I might be early for this, but a part of what made my blog popular (and what a lot of my readers comment with glee on) is speculation! Given that, today I want to discuss what I expect to see at Blizzcon 2019.
Today, we are 2 months and 25 days away from Day 1 of this year’s convention, and this year’s show has a lot to make up for from a very lackluster 2018. If you cast your mind back, the best announcement was Warcraft III Reforged, and the biggest announcement, the one Blizzard thought we’d be hyped for, was Diablo Immortal. In-person attendees were met with longer lines, fewer seats for the main stage, line capacity issues that even involved the fire marshal reportedly, and an unfocused experience that tried a lot of new things and didn’t quite stick the landing on most of them.
My personal experience was basically that no one announcement was exciting enough to really get me extra hyped, so I spent day 2 daydrinking the Starcraft beers and watching the Mythic Dungeon Invitational – which was a good time, to be fair, but also not quite what I expect of Blizzcon. Blizzcon is, for me, a night-drinking convention with a day jam-packed full of panels, demos, and other activities, so for daydrinking to be happening means something has gone terribly wrong!
This year has a chance to fix the things that went wrong with 2018, and in the natural cadence of Blizzard’s product cycle, it will at least innately have an event more worth watching, as the announcement of WoW 9.0 should be a fascinating unveil. However, it will also be a bit of a transitional year in many ways – Heroes eSports is dead, the eSports team at Blizzard has been through a tumultuous time, being one of those most affected by the infamous Activision Blizzard layoffs, while also being hit by the recent departure of longtime head Kim Phan, Overwatch interest is waning, Hearthstone interest has dropped like a rock according to most accounts, Starcraft has frequently been pushed to smaller and smaller spaces while having nothing new in the hopper that we know of, Diablo has tested the limits of its mortality with Immortal being the only revealed title in the works for the franchise, and even while a WoW expansion announcement gets a lot of excitement, the game has not been doing so well and is weathering the worst player apathy and disappointment in the franchise’s history.
What would Blizzard need to do to turn this around? Let’s investigate!
-Diablo IV: It stands as obvious after last year, but the teasing of major Diablo news for Blizzcon leading to Immortal created an unnecessary backlash for Blizzard – and Immortal is not even that bad of a game on its own merits! Blizzard has the easiest lay-up play in history here: unveil Diablo IV, show gameplay footage, collect cheers. Is the game far enough along for gameplay footage? Maybe – a report in the wake of last year’s Blizzcon from Kotaku’s Jason Schrier (who also reported on the layoffs in advance of them happening) indicated that the team was ready to show off a teaser trailer last year after having rebooted Diablo IV mid-development. The less said about Immortal, the better – bring a demo, sure, have it on the floor, but the mere mention of it in a panel is likely to spur raucous boos. Diablo IV or bust.
-WoW Team – Contrition is Key: WoW 9.0 will have a lot of hype regardless, but for many of us, it will be more skeptical and reserved hype than we’ve previously had. For me, the best thing the WoW team can do is to counterpoint what they are doing in 9.0 to what they did in Battle for Azeroth, and contrast the two favorably. One of the chief irritants for many who are dissatisfied with the current game is that the team tends to not take ownership of the problems – the backlash early on against Azerite (that’s just how the system works), the complaints about pruning only just recently being addressed, the randomness of rewards, and more – all responded to poorly if at all. The recent patch 8.2 video with Ion discussing pruning actually reflects what I feel the team will need to do with a 9.0 announcement – before I can be excited for it, I need to know that the team understands why BfA has been so panned and has internalized that feedback, reflected on the process that led to the various failed bits, and is prepared to correct on those to deliver a better product. Should they do these things, I can allow myself to be fully excited for 9.0 instead of looking at it with wary trepidation. Also, I expect the classic team will show up with big smiles and unveil at least a portion of their phased rollout of content, with a schedule for the early parts to show us the way forward.
