BlizzCon has always been one of the biggest gaming events to look forward to yearly, if for nothing than just to see Activision Blizzard bring out the big guns. After all, the company is home to some of the most beloved game franchises, including Diablo and Warcraft.
However, after the fiasco that was the Diablo Immortal announcement last year, along with a generally less-than-stellar presentation at BlizzCon 2018, Activision Blizzard really needed to pull out all the stops this year to win back the confidence of their fans.
It did not help that the internal situation of the company was shaky at best – approximately 800 employees were laid off at the start of 2019 and reports have surfaced that indicated that corporate decisions at the company have been negatively affecting game development.
And then the whole suspension of Hearthstone pro player Blitzchung happened in October, leading to yet another bout of negative publicity for Activision Blizzard. This was perhaps a little too close for comfort, considering that BlizzCon 2019 was less than a month away.
But now that Blizzzcon has come and gone, we've learned about Diablo 4, Overwatch 2, and expansions for both World of Warcraft and Hearthstone. These are all immensely popular titles to be sure, but did the company manage to redeem itself simply by giving people the games they love?
The opening ceremony started with a sombre apology from Blizzard president J. Allen Brack regarding the Blitzchung controversy. “We moved too quickly in our decision-making and then, to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you,” said Brack. “We didn’t live up to the high standards that we really set for ourselves.”
It was surprising to see the situation being addressed so directly during the event, but it did feel like it was little more than a token apology. “We will do better going forward, but our actions are going to matter more than any of these words,” Brack said. Considering that this supposed apology did not come with any action on Activision Blizzard's end, and that the company quickly moved on to announce Diablo 4, the speech comes across a little empty.
Blizzard made a minor concession earlier after the initial backlash, giving Blitzchung his winnings back and reducing the suspension from one year to six months, but the fact of the matter is that he's still being punished just because he stood up for what he believed in. In the eyes of the public, Activision Blizzard’s seeming stance of placing its corporate interests over the values it supposedly espouses have not changed.
Then came the Diablo 4 announcement, which promised a return to the series’ “dark roots”, according to director Luis Barriga. This appears to be a direct reaction to the outcry from some fans who claimed that Diablo 3 had strayed too far from the grim aesthetic that the series is known for, adopting a more colourful art style instead. Furthermore, fans who were unhappy about Diablo Immortal reacted badly as they were expecting a proper sequel on PC, so Diablo 4 appears to be giving them exactly what they want.
It remains to be seen whether or not Diablo 4 will be able to satisfy once it’s released, but the game appears to be moving in the right direction.
On a personal note, while I appreciate the move back towards its dark origins, I do get the feeling that the dev team might have pushed it a bit too far. From gameplay videos shown so far, colours appear to be rather washed-out and characters kind of blend into the environment. While the first two Diablo games were dark, they weren’t by any means dull. There were pops of vibrancy here and there, especially in the character designs, which does not appear to be the case in Diablo 4 at all.
And then there's Overwatch 2, the sequel to Blizzard's massively popular first-person shooter. Overwatch 2’s selling point will be its Story and Hero Missions, their answer to four years of fans clamouring for more lore and PvE content. There's a huge part of the fanbase that’s drawn to the world of Overwatch because of the breathtaking animated shorts – in fact, Overwatch 2 was launched with the new Zero Hour cinematic – which showcase stories of their iconic characters. Lore is something that's rather lacking in Overwatch though, so people who want to find out more about their favourite characters are left out in the cold.
Overwatch 2 aims to correct this, with game director Jeff Kaplan claiming that “Overwatch 2 will feature a ton of PvE content. We will have a complete story experience, featuring story missions.”
But players have already invested lots of time and possibly money into the existing game, which is probably why Jeff Kaplan also emphasised that Overwatch and Overwatch 2 “will be a shared multiplayer environment where no one gets left behind.” All earned cosmetics will carry over between games and PvP crossplay between the two games will also be possible, with all future content such as new maps and heroes being released for both. The only thing that appears to be exclusive to Overwatch 2 so far appears to be the PvE content.
This is a rather novel approach to sequel development, and it ensures that the existing player base doesn't get neglected. How well this is implemented will be something to watch for.
Elsewhere, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands and Hearthstone: Descent of the Dragons were also announced, both of them full-fledged expansions that promise more content. Together with Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2, Activision Blizzard has given fans something to look forward to for four of its most popular games.
All in all, BlizzCon 2019 had some huge announcements that one can be cautiously excited for. What's notable is how Blizzard seemed to be hearkening back to a rosier past, invoking the roots of the Diablo series and announcing the Blizzard Arcade, a place where gamers can go to experience some of Blizzard's earliest games. Nostalgia was a big part of BlizzCon 2019, and the company wasted no time telling everyone that this year marks 25 years since Warcraft: Orcs & Humans was released in 1994.
People love Blizzard, and the company seemed to want to remind everyone of why that was so, especially after all the vitriol directed at it recently. BlizzCon 2019 doesn't completely erase the missteps of the past months, but if you're a gamer that loves Blizzard's games, this year's convention delivered far more than the year before.