The last live BlizzCon in 2019 was not a great show, but it was fundamentally a hype festival for Blizzard just like they’ve all been. At the time, the reputation and general thinking around Blizzard was that the company was a once-storied developer that had spent several years being pretty dang obnoxious and had fallen into… well, a bit of a gully. It could bounce back, of course, nothing irreparable had been done, but it would take a lot of hard work to really capture hearts and minds again.
Four years later, Blizzard decided to run another convention on the tattered ashes of its reputation for a wholly different scandal.
I’ve stated many times that BlizzCon 2023 was a pretty bad idea, just because having a hype show devoted to all of a company’s games wasn’t a great idea to begin with and because… at the end of the day, Blizzard was wrecked. You just can’t will hype to exist again, and while Blizzard still has its fans who are willing to overlook everything about the company in order to stay fans, it doesn’t exactly motivate people out to a convention hall. And so here we are, in the wake of the convention, and it played out… sadly, about as expected.
On a fundamental level, BlizzCon needed to have show-stopping announcements to justify all of the bombast associated with this kind of event and it needed to do something to reckon with the fact that the studio’s rockstar persona wasn’t just gone but had never actually existed. The place was rotten to the core and had been for years. The latter is the biggest reason why I stated that this was a bad idea because… well… it’s Blizzard. This is not a company that does self-reflection and humility ever, always running on the idea that if you never sit still long enough to be called out for your behavior, it doesn’t count.
You really got a feel for that in the opening moments of the show. Neither Mike Ybarra nor Phil Spencer is a person you bring out for genuine warmth, contrition, or humility. This isn’t a condemnation of them as human beings (Mike Ybarra has done enough stuff to merit that, but it has nothing to do with his stage presence); it just means that neither of them brings the level of “ah, yay, I can sink into a fog of pretending this is fine” that really needed to underscore this convention.
But even beyond that, BlizzCon 2023 had the same problem BlizzCon has always had: There just wasn’t actually enough stuff to show off.
OW2 doesn’t have anything to announce because it cancelled the parts anyone cared about, cancelled the Overwatch League after finally admitting it wasn’t working, and very clearly is being run by people who just have no idea how to put things back together. They announced a new hero, but at this point the game’s hero roster is basically removed from a gacha game only by quirk of business model, and even then only just.
Diablo IV, meanwhile, has cratered. It sold very well at launch because people didn’t pay a lot of attention to… y’know, Blizzard and everything else. But it has all of the hallmarks of modern Blizzard’s design, and you don’t build a very directly live-service game like this on the premise of doing well during initial sales and then cratering. I can’t be the only one who found the game’s almost ephemeral expansion announcement to functionally be a plea to let the game stay relevant, please don’t treat us like Overwatch 2, we’re feeling much better and would like to take a walk.
Hearthstone is… well, it’s fine. It’s Hearthstone. It has a dedicated audience and it does well for itself within that audience (in spite of apparent layoffs), but it’s not a show-stopping property, and it also is starting to get some more serious competition within the whole digital card game space. You don’t throw a convention for it; you throw a convention for other things and include some Hearthstone news.
That just leaves World of Warcraft, which poses another problem because while WoW is still probably one of your biggest moneymakers, you have been whiffing with that one for a long while now. So you have to really knock something out of the park. And the announcements… well, one struck out and two were solid base hits – not really owning the main stage, just outshining the other games.
WoW Classic was probably always going to wind up here, to be fair. While it’s notoriously impossible to really suss out WoW’s total subscription numbers, much less how many accounts play the game’s Classic servers, population numbers and such seem to suggest that somewhere between 10% and 25% of WoW accounts play WoW Classic. That’s enough players to be meaningful but not enough to really justify wild deviations from existing content, which is why we… don’t get wild deviations from existing content. Cataclysm was always where we were headed, and that was always going to go over like a lead balloon, especially with a crowd full of people who paid money for BlizzCon.
Adding in the whole Season of Discovery mode was a good idea, and there are definitely interesting concepts there, but the way that it’s being set up also makes it clear that it is functionally another case of “re-level through vanilla content with tweaks” just like the last two seasons. This time the season just includes a different veneer on the same structure and might theoretically reuse assets that were in the game but not used before. That’s good, but it’s not really transformative.
I’ve already written a whole column about the WoW expansion announcement, and that looks good on paper, but it’s still not really enough to justify a whole event. Especially when you can get the exact same experience at home for free. None of this was really a home run for the game.
More importantly, it didn’t do anything to repair Blizzard’s image, in no small part because the actual things that Blizzard could be doing to repair its image are things that Blizzard is either uniquely terrible at doing or simply has no interest in doing. You can see it in the fact that BlizzCon 2023 happened in the first place. Instead of trying to reckon with a complicated legacy, a generally horrendous anti-union culture, and leadership that’s forcing people back to the office (and trying to force tears on stage), the company tried to put on a show designed to make you forget all of that stuff by breaking out the ol’ razzle-dazzle.
And it didn’t work because people can recognize when they’re being pandered to. You can want to be taken in by sophistry because it flatters your personal preferences or your narrative about your preferences, but at the end of the day that’s not really an audience that’s worth hanging on to. The show wasn’t a disaster, and Blizzard avoided any gigantic faux pas through the couple of days that the show was running, but it sure didn’t leave me thinking that the studio was back, and not just because I know it was always an illusion.
Let’s see how Microsoft feels about this being a thing next year.