BlizzCon 2018 was a pretty unnecessary disaster for Blizzard. It managed to demolish any hopes people had about Battle for Azeroth rounding the bend and delivering stuff that people really wanted, instead going for following the same basic content beats as Legion but with systems no one liked. It featured Diablo Immortal. It failed to mollify any distaste from Heroes of the Storm fans. It didn’t actually include a picture of a developer throwing up in a trash can put up as a slide in a World of Warcraft panel, but it stopped just shy.
Naturally, I thought that this was as bad as it could ever get.
And then Blizzard queued up a whole year of stuff ensuring that BlizzCon 2019 not only had to make up for a disaster last year but an ongoing, rolling disaster that Blizzard has been exacerbating. So it was already working on an uphill slope, but now that slope has also been covered in ball bearings and grease.
So, while we haven’t yet seen the convention itself… does it really have a future like this?
Blizzard has always had a particular way of handling its marketing. It’s always been corporate, of course, but it’s also always wanted to traffic on the strength of not being corporate, of being seen as these weird indie perfectionists never releasing a game until it’s totally done and doing everything with perfect passion and so forth. It’s not exactly a new approach in terms of marketing a studio, trying to convince people what you have triple-A budgets with tiny indie passion, but what’s been surprising is that Blizzard has maintained that illusion for such a long time in spite of being part of a multi-billion-dollar corporation.
BlizzCon has always been an outgrowth of that, I think. It offers itself up as this passionate gathering of fans of a little studio, even though that hasn’t been accurate for nearly a decade now, and it really leans into the idea that it’s just a big fan gathering… while also being a big marketing gathering, but that part doesn’t matter, right? Pre-order this fun game now! We’re putting it out there because we love this stuff! Look, our designers have strong opinions about the Alliance and Horde! We’re fun!
That’s not an admonishment, of course. It’s a good spin if you can get it, and while it’s never been true, it’s also the sort of harmless marketing spin that’s not inherently worse than “we have no one who cares about games, we’re just perfect game-making machines” like Sony lived on for the longest while. Heaven knows that even though I knew pretty well it wasn’t true, I sure as heck let it take root for a long while.
I knew in 2009 that this was what it was, for example. But I was still having fun watching and talking about the coverage with fellow fans because… well, it’s the fun of the thing. It’s corporate kayfabe. Sure, it’s fake, but isn’t it nice to play along?
And it is right up until it isn’t. And suddenly it’s not.
When you start learning stage magic, there’s a pretty basic lesson that you learn very early on: Your audience generally wants to believe the trick. Everyone knows it is a trick past a very young age, but they want to be shocked and awed just the same. You can thus get an audience to gloss over a lot and play along for a very long time if you pull off the trick well. Good presentation can get around sloppy execution.
But the moment you drop the veil and start treating it mechanically, then the audience is against you. And while you can flub a trick and keep going, as soon as the audience doesn’t want you to delight them, your act is over.
Have you ever wondered why Electronic Arts doesn’t have a convention for its games, apart from its presentations in E3’s general vicinity? It’s not because the company doesn’t have a large enough digital footprint, or its own dedicated storefront, or passionate people working on its individual titles. It’s because no one would ever, for a minute, mistake that as anything but a marketing convention. EA is unambiguously corporate slickness and profits in the context of gaming, and any such convention would have to schedule an entire day so all of the separate protests didn’t step on one another’s toes. Lockboxes alone would probably feature prominently.
None of this stops EA from making plenty of money on games. But it does prevent the company from trying to brand itself as just a bunch of weird and wild fans who love these strange games that we’re all so passionate about. The marketing illusion there has long been shattered. No one’s buying that one. No one would buy it from Sony, or Microsoft, or Activision proper.
Is anyone still going to buy it from Blizzard? If the company hadn’t been tearing down its illusion all year, would we still have bought it this time?
Some of this, naturally, is a result of changing personalities in charge. As an example, it’s hard for anyone to fill the shoes of Chris Metzen, who had (and has) a definite talent for working the crowd, talking big, and driving passion when he gets up on the stage. We all know, of course, that the people still working at Blizzard are often people Metzen knew and endorsed and liked; his departure didn’t change the ideas or guiding philosophies, just the presentation. But again… the audience wants to buy what you’re selling. You just can’t let it feel otherwise.
That’s what makes me wonder whether this convention has a future the way it is now. If Blizzard hadn’t spent the intervening time between conventions shooting itself in the foot with intensity, I feel like it’d be less of an open question. But not only was last year’s event an enormous mess, we’ve watched every part of the trick get thoroughly dismantled in slow motion. Massive layoffs, cut projects, corporate doubletalk… it feels like someone literally trying to remind everyone that just in case you’d forgotten, this is a company.
I’m not saying that Blizzard can’t win back the crowd, of course. It’s entirely possible that people will be so delighted by the new stuff on display that they’ll be willing to offer a grudging reprieve… maybe. We’ve already had some leaks, and even if those leaks were genuine accidents (and we doubt it), they certainly do contribute to the feeling that someone is desperately hoping this will get people back on board wholeheartedly.
But if anything, this has punctured the image of this convention as being the scrappy fan convention run by a bunch of passionate people. It’s a corporate media event. Yes, sure, it always has been, but the moment you can’t pretend otherwise is the moment it become real… and now, unfortunately, it’s real.
Not to mention that this also shows the weakness of placing all your eggs in the BlizzCon basket, so to speak. Blizzard has bet hard on the event turning things around… and now it’s coming up fast, and there’s a whole new pile of things fans are angry about.
I can’t say decisively that this will be the last BlizzCon as we know it. But I do get the sense that things have changed, subtly but definitely, and suddenly it seems as if there are reasons to not hold the convention beyond just not having anything to announce. Now there’s a sense that this is… unwholesome. Inauthentic. Pandering.
You can win back customers if your big reveals are good enough, sure. But that sense of wonder and affection? That one doesn’t come back easily – if ever.