Blizzard Entertainment has had a very rough year. Even from the outset, before any of the controversial suspensions that happened over the past few weeks, hundreds of layoffs marked the start of Blizzard's 2019. Last year's BlizzCon was disappointing for fans, and now its annual spree of reveals and announcements will determine whether its 2020 will look similarly dire.
Any other year, the collective hum of rumors of this year's BlizzCon would reverberate like a beehive. There's a lot to be excited for: reports of an Overwatch sequel, a fourth Diablo game to sate those still miffed over last year's Diablo Immortal announcement.
But Blizzard hype is muted this year for several reasons. Including the aforementioned layoffs which saw huge cuts at the company, its suspension of a Hearthstone player for pro-Hong Kong statements, as well as the ban of the two commentators interviewing him and a group of collegiate players who protested the suspension on-air, has left fans irate. Blizzard's already canceled one event for an unrelated game. Tack on some other stumbles, like a bipartisan Congressional letter on the issue and the removal of a gay WoW Classic guild's name, and Blizzard's public image is in a spotty place.
Take a look at corporate, and things don't get much prettier. Several Blizzard veterans have departed the studio, and it's lost some of its most stalwart guiding hands in Mike Morhaime and Frank Pearce. The studio is moving into a new era with former Senior VP and World of Warcraft Executive Producer J. Allen Brack now at the helm, and new leads like former Xbox Corporate VP Mike Ybarra entering.
BlizzCon always carries with it a host of reveals, ranging from minor updates like new characters and arenas for its legion of ongoing games, to conferences like this year's, where several new game announcements are anticipated. But it's bound to also face hostility this year; plans for protests over the Hong Kong ruling seem to be progressing unabated by reports of new video games to play. Although some seem to be wavering, one anecdotal and considerably ratio'd Reddit post isn't enough to assuage any anxiety.
THIS IS MY FAVORITE POST pic.twitter.com/jhlnO37XFO- Misha Panarin, Lurker of the Loch (@panarin_misha) October 31, 2019
BlizzCon 2019 won't just another big day of video game news then. There will certainly be a lot of excitement over new games, but lingering just overhead on the periphery of each new excited reveal will be the year that's preceded this show. A camera might catch a sign saying "Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizzard," or we might see a cosplayer resembling Overwatch's Mei in protest gear. In a weekend entirely devoted to Blizzard's public facing image, there's worry that its own fans might cause even more disruption. A Blizzard employee told the LA Times that anticipation for this year's BlizzCon has been "poisoned."
"A lot of people that would've been happy and excited are now feeling dread that something's going to happen," they told the Times. "You don't know if it's going to be people chanting outside. You don't know if it's going to be someone onstage. You don't know if it's going to be something dangerous that might actually hurt people."
It's put these developers in a tough spot. It's not like a gameplay producer had any say in whether Blitzchung got to keep playing Hearthstone. Even internally, the suspension drew silent protests from Blizzard employees.
Every year, Blizzard has a giant stage show to not only drum up hype around its games, but set the tone for the year to come. Last year's BlizzCon started 2019 on unsure footing, which then snowballed into where we are today. I'm not sure what a win at BlizzCon 2019 looks like for the wayward publisher, but it certainly has the convention floor space to try for one.