NitWitty’s Inside Man: BlizzCon 2016

You may have noticed that I like Blizzard games. Like, a lot. Like, a lot a lot. So it shouldn’t surprise you that I felt keen on attending BlizzCon, their semi-annual convention, this year. I’d been to BlizzCons before — in 2007 and 2008, at the height of my wow addiction — so I pretty much knew what to expect.

If you’ve never had the pleasure to go to BlizzCon, imagine this: You enter through one of many white, innocuous doors and into enormous, dark chamber. The ceiling, shrouded in shadow, seems impossibly high if not for the clusters of TV monitors suspended in midair. Wherever you turn your head, there’s another elaborate stage and rows upon rows of seats. The entire place is dimly, comfortably, lit, although splashes of orange, green, and blue lighting wash over you occasionally. Other lighting comes from the neon glow of computer monitors, sectioned off in precise rows like Roman centurions, each of them sporting one of Blizzard’s game titles. Life-size statues of notable characters from Blizzard’s franchises — Diablo, Warcraft, StarCraft, and now Overwatch — stand heroically about the show floor, each of them perfect spots for a photo-op. And everywhere you turn are the smiling, merry, often costumed faces of the con-goers, heading to the next event or panel.

BlizzCon 2016 was Blizzard's 10th BlizzCon, and a celebration of 25 years of the company.

I expected to have a good time. I expected to have fun, play some game demos, and maybe buy a shirt. I had thought the reverence for Blizzard I’d had as a young(er) man, untainted by the cynicism of everyday adult life, would have been replaced by an enthusiasm tempered by age. After all, eight years is a long time; I’d done some serious growing up since last I’d gone. I’d gotten married, graduated college, gotten a full-time job, and had a child. I thought I had hit most of the major landmarks for a guy in his late twenties. In the extracurricular sense, what else was there to get excited about?

As it turned out, eight years of growing up hadn’t stifled my passion, or anyone else’s for that matter, for Blizzard’s games and the magic of BlizzCon itself. Like Edmund stepping once more through the wardrobe into Narnia, or Wendy descending from the skies back to Neverland, I felt myself returning to a world I’d left behind years ago, and despite the many significant changes, I felt like I’d never left at all.

The entrance to BlizzCon 2016, with all their games on display.
The entrance to BlizzCon 2016, with all their games on display.

The Art of the (Blizz)Con

BlizzCon 2007 was my first nerd convention. Shocking, I know, what with San Diego Comic-Con being such a cultural touchstone that also happens to be within easy driving distance. That should tell you a lot about my enduring adoration for Blizzard games, and I was more than happy to drop a hefty sum for a ticket this year. I wasn’t the only one, as the 25,000 fans who attended BlizzCon 2016 proved. To understand this appeal, I think you have to look at the evolution of the convention itself.

Blizzard games have always had many facets that fans enjoy, from the epic stories to the burgeoning competitive esports scene. Although their games number only the few, Blizzard puts a lot of care and continued support into them. Still, you kind of have to wonder how they can sustain an entire two-day convention. Compare it to Comic-Con, where the seas of excited, nerdy faces are as varied as their interests, where Star Wars rubs shoulders with Doctor Who, and Magic: The Gathering and Monsters High mingles with Marvel. Comic-Con is a grab bag of geek culture, servicing varying levels of interest from the hardcore to the casual.

Now compare BlizzCon to other game conferences like the D.I.C.E. Summit, which gathers game developers and industry executives together to talk shop. The Summit is more exclusive to people within the industry, whereas BlizzCon is all about the fans. It’s more of a hybrid of the two — you get the big, celebratory aspects and hardcore fandom of Comic-Con, but with a large focus on the games themselves.

But for a convention revolving around a single game company, there’s always been a lot to do at BlizzCon. And at BlizzCon, which zeroes in with laser focus on the few, the community seems anything but casual. The holy trinity of Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo have held dedicated, borderline rabid, playerbases for decades; small wonder then that tickets sold out in minutes. It is this passion that fuels every Q&A panel, every gameplay discussion, as well as every costume, song, and art contest within BlizzCon’s halls. As a longtime fan (I watched a friend play the first StarCraft for weeks on end before buying it myself for the iMac in ‘99), BlizzCon is the ultimate fan service experience. Primarily, it’s a place for like-minded gamers to meet and celebrate the games they love, a place beyond the anonymity of online avatars and different colored text.

Blizzard’s Holy Trinity (+1)

Illidan Stormrage from Warcraft III greets guests to BlizzCon 2016.
This same statue of Illidan Stormrage greeted me at BlizzCon 2008.

