Earlier in October, it seemed like this year’s BlizzCon could be a disaster. Blizzard Entertainment’s annual fan event took place on November 1 and November 2 in Anaheim, California. I went to the show and covered it, and I was curious to see if the show would devolve into one giant protest.
That didn’t happen.
Blizzard found itself swept up in controversy when it punished Blitzchung, a pro player for Blizzard’s Hearthstone card game, who supported the Hong Kong protests against the Chinese government in a post-match interview. Blizzard also went after the two casters who were on the broadcast during Blitzchung’s remarks.
The decision incensed many Blizzard fans, and the company took almost a week to respond at all. When it did, it reduced punishments for all three while defending its decision. The response wasn’t much an actual apology, however, and many Blizzard fans remained at angry.
For Blizzard, the controversy couldn’t come at worst time. This was all unfolding just a few weeks before the start of BlizzCon. Leaks suggested that Blizzard would reveal major new games at the show, including Overwatch 2 and Diablo IV. This was going to be one of the most important BlizzCons ever.
But even a couple of weeks can be a long time in the gaming world. As the show approached, the anger that once fumed like a volcano seemed to reach more of a simmer. But there was still the threat that it could get hot again.
Inside the show
When I was walking to the convention for its first day, I came across protesters. There were about a dozen or so of them standing right outside the security checkpoint. They were giving out free shirts that showed support for Hong Kong. Once inside, however, I didn’t see much that acknowledged the controversy. Soon, I was in the convention’s main hall waiting for the opening ceremonies. Blizzard president J. Allen Brack came onstage at the start. No one booed him. He then addressed the Hong Kong controversy directly.
“Blizzard had the opportunity to bring the world together in a tough Hearthstone esports moment,” Brack said. “About a month ago. And we did not. We moved to quickly in our decision making. And then. To make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you. When I think about what I’m most unhappy about, there’s really two things. The first one is, we didn’t live up to the high standards that we really set for ourselves. And the second is, we failed in our purpose. And for that, I am sorry, and accept accountability.”
This drew applause from the crowd. For most of them, it was all they needed to move on. Blizzard’s first response wasn’t an apology at all. Now, Brack was humbling himself a bit for a crowd and accepting responsibility.
Of course, it was not a perfect apology. For one thing, it was directed at Blizzard’s fans. It wasn’t really an apology for Blitzchung or the casters, and their punishments received no further reductions. Also, Blizzard is continuing its stance that its tournaments are not a place for political speech of any kind, which is still a problematic rule.
But for most BlizzCon attendees, it felt like Brack had given them the excuse they needed to move on. They soon focused on Blizzard’s big game announcements, cheering for the introductions of Diablo IV, Overwatch 2, and World of Warcraft: Shadowlands. These new titles were the focus of the show, not the Hong Kong controversy.
BlizzCon couldn’t escape the shadow of Blitzchung. It was still a popular point of gossip among attendees. And you could see some people protesting in clever ways inside the convention, including a group of attendees dressed as Winnie the Pooh (China president Xi Jinping reportedly hates the character because some say he looks like him).
There was also a moment during the World of Warcraft Q&A when one of the attendees said “Free Hong Kong, revolution of our times” into the microphone. This was followed by a younger attendee also saying “Free Hong Kong.”
But the moment came and went, and Blizzard let it happen. It did the opposite of what it did after the Blitzchung incident. It did not overreact.
On the second day of BlizzCon, I thought one event may cause a stir. The Overwatch World Cup had come down to two teams: U.S. and China. I wondered if the U.S. fans, which outnumbered the China attendees, would taunt the other side with chants of “Free Hong Kong” or something along those lines. But nothing of that sort happened. Both sides cheered for their teams. They had a lot of energy, and the U.S. fans erupted when their team won. The Hong Kong controversy did not play any kind of factor.
And that was it.
After the Overwatch World Cup, the show was just about over. Sure, BlizzCon had some signs of protest, and I don’t want to diminish those at all. They made their voices heard and supported a good cause. But for most of Blizzard’s fans, BlizzCon wasn’t about Hong Kong, Blitzchung, or free speech. It was a chance to play new games, watch esports, and hang out with friends.
The show goes on
For Blizzard fans, BlizzCon is one of the biggest events of the year, if not the biggest. They pool vacation days and turn the show into a big trip. It could be their biggest trip of the year. It can be hard to expect these people to throw that away and instead spend time revolting against a company whose games they’ve invested so much time and money in.
Blizzard hasn’t escaped the Blitzchung controversy yet, but it managed to not let it overtake BlizzCon. It was lucky that it had such a big show this year. If Blizzard had last year’s BlizzCon, which was short on new games and angered some attendees with a Diablo for mobile announcement, then things could have become heated.
But most of Blizzard’s fans aren’t looking for a reason to be mad. They aren’t looking for a reason to protest. They are at BlizzCon to have fun, and they were happy to take Brack’s apology as a reason to move on.