After A Terrible 2019, Blizzard Is Going All-In At BlizzCon

The plan was always to wait for BlizzCon. In November of 2018, after a PR blow-up surrounding the ill-advised announcement of the mobile game Diablo Immortal, Blizzard’s staff knew that they just needed to make it through the next year without incident. If they could, they’d be able to win fans back with a suite of killer announcements. Rumours of upcoming layoffs were making employees anxious, and the suits over at the Activision end of the company had been exerting their influence more. But there was still hope that the company’s annual convention near the end of 2019 could bring great things.

Then 2019 actually happened, culminating in an international debacle that saw Democrats and Republicans unite to condemn a video game company—possibly a historical first. On October 6, Hearthstone pro player Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai called for Hong Kong’s sovereignty from China on a Blizzard stream, saying, “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age.” Blizzard suspended Ng Wai for a year, stripped his prize money, and cut ties with the casters involved, triggering widespread outrage.

Fans and critics questioned whether Blizzard’s massive financial interests in China—which is responsible for a large chunk of Hearthstone’s revenue, according to people who have worked there—led the company to punish a player for expressing free speech. Blizzard later walked back the punishment, but that wasn’t enough to quell the anger.

With BlizzCon starting this Friday in Anaheim, California, it’s fair to wonder how people will react. Since last year, Blizzard has been planning to go all-in on this BlizzCon, with announcements prepared for the company’s two huge upcoming games—code-name Fenris (Diablo IV), and code-name Calypso (Overwatch 2, or whatever it winds up being called)—as well as other expansions, remasters, and surprises. Now, there’s a sense of foreboding hanging over the event.

Will there be massive protests at the Anaheim Convention Centre? Will Twitch streams be full of spammed messages about the liberation of Hong Kong? Will fan Q&As be dominated by questions about Blizzard’s financial dependence on an authoritarian government? Will the announcements of highly anticipated games help Blizzard’s reputation recover?

When asked about plans and concerns surrounding this year’s BlizzCon, a Blizzard spokesperson sent over the following statement:

BlizzCon has always been a place where we celebrate the passion and diversity of the Blizzard community, where we encourage and support the many creative and thoughtful ways attendees share and reflect their views and interests—and this year will be no different. We welcome open, constructive, and civil discussion of different perspectives at the show, and we do still plan to have fan Q&A at certain panels as we normally do.

The safety and security of our attendees is and has always been a top priority, and every year we iterate with new measures to bring our event even more up-to-date while doing everything we can to create a comfortable environment for everyone. 

Everyone at Blizzard has been working very hard in the lead-up to BlizzCon. We appreciate all of the interest in learning about our potential plans for the show—we know we’re fortunate that people care enough about our games to actively seek out the latest details—and we’re all very much looking forward to seeing everyone and sharing our latest news.

It’s not that Blizzard’s recent problems started with Hong Kong. The last couple of years have been rough for Blizzard. The 28-year-old company has long been one of the most beloved companies in gaming thanks to top-notch franchises like Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo.

In May of 2016, Blizzard released Overwatch—a smash hit both critically and commercially, but to this day still Blizzard’s most recent new game. A thin schedule over the following two years led to soft revenue numbers, much to the dismay of the Activision executives who oversee both companies. (Blizzard is part of a giant public company called Activision Blizzard; the name implies partnership, but Activision’s board is in charge of the company.)

By the beginning of 2018, the message to Blizzard staff was clear: Make more games, but cut costs. Activision began taking a greater role in operations at Blizzard, installing executives across publishing and other departments.

The company started incubating a number of mobile games, spurred in part by a new Activision mandate to put more of their franchises on phones. In October of 2018, Blizzard founder and CEO Mike Morhaime said he was retiring, with company veteran J. Allen Brack stepping up to take his place. Notably, he’d be president, not CEO—a less powerful title and a sign of Blizzard’s reduced autonomy.

In February of this year, Activision Blizzard laid off over 800 employees across all of its offices, including Blizzard, which was hit particularly hard in publishing and other support departments. The layoffs enraged many of those who spoke to Kotaku in the days and weeks that followed, and enraged Blizzard staff further when the company put up job listings for some of the roles it had eliminated.

The catch: some of those roles were being combined, putting a single person in charge of what had previously been the responsibilities of two or three people. It was a bad look that infuriated some former Blizzard employees.

In May, Blizzard cancelled a StarCraft first-person shooter that was code-named Ares as well as an unannounced mobile game. Blizzard’s goal, as we reported, was to put those resources into Diablo IV and Overwatch 2, both of which will finally be revealed this week.

What hasn’t yet been reported is that a number of veteran Blizzard developers departed in the wake of those cancelations, including Dustin Browder, formerly director of Heroes of the Storm and lead designer of StarCraft II, Eric Dodd, formerly director of Hearthstone, and Jason Chayes, formerly production director of Hearthstone. There’s been a steady trickle of staff departures all year. When asked, a Blizzard spokesperson said: “Yes, Eric, Dustin, and Jason made the decision to move on from Blizzard a few months ago.