-Overwatch: Single Player or Sequel – I fully expect that the Overwatch team has been working on something bigger for this year than just a new hero or new map, and I fully expect it will either be a major game mode, like a single-player story campaign, or even potentially a new game. Overwatch is in an odd space right now – the game is still good, in many ways, but the player community for it is deeply entrenched and has the toxic behavior one would expect given that. When (and it is very rarely) I play, it is usually in the arcade modes, because it is the easiest way to jump in and has less toxicity. Now, of these two, I expect that if they are going to try to re-balance gameplay across the board while also adding story, a sequel would be warranted. If it is just a story, I could see it being DLC, but it will, mark my words, be a paid upgrade. There is no way an Activision subsidiary is giving out major content for free in the year 2019, sadly. The easiest way to avoid player backlash on that front would to be making a sequel.
-Starcraft: Push it Further Into the Corner – It makes me sad, because I genuinely like Starcraft and feel like Starcraft II was a great addition to the franchise, but Blizzard has let it fall to the wayside, pushing other titles for their eSports ambitions and using the free-to-play conversion to push purchases that add no real value into the game. The core campaign is solid and I enjoy the multiplayer balancing, but I 100% expect that if Starcraft is mentioned at all, it’s going to be some bullshit DLC like a commentator pack or skin. This makes me sad, but I have to call it pragmatically, and Starcraft is just so obviously off of Blizzard’s radar, especially since Mike Morhaime left.
-Hearthstone: I Guess New Expansions? – I have no idea what Hearthstone could even do at this point. The game has had a really quiet fall from grace, largely – its eSports program is getting negative feedback, trick decks still dominate the scene, and while the mechanics and single player campaigns added are still pretty neat, only the single-player ever gets to show off its range, since the fun card mechanics are often shuffled into a disappointingly gimmick-oriented metagame. When the game lost Ben Brode at the helm, a lot of the charm and intrigue left the game with him, and while mechanically it still has a decent foundation through the TCG designers Blizzard has kept employed, everything built on that foundation ends up about 10 degrees crooked and pre-weathered. Last year, I went to the Hearthstone What’s Next panel with my girlfriend, as it is her primary game, and the hall was damn near empty, and they were announcing some interesting things even! To that point, I don’t even know what curveball they could throw to bring back player interest – shaking up the competitive scene in a positive way? More new cards? Free play promotions or other cost reductions to bring down the absurd cost of keeping competitve? In all likelihood, the game will keep on course – other than competitive adjustments, the game has seemingly not responded to the various issues plaguing the community, and so I would expect they’ll announce the final set of 2019, detail plans for 2020, and maybe one surprise with a new competitive structure or some degree of eSports investment.
-Heroes of the Storm: Who Even Knows Anymore? – Heroes of the Storm has had a damn sad late 2018 and early 2019, as the game attempted to quietly shutter its eSports operations for 2019, but not after having promised players and teams at Blizzcon that there would be a 2019 season, causing business difficulties for these pro-level operations – which naturally caused a hell of a stir. Despite this, Blizzard has promised that HotS is still an “active” title (for whatever that means) and that updates will continue, which, so far this year, has meant 1 new champion in Anduin Wrynn, and a seasonal play structure that has seen minor tweaks for those who remain in the game. The story of HotS is sort of interesting, in that the idea was in percolation for a long time and could have had a real shot at being the biggest thing on the market, but missed its window by about 6 years and fell rapidly behind League of Legends and DOTA 2, which established themselves as the de facto MOBA titles. I played a build of the game way back at Blizzcon 2010, when it was still Blizzard DOTA, before it became Blizzard All-Stars, which was the name prior to Heroes of the Storm. At this point, I can’t imagine it having much to talk about – likely, we’ll see some sort of new champion, maybe a new map, probably some seasonal play updates, and that will likely be it. I might be overselling it, too – while I think the team will want to show more stuff to keep players engaged and to avoid the “dead game” stink that has followed it, it may very well be the case that Blizzard is just putting off the autopsy to avoid having to state that the game is dead. Certainly, from the outside, HotS looks like it is Bernie of “Weekend at Bernie’s” fame, which is not a flattering comparison (although Bernie could party hard, to be fair).
