Last weekend, I immersed myself in the sights and sounds of a busy convention floor at BlizzCon in the US city of Anaheim, California. It was work – interviews, hands-on gameplay, meeting with contacts. It was also a chance to see friends. Through it all, I felt guilty. As controversies mounted, I was forced to navigate my guilt in the middle of a massive celebration.
BlizzCon, Blizzard Entertainment’s yearly celebration of their properties and games, is unlike the frantic helter skelter of E3 or the straight-laced interfacing of the Game Developers Conference. It’s a party, a gaming jamboree where old friends gather, themed beverages flow, and throngs of fans cheer as new game announcements come. There’s an energy to BlizzCon that I’ve not found anywhere else; it feels like a class reunion. If your classmate was a level 120 orc shaman.
Unfortunately, everything surrounding my BlizzCon felt like a disaster. At first, my disappointment was entirely personal. I had originally planned to attend BlizzCon as a personal trip with a close friend, not as a work trip; my coworker Nathan Grayson was already covering the event for us at Kotaku. But as the event approached, that plan changed and it became more of a work trip. Then, a significant Blizzard controversy unfolded: the company punished a pro Hearthstone player for advocating on behalf of protesters in Hong Kong. It sparked an international conversation, with American politicians speaking out against Blizzard’s decision.
I ended up attending the event as a journalist. That altered my approach. This wasn’t going to be a mini-vacation with friends, where I shot the shit and kept it loose. Instead, it would involve navigating a controversy by which folks were rightly angered. The inciting incident was straightforward – I think Blizzard’s initial punishment against Ng Wai Chung was too hard – but it had wider implications that were more complicated. I was frustrated to see commentary from people who seemed to have become experts in Hong Kong politics overnight. I was sceptical of politicians playing into anti-Chinese xenophobia. I was also personally conflicted. If I enjoyed a game, which seemed likely, I would undoubtedly anger some readers and fans who expected a hardline stance on my end. It felt, in some ways, like a balancing act I couldn’t manage. Give developers a fair shake, support and acknowledge the disappointment of fans. There’s a pressure when you’re in any semi-public position to be perfect; to please everyone. That didn’t seem possible. It doesn’t feel possible even as I write this.
It would soon become even more difficult for me and Nathan to cover BlizzCon. Two days before I got on a plane to the event, Deadspin deputy editor Barry Petchesky was fired at G/O Media, Kotaku US' parent company. Over the next few days, the rest of Deadspin’s staff followed. By the end of the day on Friday, the entirety of Deadspin’s editorial staff had either been fired or quit.
Imagine you’re on a plane and when you land, you learn that some of the most talented people, people whose work has inspired you and who have pushed you to do better, are now gone. Now imagine you need to be in the same city as Disneyland, in the middle of convention that’s essentially a theme park unto itself.
I needed to figure out what to do. I could freeze and spiral into disastrous thoughts. That was the most tempting option. But, I thought to myself, that wouldn’t serve anyone. Not my team at home, not the hard-working devs on the floor, and certainly not myself. That left option number two: put aside my intense emotions and do the goddamn work. So I did. I sat and wrote out the questions I wanted to ask developers. I coordinated with Nathan. Split up: you hit Overwatch, I’ll do Diablo. There wasn’t going to be any surprises this time around, so it was easy to plan.
The guilt kept creeping back in. We were working while other folks at our company were walking out, deciding they’d had enough. What kind of arsehole was I? But, there was undoubtedly work to do. I did the interview prep, committed to the best possible job. The readers deserve it.
Again, though, this work was not without its other complications. Protesters gathered outside the convention centre, enraged at the treatment of Blitzchung. If I played Diablo IV and wrote about how I enjoyed it, was I letting people down? Was I letting down Deadspin, writing BlizzCon articles as though nothing had happened?
I realised that furiously tossing myself into work wasn’t possible. I could not just ignore the guilt and the grief that I felt. Trying to put it aside had helped for a time, giving me the focus and drive to get from one part of the day to the next. But grief demands to be released or else it curdles like old milk left in the fridge. I found that release in an unexpected place, right in the middle of Blizzard’s game announcements.
I didn’t cry in Seattle, during my flight layover, when I heard how amazing writers like Drew Magary and David Roth were leaving. I held it all in as Patrick Redford and Samer Kalaf mic dropped their way out the door. But the tears had to come out sometime. They came unexpectedly: when I saw the Overwatch 2 trailer.
Seeing a bunch of goddamn heroes team up to beat a giant, soulless robot broke something inside me. It was a team of folks coming together to do a brave thing, to have each other’s backs. It’s hard not to get romantic about art, and even harder not to tie it to whatever’s happening to you. So Overwatch banded together to defeat the Private Equity Bot 3000 (or so I imagine), and it was absolutely what I needed. All around me, I heard fans lose their minds with cheering when Genji swooped in to save the day. My heart seized up along with them, not for exactly the same reasons, but still. It felt good to lose myself in the excitement. It felt good when Tracer launched herself at that giant mech and blew it up. It felt good to finally allow myself some tears.
As the event wore on, I realised that I not only needed to let myself cry. I also needed to let myself feel joy. If I was going to get the job done at BlizzCon, I needed to allow myself to feel whatever I was going to feel, in order to move forward. So I did, and as a result, it ended up being an experience I’ll remember fondly. Yes, I still asked hard questions in interviews, and there was still a tension in the air. But whether I was spending time with friends or talking to enthusiastic developers, I found myself taking joy in the work. I let myself feel that joy, as well. Part of me still feels bad about that. Grief can trick us into thinking we’re not allowed to be happy, even for a moment. But it’s just that: a trick.
During BlizzCon, I met up with my friend and walked to get some coffee. It was the first time I’d seen her in half a year. We eventually made our way to the show floor to watch a professional Hearthstone match between Xiaomeng “VKLiooon” Li and Chen “tom60229” Wei Lin. Li would eventually go on to win the whole tournament as the first female Grand Finals winner. I sat there next to someone I cared about, wasting time and casually talking with a Canadian couple nearby who were eager to tell me about their World of Warcraft exploits. I let go of my grief, for just a moment, and I exhaled.