This post will be two parts in one – a matter-of-fact statement of what was announced nearly two days ago now, and then a bit of analysis of the statement.
So first, the news you’ve probably heard by now – Blizzconline 2022 is cancelled. Completely wiped off the calendar.
To be honest, this was perhaps the most predictable cancellation you could envision – Blizzard announced the event in better times, when we had this window to expect that perhaps even a standard, late-year in-person Blizzcon could maybe happen in 2022, and then some morons ate horse dewormer, a pandemic-causing virus mutated into a variant named after a stereotypically bad airline and the worst Greek letter, and…oh yeah, Blizzard kind of self-destructed.
We sit now with the benefit of knowing what came before, and there was little chance of Blizzard, accused of a litany of awful sexual harassment and minority marginalization, hosting a Blizzcon event with even digital fans unable to directly interact as they would on-location. Then WoW updates fell further and further behind (there’s every chance we don’t even get a 9.2 announcement until when Blizzconline 2022 was scheduled), Overwatch 2 has been a shitshow, Hearthstone is limping along, and the rest of the Blizzard suite of IP is either sunset, waiting on massively-delayed new content, not released, or not worth building a convention around.
So the announcement was not really a shock. Blizzard is shockingly bad at managing their optics, but they do know (or seem to know, at least) that holding the event anyways in spite of everything going on would be a dummy move, so they did what is, in all likelihood, the right thing – no big celebratory event where Blizzard proclaims that they are the best and such a warm and welcoming company, but still making announcements for games as it makes sense to, instead of holding them all for an event.
If that was all there was to discuss, this would be fairly dull to write about, which is why I almost didn’t. However…the wording of the post about the cancellation gives us at least a little bit to think on, and so here we are to think on it.
The big keyword from the short post that Blizzard put out is “reimagining.” It’s in the title, and used again (conjugated differently) in the post. What does it cut to, though?
The Blizzcon experience is fundamentally very similar year after year, and I can say that confidently as someone who was at the first one in 2005. The biggest changes they’ve made are the amount of space taken in the Anaheim Convention Center and the addition of the Virtual Ticket, first via DirectTV and then later through both that and the online stream. The event grows in size and scope, but the fundamental structure of it is nearly identical to that of the 2005 event – panels have a format including title that has remained steady for over a decade, and even the scheduling and pacing of the event is pretty predictable.
So what could change? Well, I think a lot could, both in-person and online. Firstly, in-person, the event space is still oddly ordered and split by game franchise with a few shared spaces. Realistically, I could see switching a whole hall to demo space and just giving you a special launcher that can run any of the demos. One of the things that sucks most about Blizzcon is if you want to play something popular, because it will have a line, even if there are hundreds of other unused, nearly-identically specced PCs elsewhere in the building. The stage layout gives cool, unique stages for most of the eSports, but the main stage has been the same weathered-looking weird set of prop walls since 2010. The show is uninviting in terms of comfort – dimly lit, little or no carpeting or padded surfaces for walking, and a lack of seating. The show only recently added modern comforts like mobile ordering and pickup of merch, and the whole process of admittance to the show every morning is a clusterfuck of pushing into tight spaces with nerds of varying levels of personal hygiene.
The whole in-person experience is also incredibly scummy with monetization. At the last Blizzcon in-person, 2019, Blizzard added the Portal Pass, which costs twice as much as a regular ticket to give you priority line access (which was apparently hit or miss), a lounge with free soft drinks to watch panels in, and early access to the Darkmoon Faire area with its exclusive merch purchasing opportunities (yep, that’s right, just more different merch!). They sell literal real loot boxes at Blizzcon now, $50 gets you anything from clearance-rack Blizzard clothing to WoW TCG in-game loot codes, and man, I live in a state with fully legal gambling and that is a bridge too far for me.
The coolest panels, usually art and voiceover, are usually relegated to tiny side-stages that fill up quickly, and the schedule over two days is crammed to the brim and yet also simultaneously empty in spots. Lastly, the show has awful on-site management – the security hired for the event are rude and poorly trained, the food trucks in the courtyard are jammed into a space that is far too small and leads to intense crowding, counterfeiting a badge and passing through undetected is easy (they fixed this sort of in 2019 with the NFC bracelets, but that solution was also not great), and special local events for the in-person crowd like beer releases are poorly handled – in 2019, I managed to get multiple cans of the Murky beer by going to the beer truck instead of the main Murky line.