-Warcraft III: Reforged – I throw this title in because it does seem increasingly likely that it is not going to be released prior to Blizzcon 2019. The recent ChinaJoy expo showed more of the Reforged character art, specifically Tyrande and Thrall, which looks great, so I am still optimistic for this title. I expect it to get a showing much like a WoW expansion that just launched or is about to launch would – something akin to Cataclysm at Blizzcon 2010 or BfA at last year’s con – line up, play it briefly, leave.
-Surprises – I don’t know that Blizzard would have it in them to show off a surprise at this year’s Blizzcon. By surprise, to be clear, I mean a new title or franchise. I think short of the possibility of an Overwatch 2, as slim as I find that, or Diablo IV, which seems more likely, I doubt that Blizzard will be taking us on any sort of new Odyssey or that we’ll get a moment like Blizzcon 2014 and the reveal of Overwatch. To be frank, I think this is fine, too – I want to see Blizzcon 2019 being focused on the fundamentals, with strong gameplay additions for a new WoW expansion, strong focus on their core audience in Diablo IV, and the improvement and continued refinement they need to be making across their other franchises, which I admittedly care less about and so have fewer solid ideas to bounce around. I don’t think they’re going to have a slam-dunk across the board, either – I think the team could win over the WoW and Diablo audiences fairly well, even if the gameplay isn’t up to what we want – the Blizzcon demos and showcases always present well even when the game they are tied to is later received poorly. Overwatch, I think they’ve cultivated a strong audience that loves just about everything they do and wants more, so any announcement of more is going to be a hit. The other games, sad to say, are clearly on the backburner at best, and so if I were a Starcraft, Hearthstone, or Heroes of the Storm fan going in to this year’s Blizzcon, the only thing I would expect is disappointment.
On the event front, I’ll speculate more wildly on things I expect to see for the in-person attendees!
-The Portal Pass is going to be an iffy experiment – The idea of the Portal Pass isn’t inherently bad, but it has a few key potential problems. Largely, it breaks down to how many were sold and what percentage of the attendee base are PP holders versus regular attendees. Some of the benefits are going to be difficult to keep check on – considering that I have seen people manage to walk in to prior years with obviously fake badges, I cannot imagine that an attendee with a real badge would be stopped if they rolled up confidently in a line for Portal Pass only. The parking benefit will either make on-site parking hell for regular attendees, or the bet is that not everyone with a PP will park a car at the con, leaving reserved spaces empty. The seating area and drink bar is one benefit I think most will take advantage of, and an area at which I think problems will arise. My expectation is that the bar space is not going to be huge or heavily staffed and will end up being a bottleneck for these attendees. Likewise, I expect any dedicated demo areas or panel seating is likely to be consumed for big-ticket announcements – the WoW What’s Next panel, any Diablo IV news, any other WoW panels, if Overwatch gets single-player or a sequel, and any corresponding demos – would all be my guess as to areas that will end up being choked with attendees trying to go through. Likewise, losing any substantial percentage of players to private demo and seating areas may make the main attendee areas easier to use, especially if they have similar sizes to the past events. If a full half-hall is in use for a WoW 9.0 demo with 20% fewer attendees using it, I would expect that any benefit from a private demo area is going to be lost as regular attendees speed through. In some ways, I imagine the Portal Pass will not demonstrate value for many, and I am at least hoping for that slightly, because I think Blizzard is overcharging for this benefit and I would like to see it backfire even slightly (sorry Portal Pass holders!).
