Coronavirus has video game giants rethinking their trade show plans

February 25, 2020, 12:00 AM UTC

First came Sony. Then it was Facebook. Now another pair of high profile attendees at the Game Developer Conference in San Francisco have pulled out, citing coronavirus concerns.

Microsoft and Epic Games, two of the biggest names in the video game industry, have withdrawn from the trade show, putting its future in doubt.

“After a close review of guidance by global health authorities and out of an abundance of caution, we’ve made the difficult decision to withdraw from participating at Game Developers Conference 2020 in San Francisco,” wrote Microsoft in a blog post. “The health and safety of players, developers, employees, and our partners around the world is our top priority. Especially as the world is experiencing growing public health risks associated with coronavirus (COVID-19).”

Epic Games followed suit soon after, making the announcement on Twitter.

The new departures follow Sony’s announcement last week that it would be cancelling its participation at both GDC and the consumer-focused PAX East in Boston.

“We have made the difficult decision to cancel our participation in Game Developers Conference due to increasing concerns related to COVID-19 (also known as coronavirus),” a Sony spokesperson said in a statement. “We felt this was the best option as the situation related to the virus and global travel restrictions are changing daily. We are disappointed to cancel our participation, but the health and safety of our global workforce is our highest concern. We look forward to participating in GDC in the future.”

Facebook, which owns the Oculus virtual reality company, has also dropped out of the show, citing coronavirus as the reason. And earlier this month, organizers at the Taipei Game Show, which last year attracted 320,000 people, postponed the event one week before its start, rescheduling it for late June.

The escalating number of withdrawals, along with the recent cancelation of Mobile World Congress and the continued spread of the virus, are raising questions about the impact coronavirus will have on how the $135 billion video game industry promotes its products.

Trade shows have historically been a critical tool for companies to build buzz about new products, as consumers, media and influencers get hands-on time with unreleased games and game systems and talk about the experience.

Organizers at the industry’s biggest trade shows say they’re monitoring the spread of coronavirus, but have no plans at present to postpone or curtail their events.

“We will continue to be vigilant, as our first priority is the health, wellness and safety of all of our exhibitors and attendees,” the Entertainment Software Association, which organizes June’s E3 Expo, told Fortune. “Given what we know at this time, we are moving ahead full speed with E3 2020 planning. Exhibit and registration sales are on track for an exciting show in June.”

The situation is much the same for Koelnmesse, the organizers of Gamescon, which is held in Germany in August.

“Koelnmesse has initiated a level of heightened vigilance in view of a potential threat from the coronavirus at our trade fairs,” the company told Fortune. “As things stand at the moment, all of Koelnmesse’s foreign events will also be held as planned.” The trade show company also noted that whether this remains the case in China will depend on measures taken by the local authorities.

Analysts say they expect the coronavirus impact on game trade shows will not last for an extended period of time. While Facebook and Sony’s decisions mark a pair of high-profile absences, other major game makers and console companies have not altered their plans, so far.

“This is something we expect to have a short-term impact, lasting until March or maybe the beginning of April, but not longer than that,” says Daniel Ahmad, senior analyst at Niko Partners.

Complicating things for video game companies is the fact that 2020 is a console transition year. Sony plans to launch the PlayStation 5 this fall and Microsoft will roll out the Xbox Series X. Before that, Sony has The Last of Us 2 in the pipeline, one of its last major PS4 exclusive titles, set for a May 29 launch. PAX East was supposed to be the first chance for gamers to get their hands on a limited portion of the game.

As the industry becomes more and more digital-centric, though, there’s a larger question about the necessity of many of these trade shows. For several years, Nintendo has opted for online presentations of its major game and system announcements.

Facebook seems at least open to following in those footsteps after its GDC cancelation. “We’ll… replace our in-person sessions at GDC with videos and announcements posted on the Facebook Gaming developer website,” the company wrote on its blog.

Microsoft, meanwhile, said it plans to stream all of the panels it had planned for GDC online, which could provide more information about its plans for Xbox Series X.

One growing question is how Sony plans to handle the reveal of the PlayStation 5. Microsoft, in December, showed off the Xbox Series X at The Game Awards, which is streamed online to a large audience of enthusiasts. (The company also is currently planning a major presence at E3 in June.)

If coronavirus infections do taper off in the weeks to come, Sony could host a private event for media, which will also be streamed online. But, especially if the virus continues to be a threat, it could opt for a pre-packaged presentation, where it would not only have to deal with health risks, but also tightly control messaging for its most important product of 2020.

“We’ve moved into an all-digital world,” says Ahmad. “[Sony] still has time before The Last of Us 2 comes out and certainly before PS5. They can easily shift their strategies or announcement to online events.”

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