The ESA keeps ending up in the news lately, and it doesn’t even have anything to do with E3. Generally, the ESA focuses more on its business ventures, rather than throwing its two cents in about whatever big political event of the day. That is unless something that could have an effect on the games industry rolls along. But in 2017 that seemed to change, or at least come at a much more frequent rate than usual. The ESA released several statements reacting to Trump administration legislative decisions or discussions, from immigration matters to the new tax legislation. But after a recent PR snafu from the White House involving Trump being openly racist in the middle of a meeting, the ESA changed its usual tune and went in against the president. So, what’s the deal here? Either the ESA is trying to read the room better or it’s trying to get back in favor with folks in the industry.
Here’s a bit of a history lesson. The ESA, or Electronic Software Association, is a trade association that acts as the combined voice of the video game industry where it’s needed. Generally, this includes organization and marketing (E3 being the big thing the ESA does and it known for), as well as getting involved with politics, usually in the form of lobbying. The ESA started in 1994 (with a different name, the Interactive Digital Software Association), and it has spent the majority of its efforts running E3 and lobbying for copyright protections, for better or worse. The ESA was also a big part of the fight to get video games similar first amendment protections to other entertainment media. The ESA represents many of the major publishers in the industry, from Bandai Namco to Electronic Arts.
Anyway, as I mentioned above, the ESA has been oddly political outside of video games during the Trump Administration. In September 2017, the ESA released a brief statement in support of “swift congressional action” when Trump started calling for reform to the DACA program. Then in November 2017, the ESA released a statement all but gushing about the GOP-fueled tax legislation that is going to be providing all sorts of corporate benefits. Naturally these are controversial topics, and it seemed strange for the ESA to come out of relative obscurity and insert itself into these moments. Sure enough, many industry folks seemed put off by the statements, especially indie devs and individuals in smaller companies.
Then the whole "shithole" thing happened, kicking off the new year and reminding everyone what a mess we’re all in. This brazen display of the obvious made waves across the mainstream media, the non-mainstream media; basically, you couldn’t go anywhere without finding commentary on the issue. This included the ESA, which released a statement at the height of the feverish news coverage. The statement in no uncertain terms condemned Trump’s choice of words and really went on the offensive accusing the president of things like “backwards thinking.” While previous statements from the ESA had more vapid, politics-friendly language that was written to come off as uncontroversial as possible, this statement had a very different tone.
So what could that mean? The ESA is struggling in many ways, from maintaining E3 as the information flow changes globally (opening the event to the public to make up for shrinking profit margins for example) to falling further out of favor with developers and other industry folks. Rumors about the head of ESA being a more aggressive partisan personality were being spread as early as right before the recent statement. Perhaps the association is moving to play both sides to make sure all the dues-paying members stay happy. Or, perhaps, Trump’s comments were truly so outrageous even the big, lobbyist organization had to collectively frown. Either way, it’s a wild time to be paying attention, regardless of your field.