How Summer Game Fest is becoming the new E3

By Brian Crecente

It started with a wink.

The seemingly context-free, singular winking yellow smiley icon popped up on Geoff Keighley’s Twitter feed on March 31 at 2:31 p.m., landing like an avalanche of free publicity.

Despite no context, it was a clear response to news – which hit just six minutes earlier – that E3 2022 was canceled.

Keighley, host and creator of the well-regarded annual winter Game Awards and Summer Game Fest, was essentially confirming the return of his summer celebration of video games, with a nod and virtual wink.

About 20 minutes later, the official confirmation went out across the Twitter streams: Summer Game Fest–an industry-wide celebration of video games–was returning this June.

While E3’s 2022 cancellation came as a surprise to some, it didn’t to Keighley. So he was ready for the news to hit, armed with an emoji that would end up garnering more than 15,000 likes and nearly 2,000 retweets. (It also kicked off a conversation closing in on 1,000 responses).

“Look, we talk to all the same people and are aware of what's going on with all the game companies and publishers,” Keighley said in a recent interview. “I had discussed the potential of what E3 was going to be this year with (E3 showrunners) ESA. It's a difficult situation to come back post-pandemic and do a physical show.

“They did a digital E3 last year and I guess they could have done that again, but I think we did a great Summer Game Fest and that worked really well for a lot of people in the industry. So I just wasn't surprised, because I hadn't felt there was a lot of momentum behind what they were building. Sometimes it's almost better to not do something than to do something that's suboptimal.”Summer Game Fest Tiny Tina

Summer Game Fest Origins

This will be the Summer Game Fest’s third year. But Keighley’s journey toward creating an industry-wide summer video game event really started years earlier.

Keighley has a long history with E3, both as an exuberant attendee, but also as the host of a variety of streamed and televised shows around the event. Starting in 2017, that connection was formalized, and he began hosting the E3 Coliseum, a live-steamed interview and discussion show which ran during E3 and was held in front of a live audience.

But in 2020, Keighley announced that he had made the “difficult decision to decline to produce E3 Coliseum.”

After walking away from E3 publicly, Keighley said he wasn’t quite sure what to do. He even thought about just taking a break and going to Europe for the summer. It was a strange feeling, he said, after attending E3 for 25 years.

“I was debating like when I go to E3, is it going to be weird if I'm there? Or should I just avoid it completely. It was like the awkward phase after a breakup,” he said. “I was sort of debating this and then the pandemic hit, and E3 was canceled.”

It wasn’t long before game companies started approaching Keighley, asking him to figure something out to fill the sudden gap.

“It was scary times with the pandemic, there were no vaccines, but also a new Xbox, and a new PlayStation, were coming out that year. So it's a really big year for gaming,” he said. 

Keighley seemed like the obvious choice for heading up a last-minute E3 replacement because of his deep connections in the industry, storied history with E3, and success running the Game Awards every winter.

The result, Keighley said, was the birth of Summer Game Fest.

Summer Game Fest Geoff Keighley Japanese Breakfast

Summer Game Fest 2020 and beyond

That first year, thrown together last minute, ended up stretching across four months, kicking off in May and wrapping in August. It was filled with live streams and announcements and included the reveal of everything from Unreal Engine 5 to major events hosted by PlayStation and Microsoft. And while it managed to make a splash, behind the scenes it was a miracle of innovation and hard work.

Keighley had to quickly learn how to live-stream high quality video from his home to a global audience. A far cry from the events he usually creates that are packed with gear, professional cameras, and a crew of 50 or so.

“We just kind of put that all together very duct-taped together,” he said. “ The first hands-on of the PlayStation 5 controller, the DualSense, was shown from a spare bedroom in my house. It was definitely like building the plane as we were flying it that year. But we learned a lot.”

Much of the feedback about that first year was centered around how loosely it was organized and how long it lasted. 

