The recent decision by Activision and Vivendi to halt their membership in the Entertainment Software Association is widely viewed as a resounding blow to the videogame publishers' trade association. The loss of two of its largest members - who would soon have become its single largest member - will likely cause ripple effects with far-reaching and potentially damaging consequences to the ESA and the industry at large. But in matters such as these, there are typically many more questions than answers, not least of which is why anyone should care about the ESA in the first place.
Originally founded by Doug Lowenstein in 1994 as the Interactive Digital Software Association, the industry group changed its name to the more familiar Entertainment Software Association in July 2003. Created to serve "the business and public affairs needs of companies that publish video and computer games for consoles, personal computers and the internet," the ESA represents the interests of videogame publishers and, by extension, gamers to the powers that be in Washington. (The Entertainment Software Association of Canada, an affiliated organization, handles similar responsibilities for the Great White North.) The January announcement of a new political action committee dedicated to supporting industry-friendly politicians, described by ESA President Michael Gallagher as "an important step in the political maturation process of the industry," highlights the continued and growing importance of political credibility and influence on the industry's part, despite the relatively low profile of such efforts in the eyes of the average gamer.
Of much greater visibility on the political front is the Video Game Voters Network, an ESA project established in 2006. The VGVN seeks to give gamers a more direct voice in the political arena, allowing them to express support for First Amendment protections of videogames, stay abreast of game-related political happenings across the U.S. and demonstrate the "strength in numbers" of the voting-age gamer demographic. Representing a new kind of grass-roots political movement, the VGVN helps keep gamers apprised of political efforts against the industry by monitoring federal and state legislatures and providing links to petitions and email campaigns that oppose such actions.
The ESA is also active in anti-piracy efforts, educational initiatives, consumer research and other areas; but its most obvious and influential impact on the videogame industry came through the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the agency responsible for monitoring and rating the content of virtually every videogame released in North America. Established in 1994 under pressure from the U.S. government, the ESRB has superseded all other classification systems put forth by various segments of the industry. The organization has rated thousands of titles from hundreds of publishers and repeatedly proven itself an effective and valuable tool for parents seeking guidance about appropriate content for their kids.
In short, the ESA has been a tremendously positive force for the industry, bringing cultural legitimacy and political clout to what was not so long ago a marginal, even oddball hobby. But the withdrawal of Activision and Vivendi from the organization, followed by reports that as many as four other industry majors would be withdrawing from this year's E3, has led to speculation that all may not be well between the ESA and the industry it represents.
Launched in 1995, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, now known as the E3 Business and Media Summit, is the ESA's annual industry trade show, featuring game previews, product demonstrations and presentations from a wide array of industry figures. Ostensibly a press event, E3 quickly grew into a sprawling orgy of lights, noise and booth babes as the industry flexed its muscles for the public. But after attracting over 70,000 people in 2005, the ESA elected to cut back on the show's excesses, making it invitation-only for a select number of press representatives. With attendance estimated at 3000 to 5000 visitors, E3 in 2007 was a much more subdued and business-like affair. But some attendees and exhibitors expressed disappointment with the new format, saying it failed to capture the attention and imagination of the gaming public.