They have been and always will be considered members of the Blizzard family, and we’ve loved working with them over the years. We wish them the best for the future. That said, we want to make sure it’s clear that development of Blizzard games has always been a collaborative effort between many talented, longstanding teammates here continuing that good work.”

October brought the Hong Kong ban, an issue so testy that the U.S. government got involved, with a group of Republican and Democrat congresspeople submitting a letter to Activision Blizzard “to express our deep concern” with how the publisher had handled things. “This decision is particularly concerning in light of the Chinese government’s growing appetite for pressuring American businesses to help stifle free speech,” the letter said.

In other words, 2019 has been bad for Blizzard’s public perception. The big question is, can BlizzCon turn things around? On Saturday, esports journalist Rod “Slasher” Breslau reported a bunch of Overwatch 2 details on ESPN that have already excited fans—Hero talents! New modes! Items!—and reactions have been uniformly positive.

Funny enough, the leak was the result of Blizzard accidentally emailing too many people, Breslau told me. “Blizzard sent out some of their most sensitive info on OW2 in a floor plan document sent to staff and non-employee freelancers working the floor at BlizzCon,” he said. “Shortly after sending and noticing their mess up, they sent a new email without the sensitive info included, saying ‘a typo has been fixed,’ just about metaphorically summing up everything that’s gone wrong for Blizzard this year.”

Those self-inflicted wounds aside, fan response to this Overwatch 2 leak suggest that the prospect of cool new games could drown out the fan anger when BlizzCon starts this Friday. Combine this with Diablo IV, a newly remastered version of Diablo II, a new World of Warcraft expansion, and other announcements—could a surprise release of Warcraft 3 Reforged be in the works?—and perhaps by Sunday, Blizzard fans will have completely forgotten about Hong Kong.

I asked three Blizzard employees what they thought about all this, and they all seemed relaxed about the prospect of protests and Twitch spam—a small sample size, granted, but their consensus was that at the end of the day, the big game reveals will win. New entries in two of the biggest franchises on the planet will likely make gamers forget about all of this controversy—unless a Q&A goes particularly awry and turns into the year’s most viral meme.


Comments

    Of course the game reveals will drown out the anger (unless they are mobile games lol) there's already been a large buzz over the possible announcements/leaks and the majority of folks are going for the games.

    I am quite interested to see if there will be protests, I've not heard about any legally organised protests and the convention hall itself is private property so it's gonna be interesting to see what happens if one pops up inside or out.

      I saw talks on reddit about people dressing up as winnie the pooh. on face value it's pretty harmless but you only have to dig a little to find the China connection lol

      not sure what the dress code is for Blizzcon but it would be an amazing headline if an adult got kicked out for wearing it but a child didn't

        dont even need to get dress up as winnie, just wear a winnie shirt and they cant boot you out for wearing a winnie the pooh shirt because disneyland is just around the corner from the convention center

        Yeah I saw a few posts about that but the whole things based on the misconception that Winnie the Pooh is banned in China. (It's not)

        It's kinda like those folks who keep spamming images of various characters and mascots with Pro-Hong Kong Protest messages in an attempt to get the companies banned in China.
        So far I've seen Mei, Mickey Mouse, Palpatine and Mario.

      yeah it prime time leek season at the moment, so while people are excited if the reveals turn out to be even just underwhelming, there will be hell to pay. BFA has been a massive failure, so the upcomming expansion just doesnt have to "hit out of the park" it needs to knock it out of the universe while giving us sexual relief.

      After how badly the diablo fan base has treated all these years, Diablo 4 needs to betterthat what ive stated for WoW, and Heaven and Hell have no fury like a diablo fan scorned should a either D4 and/or a D2 remaster be online only and have no mod support

        I hope they learnt their lesson after the shit-show that was the D3 release.
        It got a lot better and it's a totally different game now from release but oh boy was it bad on release.

      Yep, i smell a tactical PC Diablo announcement.

      Any anger will be soon drowned out by the sounds of attendees jizzing themselves.

    fuck me, i didnt know that Dustin left Blizzard. thats a fucking massive blow to design talent right there.

    Keep the anger. They're the same scum this week that they were a month ago.

    They've done literally nothing to prove they aren't still the same shit-heel bootlickers they were when they decided to nuke a protester (and everyone in the vicinity) from orbit in a misguided attempt to earn daddy China's love. They've displayed ZERO contrition about this. Not one word of apology. They've walked back only as far as they thought they could get away with while still ensuring that the, "Criticize China and you're fucked," message remains strong, loud, and clear, in direct contradiction to stances they've publicly held in the past.

    If everyone just drops to their knees over some shiny new bullshit (and no mistake - it WILL be bullshit; Blizzard has lost a lot of its soul, losing the senior developers responsible for its best hits and moving to more monetization and decisions based on monthly-engagement targets rather than fun), the rare and precious solidarity will have been nothing. The message will be clear: Just ride it out and you can do whatever the fuck you want. There are no consequences for anything. The free market votes for its own destruction.