Online, the event could use some work too. 2018 showed they could distribute demos for home play, yet they typically choose not to for no real discernible reason. If you need to authenticate to an event server anyways, why can’t all the demos be playable from home? Even for in-person attendees, the WoW Classic home demo was perfect – don’t wait in the line and waste a panel time or miss something, just play it at home after the show, easy! The panel choice is much better with each stage having a feed now, so that’s great, but I’d love to have picture-in-picture support with captioning for the PiP feed, a mix of virtual experiences like those attendees can have – photo backdrops, maybe being able to attend a virtual signing with a piece of loot being shipped to me (you can charge for that and people would be understanding, even!), and the like. Meetups would be cool, too – why not be able to setup a chat with people from your WoW server or even just chat directly on the video like YouTube allows for livestreams and premieres?
The real understatement of it all, though, is the easiest to discuss and the most difficult to deal with – safety and inclusion. Blizzcon is, generally, a good place to be, and I’ve gone with friends and my wife multiple times and no one has peeled off because they were skeeved out by something. However, I know it happens – obviously, the Cosby Suite is the notorious example of this, but I had drinks with WoW devs in the Hilton lobby after hours a lot of times. For me, that was innocent fun – I got to meet and take photos with all sorts of people that turned out to be extremely problematic, including at least 3 fired employees who were named in the lawsuit, yikes! Were I a woman and marginally attractive (what a hill to climb), those selfies could have gone to much worse places. Generally, I think being able to hang out and chat with the developers is cool and I’ve told my stories of past interactions in several prior posts about Blizzcon, but at the same time, that interaction needs some measure of safety and control on it.
We can’t really go back to Blizzcon as it was anymore, in truth, and that’s really the thought I have coming out of this post. When the news about the Cosby Suite in particular broke, I mentioned that I couldn’t really envision going back to Blizzcon after that – not for my own safety or security, but just in general, knowing what the environment of the convention allowed the creepy perverts Blizzard staffed to do. I’ve even seen how the convention forces developers into a double-bad situation, being forced to put on a staff shirt and do convention busywork fresh off of con-crunch, pushing hours to get a playable demo build for each franchise. Like a lot of popular nerd cons, Blizzcon also has undercurrents of all the major issues at nerd cons – needing to stress that cosplay is not consent, to better manage the social environment to make all feel welcome (like, I dunno, not inviting Corpsegrinder to be a prick to half your playerbase?), and to protect against the paranoia of any mass gathering in modern America (going to Blizzcon in 2017 after the Route 91 Festival shooting in Las Vegas was…sort of uncomfortable, especially since I had friends at that event and the stories they told were haunting).
I’m not really sure what Blizzard could do to fix that situation. On the one hand, the groups I am in around Blizzcon are all still talking about wanting to go, still eager to get their fix of the “home” that so many found solace in for all those years. But even among that audience, it feels like there’s something missing and that just having a normal Blizzcon again wouldn’t be worth it. I don’t know that they can ever wipe clean the stains from this chapter of their company history – focusing on safety and inclusion would be a fantastic start, especially since in 2019 they did have a Blizzard Pride room at the show (it was a tiny conference room with space for about 30 people). I can’t really say what would be right, because I’m not the audience that needs that. If women and minorities in my circle felt comfortable with the changes, I could see maybe going again, but then we get to the current state of Blizzard games – obviously the less-important consideration here. In normal times, we’d be hearing about WoW 10.0 in the next two weeks, but we live in a world where Overwatch 2 has no release date, Diablo IV has no release date, Starcraft is functionally on life-support, Heroes of the Storm is too, and in WoW-land, we don’t even know what is in patch 9.2, much less if any more Shadowlands awaits us beyond it.
In short, Blizzard as a whole company needs reimagining, and Blizzcon is but one step on that journey, a step that should be taken much, much later.