“We are here to show you the Blizzard we are today, and the Blizzard we are becoming.”
These are the words that Blizzard President Mike Ybarra spoke to a hall of rabid fans just a few short weeks ago, during the opening ceremony of BlizzCon.
BlizzCon hasn’t properly existed since 2019. Starting with a global catastrophe impacting any would-be gatherings, any hope for a triumphant return was cooled when skeletons leapt from closets and a harassment lawsuit shocked the entertainment industry and rapidly sapped any enthusiasm for such an event. The celebration of all things Blizzard didn’t feel earned at that troubled time, and management’s decision to pause the event was unsurprising. An identity crisis echoed throughout the fandom, because for many the joy of being a Blizzard fan came from the connections it brought to other people – and while the company creating those bridges was in turmoil, those relationships still remained. Blizzard games create memories and relationships of all kinds – one of my closest friends was the very same bloke who introduced me to Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, starting my journey into Azeroth, a journey that has continued over two decades. The best man at my wedding was the guy that helped me understand the long lasting appeal of Diablo II. These are stories that exist all over the gaming community, elevating an event like BlizzCon to be so much more than just a giant advertisement. At the risk of sounding like a giant dork, for many it really was like coming home – because your family was there.
Are you ready to rock, BlizzCon?
And so changes were made. Old names departed, some voluntarily – others less so. Blizzard had something to prove now, beyond simply making games and by extension, money. With this hefty changing of the guard we find ourselves witness to the nascent hour of Nu-Blizzard, freshly acquired by Microsoft and confidently striding forth away from discarded (and admittedly quite heavy) baggage. Does that leave us privy to witness a redemption arc for the ages?
Somehow I found myself in attendance for a possible phoenix-like rebirth in the head-spinning year of 2023, courtesy of the very company that defined the start of my gaming path. I was relishing the opportunity to indulge the youthful idiot who played StarCraft on the family iMac, but also look through the lens of an older and more aware gaming enthusiast. What could the fifteenth BlizzCon offer me, as a vessel for Blizzard’s biggest promise to a fanbase built over three decades?
Carrying a staff is considered entirely normal at BlizzCon
Returning to the Anaheim Convention Centre, BlizzCon is two massive days of all things Blizzard – spanning their gamut of unique homegrown IP’s across the Warcraft, Diablo and Overwatch universes. Sure, StarCraft might be conspicuously absent nowadays, but I consider that more of a hibernation than an outright loss to the abyss. Mighty halls are repurposed to embody these realms of gaming greats, with each cavernous space turned into an interactive altar to that world. It’s quite awe-inspiring to step out of the hot Californian sun, and moments later find yourself staring up at a colossal stained glass window depicting the endless conflict of the Diablo universe. A short jaunt between these spaces will see you emerge into the near-future of Overwatch, technological bulkheads and monitors displaying the world of heroes – and further still beyond this space, a massive sword is seen jutting out of a rocky outcrop, a meme from WoW expansions past.
And the things to do in these spaces go far beyond simply gawking. My time in the Diablo space saw me getting sacrificed to everyone’s favourite demonic Mommy, musing over whether I should get a free tattoo (I did not) or drink blood-red Mountain Dew (I did). You could even browse a library of Blizzard books and tomes in the Horadric Library.
The effort on display is one that celebrates these properties, with a great many clever considerations and implementations. Like, they didn’t NEED to build an Inn for the Warcraft space – I am sure people would have been happy to play Hearthstone with a dev on any old desk – but that environment turns such a simple concept into a full-on experience. A relief when you consider that it would be super tempting to simply present the event as a seminar for what hot new products are coming. The whole shebang spends just as much time looking back on what cool stuff defined Blizzard games as it does looking forward to what is on the horizon.
Believe it or not, I provided the hammer
And the horizon has plenty to offer, with the opening ceremony rapidly deploying something fresh and fun for every current Blizzard property on the market (note: this excludes StarCraft. Not bitter, just making a note). A gargantuan new tank for Overwatch 2, the first expansion announcement for Diablo IV and numerous Warcraft-adjacent goodies – be they WoW expansions, Hearthstone content and even the nifty Warcraft Rumble mobile title getting a proper spotlight. The production and passion of the presentation sucked me right into the vibe of the event, with Chris Metzen’s iconic voice bringing goosebumps to my pale Tasmanian flesh. This ceremony took place in its own hall, in an enormous arena that was quickly awash in a sea of Blizzard enthusiasts, all facing a stage bedecked with massive monitors to back up every announcement with a graphics package to paint a defined picture of what was coming. Presenters would be dwarfed by these intense screens – but their enthusiasm and words still filled the air and electrified onlookers.
Of these speakers, many were faces that defined a more modern Blizzard. Property leads such as Holly Longdale and Rod Ferguson spruiked their fantasy worlds of both Warcraft and Diablo, while passionate art director Dion Rogers introduced us to the new Samoan bloke coming to Overwatch 2, Mauga. The return of Chris Metzen was undeniably a meteorically high point, with every cheer and fervent silence speaking volumes to how intertwined the man is with the universes he helped create.