-Registration is going to be a shitshow – I don’t want it to be the case, but off-site registration is a huge undertaking that involves a lot of added difficulty. The past several years, Blizzcon has had a smooth, excellent registration process, with minimal hiccups or issues. Moving outside the convention center means needing an additional network, means connecting over what is likely to be a slower internet connection to a shared attendee database, means staffing and designing an additional area, trying to find new ways to manage the snaking sea of humanity which were previously well-served by the natural lines formed by the architecture and layout of the Anaheim Convention Center, and dealing with a new ticketing vendor at the same time. Further, if they continue to offer the Day 0 store access, this will need more space, either at this off-site location, or in the convention center, and if it is in the convention center, this will cause more issues. Which segues into my next point…
-Day 0 store access looks really unlikely – Given all of these factors, I fully expect Blizzard to announce they will not be offering merchandise on registration day. Doing so would either require an off-site store (with all of the problems that poses) or allowing access to the store inside of the convention center on Day 0 (which, given that only Portal Pass holders are supposed to be in for Night at the Faire, means Blizzard has to find a way to both offer this and keep the plebs out of the Darkmoon Faire, all with rent-a-cops who can’t even tell a fake badge from a real badge with training. Sounds like a good idea!). Neither of these sounds all that likely, as controlling access between wings of the convention center can be difficult – it’s not impossible, and I wouldn’t suggest that it is, but I find myself wondering how likely Blizzard is to invest the effort into building the necessary process and structure out to allow Day 0 shopping, especially when a big announcement year means a ton of people will want to wait until after the opening ceremony so they can buy new shirts based on the big announcements. They’ll probably still offer the online pre-orders which allow you to have merchandise shipped to you before the con – they’ve done this for 10 years, even before Day 0 in-person access, and I fully expect that will continue.
-Demo Areas will (hopefully) be larger – With the loss of HotS eSports, further shrinkage of Starcraft II, and the increase of hall space via the use of Hall E for main convention space, a significant amount of square footage can be added for other activities. My bets? Hearthstone moves into the main building again, either in Hall E or in one of the other halls A-C, with both eSports and a demo area. Diablo will get a dedicated hall, whichever one Hearthstone doesn’t get, with a demo area and a panel stage. WoW and Overwatch continue to have their own halls each, with a WoW eSports stage in-hall, a panel stage in the Overwatch hall, and the arena used for the Overwatch eSports setup. Starcraft II will have its smaller new stage moved to the North wing basement where Hearthstone has hidden for the past two years, with a small demo area in case new people can be convinced to play SCII, and then either a vendor row, panel stage, or the store, with the upper level of the North Wing being devoted to the Darkmoon Faire and the Portal Pass lounge. Most of these are guesses, but with these changes, more space will exist for demo areas, and moving Starcraft to the smaller North wing space Hearthstone has used makes more sense – the stage and a large amount of seating can be put in with the tiny demo area they’ve used for a few years and Joeyray’s Bar, while still leaving half of that floor space for something else. This also then allows them to return to the much better 2010-2017 format for Hall D, with more seating, which was unfortunately pushed into a small space last year to make room for the Diablo Immortal demo, which was quite the unforced error.
-Musical Acts – I don’t even know, but I use the plural because I expect that the multiple acts worked well last year. Rather than everyone cramming into Hall D, it allowed people to spread out, and while the acts were slightly less marquee than prior years (nothing against any of the performers, but they certainly don’t measure up individually against Weird Al or Metallica), most people I attended with or speak to liked the variety. For me, expansion year is the time I normally skip the concert to check out the demo more hands-on, since fewer people line-up for it and the rules on time spent are more relaxed as a result, so I kind of hope the multiple-act thing continues with a headliner and two lesser acts that pull enough of an audience away from the demos! (However, the survey Blizzard sent to some people, including myself, had some really good acts listed and I imagine they might pull one really high-value act this year!)
-The Plaza Party – I fully expect this to be sort of plain. When Blizzard has hosted open party events in the past here, it usually means there is a small stage with some background noise while you can visit the usual reserve of food trucks that show up for Blizzcon.
Overall? I’m still pretty excited for Blizzcon 2019, and I think there will be a lot (A LOT) for the WoW fans to talk about afterwards. But I am tempering my expectations since I think the vast array of experiments Blizzard is doing this year is going to result in some amount of disappointment.
How much disappointment? Well, that remains to be seen.