WoW Factor: Exit BlizzCon, for good this time?

Would you like to see something unsettling?

Back in 2021, we learned that there was not going to be a BlizzCon 2022. This did not surprise me, and I penned a whole column that included speculation that this was the beginning of the end for the convention. Indeed, at that point I felt like it was very unlikely we would ever see another BlizzCon at all, and I opined as such. But I was wrong; we did, in fact, have another BlizzCon in 2023. And we are not going to have one in 2024, and as a result I’m right back to wondering.

To be clear, I am not someone who is looking at this and reading the tea leaves in a way that says, “Well, that’s it for World of Warcraft; the next two expansions are cancelled.” That’s just ridiculous. However, I do think that just as there’s a tendency for some folks to oversell exactly what’s going on with this event cancellation, there is a tendency to undersell what’s happening. So let’s take a look at how we got here and what it implies about the future.

First and foremost, we need to remember that BlizzCon has not actually been an annual event basically ever. There was none in 2006 or 2012, both of which are obviously free of the influences of what has come to light regarding Blizzard over the years. Heck, in the case of 2006, nobody even explained why it wasn’t going to be held; it just… didn’t get held. So if you’re looking at its overall arc of existence, it’s only 75% likely to be held any given year. Everything is normal!

But it isn’t. We know 2020 was cancelled because of the pandemic, 2021 was online-only because of the pandemic, and 2022 was cancelled again because it turns out Blizzard is horrible (quelle surprise). Last year, we finally got another one… and then nobody showed up.

I’m being hyperbolic. Obviously, some people did attend. But we know it was clearly not selling out with the alacrity that any long-time Blizzard hands would expect. Now, I did not track the ticket availability every day until the convention occurred, and as such it is possible that at some point closer to the day of the convention after I wrote that piece, it did finally sell out. I kind of doubt that, though; if you were going to travel to California, get a hotel, and attend a convention, you were probably doing something about that more rapidly than with just a month to go.

There's very little gold in these gym mats.

However, it’s been many months since the convention occurred, and Blizzard has yet to brag about how many people attended. That’s actually unusual! And from where I’m sitting, I think it suggests the company doesn’t really want to advertise this. That’s not exactly a shocking and unexpected conclusion, but especially when 2023’s event was already a stripped-down affair, it kind of raises some questions that need answering. Questions that were asked back when the first convention was cancelled about how this event looks to the people signing the checks, specifically.

Two of the things that I noted back then were that BlizzCon was, at its heart, always a convention that put a lot of time and effort into celebrating the accomplishment of Blizzard existing. It wasn’t somehow a venial sin, but it relies upon the clearly false idea that Blizzard was functionally a cool studio full of rock stars, in sharp contrast to all of those other big corporate behemoths. This, of course, was always false (it was owned by Vivendi when the first BlizzCon happened; it was not some scrappy little indie), but it was a flattering myth that having a personalized convention played into.

But what also was worth noting was that even aside from the obvious loss of any and all Blizzard Cool over the years, BlizzCon was always going to be a harder sell to Microsoft than it was to Activision. If Activision was at least willing to entertain the idea that there should be special rules for Blizzard because it seems to be working for Blizzard, Microsoft was always going to ask why exactly this one development studio gets to have its own dedicated convention in a sea of the many other studios it owns. And doubly so when it… doesn’t… actually have its own ecosystem any longer?

Yeah, did you notice that? Any and all prestige of the Blizzard library kind of fell off a cliff the past couple of years.

I know that I keep bringing up the idea that Overwatch 2 got cancelled after launching, but that’s mostly because it seriously happened and how insane is that? The odds are that the game will get no further serious PvE content in spite of that being its original selling point. Heroes of the Storm is dead in the water. Diablo Immortal sure as heck isn’t pulling launch numbers any more, Hearthstone isn’t dying but it also isn’t big news… really, right now, Blizzard has two big titles in active development, WoW and Diablo IV. And the narrative around the latter is about pulling together from some struggles after launch.

Sure, you can hold a convention about two titles. You can even hold a convention focused around one. But can you do that in a year when both of those titles are supposed to be getting expansions so you’d just be saying, “Buy this, it’s out now”?

It's similar. Still.

The real part that’s… well, I don’t want to say ominous but certainly telling… is that there’s also the question of whether or not we’re ever going to get another BlizzCon. I get the impulse to say that of course it’s going to happen again, which is what Blizzard did last night, but I also think a lot of that is down to convincing people that eventually the company will return to Things Being Normal Again.

But this is normal. This is how things look for Blizzard now, and before it greenlights any other convention, Microsoft is going to ask why, exactly, one of its many studios should rent out a massive convention hall and pay for a very expensive musical act for two days.

It seems to MMO players as if BlizzCon can’t possibly just cease to be, just as it once seemed that E3 would be an eternal institution. But these conventions exist weighed against ad buys and other events. I am still, to this day, surprised that some companies do host the events they do at the scale they consider apparently profitable. And most of those outfits have managed to not become the Main Character for a couple years.

And if that sounds like something I’m happy over… I’m not.

Blizzard is not a good company in spite of the efforts of many of its workers to save and fix it; that part is pretty painfully clear to everyone who has been paying attention over the past several years. And the idea of “everything will be better once Microsoft buys ABK” was always naive. But it’s still hard. It hurts to see something that could be fun become not fun. And it hurts more to think of the people who genuinely looked forward to each year of BlizzCon and now… won’t get that any more. Maybe it’ll come back in some form, but it keeps looking less likely.

I’m not sad at Blizzard having to learn a bit of humility. But that doesn’t mean I wanted the lesson to come at the expense of something that means a lot to many, many people. And I’m sorry that’s how it looks to be happening.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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