    It will mean that every progressive, inclusive, diverse piece of lip-service they pay us is nothing more than marketing. A perverse, sheepskin disguise for a vile, and endlessly hungry wolf.
    Lies.

    And some people want to guzzle the lies. I get that. They want to take the blue pill, stay plugged in to the matrix, embrace Big Brother, welcome our new alien overlords, etc, etc.

    But if you ever actually cared, if you felt any kind of disgust at this behaviour, then it's worth staying angry. Because new game releases don't excuse the bad behaviour that made us mad. They're still reprehensible, just releasing new entries that probably don't deserve the respect that previous entries in their franchises earned. They think that little of us.
    ...They're probably right to. But it's still disgusting.

    Anyway. Props for this bit in the article:
    Blizzard is part of a giant public company called Activision Blizzard; the name implies partnership, but Activision’s board is in charge of the company.
    This succinctly puts a lot of the bullshit about the ActiBlizz relationship into perspective.

      Now tell us what you really think. :P
      Seriously though your spot on.
      Unfortunately I also believe they think that little of their customers and that they're probably right.
      Give them something new and shiny to distract them whilst still doing their usual shit.

      Maybe I have lower expectations of companies. I completely expect companies to say or do progressive things in countries where that will go down well.

      Just as I don't expect coke to run an ad campaign that's heavy on gay rights in the middle east.

      Is it really that outrageous?

        To me? Yeah, it is that outrageous.

        Especially when it's clamping down on the right to protest - one of the core principles of Western freedoms - and when that protest is for basic human rights.
        Especially when they lied about the reason, and expect us to swallow it.
        Especially when both audiences are in the same metaphorical room when they try to tell us two opposite things.

        That warrants, to my mind, making a bigger deal than usual.

          On the other hand, blitzchung is still free to protest. It doesn't remove his right to do so, but it did have consequences.

          I think it's a bit shitty, but the whole thing didn't surprise me. It's how all multinational corporations operate.

          I don't expect them to be fighting for human rights. I expect them to make things and try and sell those things.

            He's free to cheat, too - if he cheated, he'd actually have got a softer penalty, going by precedent.
            The harshest penalty they've handed out in Hearthstone was not for political speech... there's been plenty of that go unnoticed if not rewarded. No, it was speech that might upset China. That's the key difference between rewarded political speech and punished political speech. So, yeah. Blizzard's most severe punishments appear to be reserved for upsetting China. Which is fucking disgusting when 'what upsets China' is asking for basic human rights.

            But it's simpler than that, really...

            Blizzard claims to stand for things!
            Only not really. Not if it means upsetting China.
            The credit they've claimed (both goodwill and actual spending) for 'standing for things (but not really)' is undeserved, and they lose the credit that 'standing for things' generated for them.

            You wanna say you run an ethical company, you kinda have to, y'know... run a fucking ethical company. They have claimed to, but those claims have not stood up to testing.

            Other companies might be doing the exact same thing, making claims they won't support when tested and the only difference is that they aren't tested, but that's irrelevant.
            What matters is that proof of failure to stand up to testing deserves some fucking consequences. If others fail the test, then they can and should face similar consequences.

              As I said, I think this is a matter of expectations. I have incredibly low expectations of companies and what they will actually stand up for. So when things like this happen.. I suppose it meets expectations.

              I think it's great if people want to not buy their product to try and send a message. It's about the only power they have as consumers.

          The right to protest only applies when it's peaceful and you only have to watch the news to see how little the governments of the free world respect that right.

          Here in Australia we have a number of anti-protest laws and restrictions against the mechanisms of activism with both sides of the government keen to introduce new ones and strengthen the old.

          It's certainly no shock that news on the HK protests has suddenly decreased on the back of the climate protests, it's suddenly not in the interest of western governments to support a good cause when another has popped up in their own backyards.

      I agree completely, until they announce Diablo 2 remastered.
      I'm sorry, TM, I'm just not that strong.

        i believe in you Razor. channel the rage of Doomguy!

        as i posted earlier, they dont just have to announce, they have to blow us. there can not be any inkling of underwhelment. each announcement needs to knock it out reality and into the tenth dimention, else blizzcon 2019 will be a failure

    I hope Blizzard has the balls to do an unvetted QnA, if they do it's going to be fucking glorious.

      They've already said that they won't, and that this is not unusual, because they never do.

      Red-shirt April Fools' guy was vetted, but when he had the microphone he just asked a different question to the vetted question.

      My guess is that THIS year the difference will be that they won't be letting audience members ask their vetted questions directly, to avoid a red shirt guy incident - they will have representatives (or plants) holding the microphone, asking the questions on the audience member's behalf. Or they'll still allow it to happen, but clamp down on recording so that they can control how much of that behaviour makes it to China.

    The entry t’s & c’s to this event may make for some fascinating reading.

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