I guess I wanted to write a smallish post on this news because it seems to be getting met with a degree of shock I hadn’t even imagined.
So, yesterday, Blizzard officially cancelled Blizzcon 2021’s in-person component. As I expected, it was down to just having too many difficulties planning around the COVID-19 pandemic and the fluctuating targets for venue capacity and availability that entails. The specific concern was that given the current timeframe, there just wouldn’t be enough time to plan a sufficient in-person experience, so rather than doing that, they’re skipping in favor of an online early-year Blizzcon 2022 accompanied by small in-person gatherings of some sort, which the post doesn’t specify.
Now, I expected this to be the case. There are two reasons for that, which reasonable analysis of Blizzard’s current release trajectory and the impacts of COVID-19 can reveal.
The first is simply the nature of COVID-19 itself and the reopening plans in place from the state of California. The plans in most states (with some degree of concern for the public health, that is) is that as live event venues reopen, they’ll be sharply limited in capacity, with some measures as low as 10% of maximum capacity and even the Tier 4 listing showing a maximum of 50% with full testing of attendees or proof of vaccination required. A Blizzcon, in-person, at between 10 and 50% means that more people miss out, there’s more bitterness, and it also means a lot of added implementation cost, because you either need to get all the space just to use it to 10% capacity (I might really enjoy having a demo station that feels as spacious as my home desk!) or you need to pay and manage on-site PCR testing or vaccination records verification.
The second issue is that with the impact of COVID-19 on their release schedule, there just isn’t much to share. In a perfect, non-COVID world, Blizzcon 2021 would have, fairly certainly, been the unveiling of WoW 10.0, and we might have seen a different timetable into which an Overwatch 2 release could be coming soon with a defined date, or a release year tease for Diablo IV with more gameplay details and a more robust demo to try. Instead, this year is still seeing a wait for the first WoW content patch of Shadowlands, which still does not have a release date 6 full months after the expansion’s launch, no solid release expectation for Overwatch 2 (and general turmoil between the departure of Jeff Kaplan and the unveiling of the changes to a 5v5 gameplay model), and with the biggest releases for this calendar year in Blizzard expected to be Diablo Immortal (which, uh, I think we know how a Blizzcon audience would be for that one) and Diablo II Resurrected (which is, to be fair, something a lot of us are very excited for and would be well-received). Given all of that, it is hard to see the potential in the actual reality we live in for a Blizzcon 2021. It would maybe be nice in the vein of a “return to normal” type of thing, where we’d get camera shots of teary-eyed Blizzard fans that wouldn’t be out of place in a currently-running Disneyland/world commercial (I will not rant about Disney adults, I will not rant about Disney adults) but even then, is there much value to that? I would say probably not. I guess the best thing is that the boos for Diablo Immortal would be quieter by a factor of 10, but now I’m being cynical.
So it makes sense to me, overall, that Blizzcon 2021 is not going to be an in-person event, and I figured quite some time ago that would be the case. Certainly, I am relieved for it, as my wife and I booked a trip to Aruba for early November the night before the announcement (guess we’re prescient!).
But, I think we need to explore another side to this news – what it isn’t and what is unclear.
The Upsides to No Blizzcon 2021
A lot of people are, rightly perhaps, sad about no Blizzcon this year and worried about what a virtual event at the start of 2022 means for the prospects of an in-person Blizzcon that same year.
If you haven’t been to a con, much less Blizzcon, it might be somewhat difficult to wrap your head around, but generally, even when WoW sucks and I hate Blizzard, I love Blizzcon. Why? Simple – it’s a big social event with a bunch of people that share my interests, and even when we disagree, it is easier to start conversations, have conversations, and make interesting connections across borders and boundaries. I met a cool Brazilian guy at Blizzcon who had a fun yarn Dwarven wig of hair braids and beard, I’ve met and spoken with a ton of Blizzard employees from low-level art staffers up to Chris Metzen and J Allen Brack, I ran into Taliesin and Evitel and we chatted for a few minutes one year, and in 2017 I got to spend around 30 minutes at the Hilton bar talking with the encounter design team and talking about ideas and philosophy of dungeon design with them, which are all amazing experiences that even the current state of affairs don’t really taint for me. So, I have a sadness for no in-person Blizzcon, even though I can acknowledge that it is the right thing to do.
