ESA President Talks E3 Absences, Tech Giants Entering Gaming and Unionization

Stanley Pierre-Louis - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of ESA

Stanley Pierre-Louis offered his thoughts on various issues facing gaming — and his organization — including advocating for the industry in Washington, how Apple and Google affect video game studios and what the future of E3 may look like.

As video games continue to grow as the dominant entertainment medium in the U.S., the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the industry's official advocacy organization, finds itself dealing with increased scrutiny over labor issues, privacy and safety across the industry.

The ESA also puts on one of the year's biggest gaming conventions, E3, which is once again set to descend on the Los Angeles Convention Center this June with participating studios such as Bethesda, Activision, Nintendo and Ubisoft. However, Sony will once again skip this year's E3 (as it did in 2019) and Geoff Keighley, creator of the Game Awards and host of the E3 Coliseum event for the past three years, also revealed he would be skipping this year's convention on Wednesday.

Stanley Pierre-Louis, CEO and president of the ESA, sat down with The Hollywood Reporter at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas to discuss the organization's role as an advocacy voice for the industry, concerns over recent changes to E3, recent unionization efforts and a possible shift in perception of video games by Washington policy makers.

What separates this year’s E3 from 2019’s convention?

E3 has evolved over the years with the introduction of consumers and E3 Coliseum to the different kinds of exhibitors who come to the show to make announcements and show what’s new to the world of video games. We introduced certain aspects of live-streaming to E3 through E3 Coliseum, and it was a wonderful opportunity for fans around the world to hear engaging discussions with the innovators, creators and developers on a stage that’s unlike no other. We’re going to be looking for ways this year to expand that programming from the floor, to bring people closer to what they come to E3 for, both online and on the floor. A lot of that will be exhibitor-based, and we’ll have more to share down the road, but we’re looking at enhancing the connection people have who are not there while making it engaging for those on the floor.

Geoff Keighley announced he would be skipping E3 this year. Is E3 Coliseum still going forward without him?

We’ll be sharing more information about the various ways we’re going to be talking to our audiences globally through live-streaming in the near future.

What are your thoughts on Geoff, and Sony earlier this year, deciding to skip E3 in 2020?

Geoff has been — and continues to be — an industry advocate and champion. When we were launching E3 Coliseum he was a critical partner in developing that brand for us because of his experience producing shows that get broadcast but also have a digital audience. We look forward to future collaborations with Geoff, but we’re also excited about what’s new this year and what’s to come and sharing those details in [the future].

What about Sony?

Sony is one of the most powerful brands in the world, and the fact that they’re putting out a new console this year means there’s going to be a lot of excitement throughout the year and gamers are excited about what they have to say. We want them to be a success and we can disagree about a platform, but they have a strategy that they’ve outlined and we’re excited to see how they get showcased.

Is it fair to say that E3 has pivoted more to a consumer-facing direction?

The introduction of consumers to the show floor provided more opportunities for fans to engage with the brands in a direct way while at the same time keeping with the purpose of E3, which is to make those great announcements and to talk to a global audience. Consumers are part of that story because they’re the fans. We’re looking to enhance the experience on the floor and to the digital audience. I don’t know that that signals a complete shift, but it does signal that we see continued value in having direct engagement with the media and fans on the show floor which helps connect exhibitors with the fans they really want to reach.

What’s the goal of the ESA's new "Game Generation" ad campaign?

People play video games because they’re challenging and they’re fun. That’s the basic premise of why they play games. The global audience is growing. At the same time, the narrative around video games can sometimes be negative, even though it’s a positive impact on society. You need great games, devices, peripherals to reach the consumer in different ways but you also can provide different incentives to play and one of them is offering a sense of community. Games are also being used in education. More and more doctors are using VR. Across the board, we’re seeing usage of video games that are innovating society. For us, Game Generation is an opportunity to showcase what makes people great and also connect with people to share their stories and uplifting this important art form which is now the dominant form of entertainment in the U.S.

What is the ESA’s role in the industry?

The ESA’s primary role is to serve as voice and advocate of the industry. That means ensuring that policy makers understand the value that video games bring. We’re also an economic engine. Our industry fuels jobs and trade and provides an opportunity for new entrance in growing ways. They ought to know that so the next time there’s a societal concern, video games don’t get the blame misplaced on them. We’re also proactive in ensuring that the best in our business are available to the public to see.

Apple and Google have recently gotten into gaming in significant ways. What is your relationship with these tech companies entering the space?

I’m excited about the expansion of games, irrespective of the platform, because we believe that the more ways there are to play, the more opportunities there are for people to engage with this great art form. We actually see that most people are aware of it, they just don’t speak out about it. One example is, 75 percent of U.S. households has at least one person who plays games in the household. Connecting those dots is very important.

Are you currently in conversation with Apple, Google and other tech companies showing increased interest in games?

We have open communication with anyone in the games space. We’re always reaching out to ensure that as issues arise they’re aware of our positions, but also if we can be helpful. There are many times where we can partner with groups that are not even ESA members. It ends up being a very fruitful discussion and, for us, an important voice because it shows the breadth of the industry because it’s not simply games that have concerns but those that are in the video game industry at every level.

Tim Sweeney mentioned Google and Facebook by name in his keynote speech on Wednesday and was not particularly complimentary. Game developers may have different views of tech companies entering the space. How do you smooth out any issues?

The great thing about this industry is the diversity of views people have and are willing to share. I applaud DICE for having Tim Sweeney keynote. That was a powerful moment to have him here, sharing his views and hearing the perspective of a very successful company in our industry. None of the companies you’re talking about are surprised there are controversial views about them. This isn’t the only space in which there are controversies these days. I think they understand that this is a complex industry and to work your way into it is to really understand all the dynamics around it.

In your experience, what is Washington’s view of the video game industry and has it changed at all in recent years?

It’s changed tremendously. We want to sustain that conversion. Let’s take some recent examples. In February 2018, after an act of gun violence, the president raised some concerns about video games and met with industry leaders and had a very positive conversation. In August 2019, we had horrific acts of gun violence in El Paso and Dayton and video games were again blamed by the president. The reaction and policy officials was to push back based on several points that we raised. For example, the games we sell in the U.S. are sold everywhere around the world yet we’re the only one with a gun violence problem. It can’t be games. By sharing that message in 2018, the reaction on the internet in 2019 pushed back on that assertion so much that #VideoGamesAreNotToBlame was trending No. 1 on Twitter. So, we’re seeing a shift in how people think about video games, and the more we’re able to share our story and talk about the scope of our industry, its impact socially and economically, we’re getting favorable reactions.

Last month a new labor organization initiative (CWA CODE) was launched to unionize the video game industry. What are your thoughts on that?

When we talk to our member companies, the one thing that is very clear is they try to create an environment so that their workers can produce the best games possible under the best conditions possible. Beyond that, we leave it to our member companies to address their worker base about any conditions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.