As mentioned, the most poignant words came from Blizzard President Mike Ybarra’s welcome statement, making mention of “The Blizzard we are becoming.” These words are sought after in wake of what secrets the Blizzard of old were harbouring. It felt that many who were in attendance were seeking this kind of platitude, and have a keen desire to see it delivered. Blizzard is a gaming company, but to many – especially a hall filled with established pilgrims who had travelled this far – it is a cornerstone of their gaming history. It is a thread of identity woven into the fabric of who they are, and what they have accomplished in many digital worlds.
Big screen, bigger guy
There was even an address of the big green elephant in the room in wake of the Microsoft acquisition, with Phil Spencer effectively doing a drive-by address to assure all that Blizzard would be returning to a more independent operating identity. The proof will of course be in the pudding, but I am openly readying a bowl for the first serve – if only because ol’ mate mentioned StarCraft by name. Words could be shared about the changes to Blizzard in wake of its Activision acquisition, but more talented scribes than I have shared far deeper retrospection.
Outside of the ceremony, this hall would then be used to house more bespoke sessions on particular franchise developments. A deep dive on how the new Overwatch hero was designed, or what to expect in the new WoW expansion – attendees were free to sit in this hall and experience it in person. For those that would venture out, each of the show floors had monitors available to ensure that you could stay in the loop basically anywhere at BlizzCon. In a neat twist, these were often situated in areas that had been themed to the franchise – the Diablo example being a row of church pews in front of a projected screen, or the aforementioned Hearthstone tavern offering seating with a view of a similar projector. The Darkmoon Faire offered some capitalistic frivolity to those who managed to get inside – but really it was the only true bottleneck of the entire experience that I managed to find, a definite note for improvement in the coming years.
If you grew tired of the curated experience inside, many outer areas housed fans delivering their own experiences. Each day I saw one bloke lug around a range of home-made statues depicting various Blizzard characters, where I still can’t quite fathom how he got them all from one place to another. Pin and badge traders set up their wares on display, indulging in a pastime that has existed since the very very first BlizzCon, and many other events like it. Cosplayers would congregate in areas, sharing their hard work with both fans and other creators – everyone buzzing for the impending community night when their spectacular outfits would be taken on stage for all to see and enjoy.
Overwatch is cool and all, but have you heard of the Great Emu War of 1932?
Away from the fans, there are the staff of the company. BlizzCon is not just a fanfest, it is a conduit to a place where the community can connect with and interact with the people that make these games happen. Artists, producers and developers all present their passions to the fans, but they also make themselves available to talk and interact with these people in a myriad of ways. Sure, they didn’t do any live Q&A opportunities this year (in light of how the last couple were disasters) but that doesn’t stop you from catching them on the show floor, mingling and talking. For those in a journalistic space, you are offered a comfy couch and a window of time to talk shop and ask the hard questions – or educate the Executive Producer of Overwatch 2 on the cultural significance of the Great Emu War of Australia.
There was a very noticeable vibe throughout all of the denizens of BlizzCon 2023 – both the organisers and the attendees. There was a lot to prove, and it had to be done in a tactful way. If ever there was a sympathetic ear to the company, it would of course be with the people that resonate with it so that they gather at a place such as this. But the sincerity I felt in that place was very real, during a time where corporate and capitalist cynicism permeates everything I enjoy, what I witnessed at BlizzCon felt authentic, and genuine. Passionate people that create incredible things, desperately wanting to re-establish a goodwill that was once unshakeable.
The only kind of trolling that leaves people smiling
Maybe I am the wrong person to judge, given I transcend the generic definition of Blizzard fan (one of my children has a name that is a direct tribute to their games), but there is still an enormous portion of me that has spent the better part of a decade peering into the more involved side of the gaming industry, for all its teeth and fangs. That part of me is battered with the depressing realism that so much of our joyful entertainment comes from a place that hurts the hard working people that make it – a cruelly imperfect industry that somehow grows at a meteoric pace, but rarely has a chance to mature or refine itself.
But for two short days, I got to see two sides of the coin that defined a massive portion of that industry. Players with a seed of hope that what they love wasn’t going to slowly decay and be lost forever, and a rejuvenated workforce of people that are every bit as deserving of that prior legacy. BlizzCon is the establishment of a sincere promise, a vessel to be held to account that such a thing needs to come to pass.
And in twelve months, when BlizzCon 2024 occurs – I am hoping that Mike Ybarras words can be considered prophetic.
“We are here to show you the Blizzard we are today, and the Blizzard we are becoming.”
…Becoming the best Blizzard they can be, in line with a fandom that wishes them success – but is still ready to hold them accountable.
Let’s see another thirty years.