opened up fan tickets, giving into the throngs of cosplayers and enthusiasts already finding their way toward it. Several other press conferences and mini-fests are generally clustered around it, all of which will be available online this year.

GDC (Game Developers Conference)

Attendees: 29,000

Cost: $199+

Date: July 19-23

Location: San Francisco

What you need to know: The most education-focused gaming conference, GDC is a hub of activity and learning for industry creatives. Publishers and developers occasionally use it for announcements, but the real meat of the conference is its rich curriculum, during which game developers share learnings on topics ranging from AI to game design to self-publishing.

DICE Summit

Attendees: 66,000

Cost: Not yet announced, but typically in the thousands of USD

Date: Not yet scheduled for 2021. Typically, earlier in the year.

Location: Las Vegas

What you need to know: D.I.C.E. Summit (for Design Innovate Communicate Entertain) is one of the most selective conferences in gaming, typically known for executives hobnobbing and its prestigious D.I.C.E. Awards. Tickets can be costly, but for business development, it’s the best game in town.

TGS (Tokyo Game Show)

Attendees: 289,000

Cost: 1,500 Yen for public tickets (around $14)

Date: September 30 – October 3

Location: Tokyo, normally. Online in 2021.

What you need to know: For sheer spectacle, nothing beats TGS. It’s a global epicenter for cosplay, Street Fighter tournaments, and other fan-centric activities. There isn’t a ton of PR or business development opportunity here, but it’s a mainline into Japanese gaming culture.

PAX (Penny Arcade Expo)

Attendees: 70,000+

Cost: $60+

Date: Vary, but the first 2021 installment is September 3-6

Location: Seattle, Boston, San Antonio, Melbourne, Philadelphia

What you need to know: Originally spun off the Penny Arcade webcomic, PAX is now a gaming conference institution, with installments across the globe. Unlike E3, which is still generally focused on press activations and industry dealmaking, PAX is entirely designed around letting fans play and sample games.

Other major fancons to keep an eye on include EGX, C2E2, San Diego ComicCon, and BlizzCon.

Whew, okay. Here are some pointers based on your previous engagements with the gaming space.

Beginners: Gaming Crash Course

If you’re just getting into the gaming community, we have some good news and bad news. The bad news is that the trains to be involved in these conferences in an official capacity left the station months or even years ago. The good news is that that means you can just use this as an opportunity to immerse yourself in the space. Pressure’s off! (This year.)

A lot of conferences can be experienced from your desk. Press conferences are livestreamed, there’s more-or-less constant conversation online using major hashtags, and editorial sites will be publishing updates and roundups. Look at what gets “Best In Show” from publications like IGN — these titles may be flops or even vaporware, but there will be a lot of attention around them until their eventual release.

If you are going to attend a conference in person, get your money’s worth by doing some on-the-ground research. Talk to 10 people, minimum. Why are they there? Did they have to travel? What are they excited about? Additionally, it’s a great spot to do some light networking, connecting with folks in similar roles at afterparties or coffee meet-ups.

Veterans: Community and Business Development

If you’re more versed in the gaming industry, you know to have these events circled on your calendar. Depending on where you are in your strategy, you’ve really got two relevant paths.

If you already know your audience is playing games, and you want to speak to them as gamers – possibly as part of a broader strategic content hub — have your social and community teams on alert. They should be keeping an eye on coverage for ways to speak authentically and organically to gamers about what they care about in that moment.

Alternately, conferences can be good for business development. DICE is the king of the hill in this regard, but CES, E3, and GDC all have industry-only days, as well as mixers focused on these audiences. Schedules are extremely busy at these events, so get your requests for coffees in early.

If you’re going big, have a clear reason to be there.

In 2019, Google announced the Stadia at GDC. If they’d intended the platform as merely a back-end service for game developers, this would’ve made sense. But they instead announced their consumer-focused gaming system at a conference situated around professional development.

Similarly, in 2008, Nintendo spent its entire E3 conference showing off casual games — then a huge money-maker for the storied publisher thanks to the success of the Wii. The only problem: casual gamers don’t watch E3. They were ridiculed for the awkward drum solos.

Our point is that if you’re going to make the investment in an activation, announcement, or partnership at a gaming conference, have a reason to be there. As always, just ticking the box for “gamers” or treating the audience as a monolith is a sure-fire way to come across as inauthentic. Marketing possibilities at these conferences run the gamut from experiential to display advertising to event partnership to ground-teams. Pick your conference and your channel specifically and purposefully.

Not sure what you should do? Sit it out.

Like we said up top: there’s a lot of noise at these things. And there are a lot of other ways to reach the gaming audience than going big on one of these events: content hubs, streaming partnerships, gaming-specific channels, and so on.

So just watch it online. This is a visual medium, after all. You can still strategize next year’s conference season from the comfort of your own desk.

If you want a viewing buddy, reach out. We’ll be on Discord anyway.