Several protests have been planned outside of the Convention Center in response to the company’s punitive measures toward a pro player of its Hearthstone game. Ng Wai Chung, who plays under the handle “blitzchung,” was initially banned for one year and stripped of his winnings after he called for the liberation of Hong Kong during a live-streamed interview in early October. Activision Blizzard, a publicly traded company in which Chinese conglomerate Tencent has a 5-percent stake, operates the Hearthstone pro circuit.
The decision to punish blitzchung sparked other sympathetic actions, including from Hearthstone players at American University, who called for a boycott of Blizzard following a recent tournament match. It also resulted in the loss of a sponsor, with the Taiwanese branch of Mitsubishi Motors pulling its sponsorship of Hearthstone broadcasts.
Politically, the issue managed to do what few others have in recent years — unite Democrats and Republicans. A letter from U.S. senators, including Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and House members, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) criticized the company’s moves and asked Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick to reconsider the punishment. The company had already restored blitzchung’s winnings and reduced the suspension to six months at the time the letter was sent.
In a written statement posted on Blizzards website, J. Allen Brack, president of the company, denied that political considerations factored into their disciplinary measures.
The Asia Pacific market accounted for 12 percent of the company’s first and second quarter revenue this year. China is uniquely important to the company’s future growth strategies which, like most gaming companies, lean into mobile gaming. Call of Duty: Mobile, a new offering developed by Tencent and published by Activision, was downloaded a record-setting 100 million times, despite not yet being allowed in China.
Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch League (OWL) also figures into the equation. The league will begin play in home markets next season — a core selling point when courting ownership groups to reportedly pay upward of $20 million for franchises — with four such teams based in Chinese cities. That will require visa approval for OWL players to enter the country for competitions.
In addition to planned protests, the blitzchung/Hong Kong/China tensions will also manifest at BlizzCon in the form of Hong Kong’s Overwatch team, which will compete at the Overwatch World Cup this weekend, after raising over $11,000 via crowdfunding to pay for their trip.
Beyond the recent tensions, Activision Blizzard faced criticism earlier this year after it laid off about 800 employees, despite “record results in 2018,” according to Kotick. Further change came when its founder and CEO, Mike Morhaime, left the company in April, after having transitioned to an adviser role in October 2018.
Traditionally, the convention has served as a forum for the company to announce its upcoming game titles and that figures to again be the case in 2019. This year’s BlizzCon will reportedly feature the much-anticipated announcement of Overwatch 2, the sequel to the popular sci-fi shooter Overwatch, the game that sparked the Overwatch League. That news was first reported by ESPN after a leaked memo detailed a new version of Overwatch, new characters, and new maps. Fan reactions on social media have been largely positive, though some have questioned whether the company actually intended for the information to come out, so as to distract from the Hong Kong issue.
The rumor mill has also be abuzz with the possible announcement of Diablo IV, a long-standing title with a rabid fan base that was involved with the mobile play-only imbroglio last year. That ordeal led to a full-on meme, featuring the a rhetorical question that became a punchline from the presentation: “Do you guys not have phones?”
“Everyone at Blizzard has been working very hard in the lead-up to BlizzCon,” a Blizzard spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday when The Washington Post asked the company for comment ahead of the convention. "We appreciate all of the interest in learning about our potential plans for the show — we know we’re fortunate that people care enough about our games to actively seek out the latest details — and we’re all very much looking forward to seeing everyone and sharing our latest news.”
The turmoil surrounding this year’s event is unusual. Held since 2005, BlizzCon brings together fans of games such as World of Warcraft, Diablo, StarCraft, Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone in real life. With highly produced displays and stages reflecting each respective game, the scene is generally colorful and upbeat, with many attendees dressed up elaborately as their favorite in-game characters, listening to announcements about new updates, playing the games, and watching some of the best players in the world compete during on-site tournaments.
In addition, BlizzCon has bought in top musical acts to play at its closing ceremony. Past performers have included Metallica, blink-182, and Ozzy Osbourne.