“The tough thing with launching something new in the pandemic is that you're not doing it under perfect test conditions,” he said. “Sometimes that's all people remember: it was this four month thing and it was all spread out. Companies couldn't figure out how to make digital videos or events. Everyone was at home. We had Xbox doing an event in July and a PlayStation one in June, and just everything was spread out. So it was really just like a big learning exercise across the summer.”

So for last year’s Summer Game Fest, the team added a kick-off live show and a studio in which to host it. The festival was also cut back to just the month of June. 

“Things were sort of tighter and more compact,” he said.

By that second year, the show was finding its identity, essentially becoming another Game Awards, but without the awards. The two shows are also almost exactly six months apart, giving them a nice sense of cohesion.

“There's always a debate at the Game Awards about how much should there be on the award side. How many premieres should there be? How do you balance that?” Keighley said. “Summer Game Fest is just a full-on celebration of game news and announcements? You know exactly what you're gonna get.”

Summer Game Fest

Summer Game Fest 2022

This year’s Summer Game Fest is going to be an even more compact affair, Keighley said. The core of the event kicks off on June 9 at 11 a.m. PT and will run through June 12.

There will also be, of course, a  number of big streams from developers and publishers.

“I think everything's going to be really compact within a matter of weeks as the industry sort of represents itself to the wider world in June, with everyone sort of doing events,” Keighley said. “I know there's a prevailing sentiment that everyone likes everything kind of packed in two days, or three days, or something like that. But that's really hard to do because companies want to own specific days. So, I don't know if we're ever gonna go back to that old model of everything being sort of compacted into just a couple of days.”

Keighley did say that this year will see fewer companies doing standalone events, and instead many of those studios and publishers will likely be participating in first-party events, a throwback to the days of E3.

And the Summer Game Fest will be hosting post-press conference round-ups to discuss the big news of each stream.

Keighley added that a change in tempo and quantity of announcements is likely not because this is a digital only event, but because the industry itself is changing.

“It's just not how companies are set up today,” he said. “I mean, they're more live service games. I look at the landscape now and the most exciting stuff for me is coming from a lot of these independent studios, or venture-backed companies, versus the big, traditional publishers.”

Another big change coming to this year’s Summer Game Fest is the addition of live-events held around Canada, the U.S. and UK.

“So people will be able to gather and watch the show with their friends and celebrate,” he said. “Now we’re going to have tens of thousands of consumers coming out to Summer Game Fest, but we’re not going to make you fly halfway around the world or halfway around the country to visit us. We’re bringing it to you in a sort of decentralized way.”

Keighley is also aware of the mantle he’s taking on in stepping in–at least this year–in the place of E3. For instance, it’s important to the team, he notes, to ensure that the event isn’t just focused on western developers.

“There's so many amazing independent developers around the world,” he said. “It's been really interesting to spend time talking to developers this year. There's a lot of teams in Ukraine where we hear about games being developed there. They can't finish their trailer because the studio has to relocate to a new country due to the war. It's very real. One of the ways that what's going on in the world impacts game development. We've been thinking about that and I think you'll see some of that kind of representation in our show in some interesting ways to talk about the global state of game development and who the people are making these games. 

“We're really thoughtful about trying to show a very global view of who's making games out there.”

Summer Game Fest Geoff Keighley Set

The future of video game shows

As we work our way through another year with fewer in-person video game shows, we asked Keighley if he thought that the future was heading to digital only events or if in-person shows would return.

“I've always said that I think our event will always be digital first, but we will introduce some physical components,” he said. “Even this year, we're working to have some media and influencers in and around Los Angeles come to do some hands-on with some games. It's going to be kind of a private thing. It's not meant to be a big, public event. But we're starting to produce some physical things, like the IMAX piece of this year’s show. So I think we're going to start to do things like that, but probably not in the traditional sense of I'm gonna go rent a convention center and have 20,000 people show up to line up to play a video game. That feels like a kind of an older model to me. I do think we're going to start to think about how we physicalize the things we're doing and bring the community together in a real interesting way.”