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Blizzard Entertainment hopes its BlizzCon 2019 event has formed an endpoint to the turmoil caused by its poorly handled reaction to a political protest during a Hearthstone esports broadcast on Oct. 6. But adding its cuts to esports programs at the end of 2018, this year’s BlizzCon marks not just a difficult month, but a tough year overall.
Speaking to Blizzard Entertainment President J. Allen Brack on the second day of BlizzCon, he agrees it’s been a challenging year. A 12-year veteran of the World of Warcraft team, Brack stepped up to president when Mike Morhaime retired last year. I asked him if he’d like to go back and give himself any advice just as he was taking the company’s reins.
“I think I’d say buckle up, it’s going to be a really hard year,” Brack told The Esports Observer. “But you’re gonna come out the other side and what’s on the other side of this beautiful.”
The company’s line up of announcements in 2019 – Overwatch 2, Diablo IV, World of Warcraft Shadowlands, and Hearthstone’s new auto-battler mode Battlegrounds – is the biggest list of new titles at any BlizzCon. So while the ride has not been simple, Brack feels the grind has paid off.
As for the two toughest moments, he’s more open about the mistakes made and the effort to get to the right decisions and keep moving forward.
Refocusing Blizzard’s Vision
It wasn’t long after BlizzCon 2018 when significant cuts were made to the internal esports teams at Blizzard, as well as the closure of the Heroes of the Storm Global Championship after three years of competition.
Brack says that the hard part in any creative company is the need to shift from doing what feels good to really focusing in on core priorities.
“There’s a lot of things we like to do because they’re cool. That has been one of the things that’s been really great about Blizzard. You can do some of that, and that’s great. But you really need to keep an eye on the core priorities,” says Brack.
Brack says there were a lot of conversations with the teams and within the company around that need to focus more on the delivery of “the video games you want to deliver.”
“At BlizzCon this year you’re seeing some of the fruits of that effort,” he says.
Blizzard is known for taking the slow road on its game development cycles and taking a ‘when it’s ready’ approach to release dates. But while the industry is moving ever faster in the new ‘games as a service’ era, especially in the esports environment, Brack maintains that Blizzard’s slower pacing of new releases will remain.
“I think it’s more important than ever, honestly,” says Brack. “I think the thing that Blizzard has been built on is this idea of not only ‘it’s ready when it’s ready,’ but behind that is the thought that it doesn’t matter if a game is late, it only matters if it’s great.
“I think we’ve seen games that have come out in the last five years that were not great and had large communities or had large followings, and it’s been difficult for those games to recover. You only get one launch and so you’ve got to make it right.”
But he feels that outside of the major launch process maintaining its careful approach, ongoing delivery of content for World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, and Overwatch are all showing a predictable cadence of content to serve fans in line with today’s expectations.
“Operating ‘games as a service’ is not new for us. We want to do more of it, we want to continue to get better at it, and we think there’s a lot of opportunity there. But you only get one launch.”
Esports And Politics
On Oct. 6, Ng Way ‘Blitzchung’ Chung called for the liberation of Hong Kong in a post-match interview during a Hearthstone Grandmasters Tour broadcast. Two days later, Blizzard banned the player for a year and stripped him of his winnings. After backlash around the world, Blizzard reduced the ban to six months and restored his earnings. But even with that many felt the situation was deeply mishandled and suggested Blizzard was appeasing China with its management of the drama.
Protests were planned for BlizzCon, and at the event around a dozen or so protestors did attend the event, handing out t-shirts featuring Chinese Overwatch character Mei with a ‘Free Hong Kong’ message.
Ahead of the opening ceremony, Brack made a statement to more clearly and directly apologize for the handling of the situation and the way Blizzard communicated with fans.
“When I think about what I’m most unhappy about, it’s really two things,” Brack said in his BlizzCon apology. “The first one is we didn’t live up to the high standards that we set for ourselves. And the second is, we failed in our purpose. And for that I am sorry, and I accept accountability.
“We will do better going forward. But our actions are going to matter more than any of these words.”
Key clarifications were also made across interviews Brack conducted after the opening ceremony with a small number of outlets, including The Esports Observer.
First, that the six-month ban will stay in place because players are contractually obligated not to use official broadcasts as a place to talk about politics of any kind.
Second, that Blizzard messages posted to Chinese social media platform Weibo about “defending the pride” of China were not approved by Blizzard’s U.S. offices as only its Chinese publishing partner NetEase has control of all products and communications inside China.
“We did not authorize it. We did not approve it. We would not have approved it had they asked,” Brack told PC Gamer.
Third, unlike many other esports player contracts, players are permitted to use personal social media and streams to talk about politics. Most other esports, and indeed most traditional sports, can reprimand players for such comments on any platform. So this speaks to a more liberal position on speech. It’s just that, on this first occasion where the company found itself in the midst of a major incident, that it found it was not well prepared to manage such situations in the heat of the moment.
Brack told The Esports Observer that this experience has exposed a number of problems that the company has now moved to address, but they stem from a lack of experience dealing with situations like this and on this scale.
“We have some immaturity as an organization in terms of how to think about it and how to deal with it,” says Brack. “No one had any idea that this was going to blow up to be the international incident that it has become. It’s been a challenging month for sure.
“We should have taken some time, we should have paused, we should have been more thoughtful around it,” he says. “And then tried to think about how do we want to move forward, and what’s the five-year decision as opposed to what’s this decision? What are the principles that we want to establish for the next five years? That didn’t happen.”
Brack again emphasized that words are easy, but actions are required to ensure any future political issues are handled more effectively in the future.
“There’s some work for us to do, to align rules and to think through all that and think about how we’re going to handle this going forward. But this… it’s the first time for us, really. And so it exposed some immaturity for sure.”
Esports Rising – Nov. 14 | Who Is Attending?
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