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, in America, 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, in the US state of 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 Center? 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 cancellations, 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 US 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.