The past twelve months have not been kind to Blizzard Entertainment.
From a lackluster BlizzCon in 2018 to the controversy surrounding the game developer's reaction to Hearthstone pro Wai Chung "blitzchung" Ng and the Hong Kong protests, "disappointing" would be putting things mildly.
It wasn't all bad (World of Warcraft Classic, anyone?). We aren't here to pile on to Blizzard. But it's obvious that the company needs some big wins Friday and Saturday at their annual convention in Anaheim, California.
Questions abound. Will Overwatch 2 and Diablo 4, both leaked but not yet confirmed, be enough to make BlizzCon a win? Will the Overwatch World Cup provide the high level of competition we've come to expect? How will Blizzard handle an environment full of possible protestors, Mei-for-Hong-Kong cosplayers and smartphones recording it all?
Although opening old wounds seems trite, it's important to recollect how Blizzard got to this point to fully grasp how important this BlizzCon is for the company's future.
BlizzCon 2018. What do you remember about it? If you said the infamous "Do you guys not have phones?" line during the Diablo Immortal Q&A, you'd be one of the many that thought the same thing. The mobile game that no one in the West asked for was the start of the downward spiral.
Cost-cutting on smaller titles. In December, Blizzard announced it was shutting down the esports side of Heroes of the Storm and drastically reducing support for the game itself.
Partner developers jumping ship. At the start of 2019, it was announced that Bungie would be leaving Activision-Blizzard and taking their flagship sci-fi/space opera/first-person shooter/pseudo-MMORPG, Destiny 2, with them. The departure was a big loss considering it helped bolster the library of games on Battle.net. Shortly after, Activision-Blizzard laid off almost 800 people despite "record results in 2018."
A tough start to Season 2 of the Overwatch League. The triple-tank, triple-support meta known as GOATS was a slog to watch, so much so that Blizzard decided implement a role lock late in the season. The two-tank, two-DPS, two-support requirements increased watchability and entertainment value for the OWL at the expense of some teams not being able to adapt and some players finding themselves on an overstuffed roster. Luckily, the agreed-upon two best teams made it to the OWL finals. Along the way, though, OWL commissioner Nate Nanzer left to go head up esports efforts for Fortnite developer Epic Games, which also owns Rocket League.
Overwatch World Cup woes. Poland, Egypt, Switzerland and a host of other teams were not able to secure funding through sponsorships and community help to participate in the Overwatch World Cup preliminaries at BlizzCon. Only the top 10 seeded teams have their trips paid for by Blizzard.
The blitzchung decision. You can read all about it here, but the short of it is Blizzard suspended initially blitzchung for a year and rescinded all the prize money he'd earned for 2018 after blitzchung vocalized support for the anti-government Hong Kong protests during a postgame interview. Blizzard has since reduced the penalties applied, but the damage was done, and the fallout continues. A bipartisan congressional delegation even issued a letter admonishing Blizzard for its reaction and called on CEO Bobby Kotick to change course (though Blizzard had already reduced its punishments by the time the letter was published).
The cherry on top? As all this unfolded, Riot Games hosted its 10-year anniversary stream. The rival publisher, of League of Legends fame, announced a tactical first-person shooter titled Project A and Legends of Runeterra, a digital collectible card game. Both look like competitors to Blizzard's tentpole esports title, Overwatch, and Hearthstone.
Blizzard needs this weekend's convention to do for them what Riot's 10-year anniversary did: Inject an enormous amount of confidence and goodwill back into the community. Blizzard has to stand in front of its fans and be prepared to answer some tough questions during Q&As. The audience will be hungry for answers; there will likely be no shortage of difficult moments.
How Blizzard navigates that will determine how their 2020, and possibly beyond, will look.