I think an in-person event with the possible slate of discussion would have been kind of sad too, in a way. Like the so-called “bad” Blizzcons of 2010 and 2018, there would be a lot of handwringing about Blizzard overcharging and underdelivering, roasting about the event, remarks about the creeping influence of Activision ruining everything, and the like. Add on to that the reduced attendance that would have likely still been required and surely people of all stripes would have complaints to make! Waiting for an online event where news could be shared is wise, I think. An early 2022 Blizzconline, provided things get on-track for WoW and smooth out for the other teams, could be huge – a tease of remaining Shadowlands patch content with maybe a 10.0 unveiling (might still be too soon depending on if 9.2 is even out by then), an Overwatch 2 hype session with a release date unveiling, and more Diablo IV news hopefully to include a release date.
I don’t have a lot of commentary on the “small in-person gatherings” aspect without details. It could be cool (house party kits for fans with swag, decorations, and virtual ticket-style codes with goodies attached would be awesome), it could be less cool (showing Blizzconline 2022 in theatres like a PPV-style event), but it could also be smaller events around the world organized by Blizzard (I don’t think they have the staff or organization for this, but if they could pull it off that might be cool). All of these are interesting prospects, but there’s just no way of knowing if any of them are true or if they’d be pulled off as cool as I envision some of them in my head. As a 90’s kid, the nostalgia of being a pro wrestling fan and being able to request a “Nitro Party” kit from WCW rings through my brain when I hear “small scale gatherings” and I think that idea is one I would love to see Blizzard try – sell some merch, encourage people to watch with their friends and gather together as it becomes safe to do so, all of that is great!
I’ve seen a fair amount of commentary and concern about the online event for 2022 meaning there will be no in-person event later in 2022. I think there are two easy counterpoints to that – the first is that the announcement this week means that a 2021 event was in the planning phase despite the presence of the first Blizzconline event back in February, and the second is easy enough as well – as vaccine rollout continues in the US but also globally, venue capacity limits are likely to be lifted or restored altogether by fall of 2022. These factors coupled with Blizzard’s likely business desire to get Blizzcon back to in-person status and their slate of actually hype-able things they should have to discuss at that point mean to me that we will almost certainly see a Blizzcon 2022 and one that will feel much more normal than anything they could have held this year.
And I think it is also worth discussing the business incentive to Blizzard for an in-person event, because I’ve seen a few particularly…devoted…Blizzard fans say that Blizzcon is an act of care that makes no money or even costs Blizzard money, that they do it from the goodness of their hearts. To that I say – even at my most idealistic, I am not that idealistic, because that is foolish, but also, directly disprovable. Activision-Blizzard’s own investor guidance and reporting for Q4 2020 directly call out that Blizzard’s revenue was lower for the quarter year-over-year because Blizzcon was not held. Even if you question the unspoken parts of that statement or if that revenue translates to profit, any quick look at Blizzcon as an event will tell you that it is a money-maker for Blizzard. Each attendee walks out with some piece of merchandise, and the sale incentives encourage them to walk out with a lot of merchandise. They’ve also been increasing ticket prices over time and decreasing the cost of the attendee goodie bags, such that the most recent Blizzcon sold a fairly large number of double-priced tickets by offering incentives that cost next-to-nothing for Blizzard. Lastly, there is the expanding virtual element – Virtual Ticket sales are consistently strong, adding the ability to buy a goodie bag without attending has offered more money, and by offering merch sales for con-exclusive items online in addition to at the convention, they’re able to capture more money then they might have in the past. I could imagine that at some point in the early days of Blizzcon it was a labor of love and perhaps not as profitable (the first Blizzcon, if I recall correctly, had almost no merch and was instead possessed of a weird, artist’s alley type section with booths from vendors like Logitech and the Penny Arcade guys) but it didn’t take long before Blizzcon became a den of exclusive merch, sales galore, higher ticket prices, and higher attendance figures.
Given all of that, my prediction is thus – there will be both a Blizzconline and an in-person, full-scale Blizzcon 2022. If I had to wager, I’d say that WoW expansion news would be at the in-person event along with an Overwatch 2 release party and a Diablo IV release date unveiling.
We’ll see if I’m right!