In 2008, BlizzCon took up three halls of the Anaheim Convention Center. Eight years later, it had expanded to three entire floors. I could no longer walk from one side of the event to the other in minutes; now I needed the official BlizzCon App just to keep track of the halls, panels, and esports matches I wanted to watch. Although Blizzard’s most recent games number only a few, they span a wide range of genres, and each of them were on full display at BlizzCon this year. A stylized wooden stage, complete with a warm fireplace at its center, made up the playing area for the digital card game Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, while a more austere floor plan sported the MOBA Heroes of the Storm. A relatively small section of PCs corralled fans of the RPG Diablo III, while the space for the still-running MMO giant World of Warcraft drew plenty of die-hards. And although the StarCraft Championship matches were held in the Grand Arena, I couldn’t help but notice the amount of square footage laid out for Blizzard’s latest game, the FPS Overwatch. For the newest kid on the block, which now stands next to giants of their respective game genres, this seemed both a great honor and a telling sign of the widespread appeal of Blizzard’s latest game.

Overwatch is the studio’s first new IP in seventeen years, and although it’s only been out for six months, it already boasts a huge following. As seen with the demo area I mentioned above, its popularity was apparent at BlizzCon 2016 — there were panels with the actors who voice the game’s cast of heroes, Q&A sessions with the developers, the first-ever Overwatch World Cup esports finals. Overwatch also stole the spotlight with what was inarguably BlizzCon’s biggest announcement, the reveal of Overwatch’s twenty-third hero, Sombra.

For those with even a less than passing interest in the game, the announcement of a new hero doesn’t seem to be that big a deal. After all, Blizzard announced Ana, a sniper healer class, a mere month after the game had been out; the only hype preceding her release had been a few in-game clues and an image on the Overwatch Twitter that indicated her impending arrival. But with Sombra, things were much, much different. Sombra’s backstory is she is a hacker, and clues about her existence were hidden inside the game months in advance. Over time, the player community uncovered a massive augmented reality game that would span months, building hype, speculation, and heaps of frustration along the way. Despite players’ best efforts to learn more, one thing that remained elusive throughout the campaign was what Sombra would actually do — her abilities, powers, and contributions to a team. A few leaked images in the weeks before the BlizzCon announcement did nothing to quell the frothing excitement of a Sombra reveal.

It happened like this: it’s Day One, just past 11 AM. At the Opening Ceremony Blizzard co-founder and President Mike Morhaime is on stage thanking 25,000 people for coming and celebrating Blizzard’s 25th anniversary. Spirits are high, as the smiles on the faces to the left and right of you indicate. It’s the beginning of a weekend full of promise. Mr. Morhaime then introduces a video clip, a retrospective on the launch of Overwatch. Game director Jeff Kaplan, lead writer Michael Chu, and other notable members of the Overwatch team are seen hard at work, when suddenly the video subtly glitches out, distorting the audio and video for a fraction of a second. If you blinked or yawned, you probably missed it, but the moment passes and it’s back to seeing the state of the game’s servers as players around the world capture points and push payloads. Then, that glitch comes back, only it’s longer this time, and you definitely didn’t imagine it. By this time, fans begin to scream and shout in excited, almost exultant tones. The screen then becomes completely corrupted, and as the crowd around you roars in excitement the video is replaced with a purple skull — Sombra’s sigil. When the video restores itself, Blizzard officially reveals Sombra in the form of a new animated short called “Infiltration.”

Sombra from Overwatch, striking a heroic pose.
Sombra, revealed at last.

Fans revel in big reveals like this. In 2008, when Blizzard announced Wrath of the Lich King, the second expansion for WoW, I was there screaming in excitement with my fellows, but it had nothing on the level of sheer excitement at BlizzCon 2016. We all expected the Sombra reveal, we all knew it was coming, and still the energy and elation in the air was electrifying. Sure, people had been saying the days, weeks, and months of ARG nonsense had soured them before she was even officially unveiled, but in that moment, with the rabid cheering and whooping surrounding me, I think it was all worth it.

Regarding the popularity of Overwatch, it’d be one thing if Blizzard were the only ones excited about their new game. But as it turns out, it seemed like the majority of people there were in some way gaga for the team shooter. Overwatch cosplay was inescapable. I already knew to associate BlizzCon for quality costumes from years before, but this year was ridiculous. The twenty-three character roster seemed on full display with every character represented, sometimes even as the opposite gender. All this effort wasn’t just for fun, once the Cosplay Contest got underway at the end of the first day. With $3,000 dollars up for grabs as the first prize, Blizzard shows it knows how serious their fans get about their games.

Props like the helm of the Lich King were on display at BlizzCon 2016.
They keep the Lich King’s helm in a case to keep it from corrupting fans.

But BlizzCon isn’t all about dressing up and looking pretty; sometimes fans have got to get their hands dirty for the games they love. There’s no better place for a Blizzard fan to get the nitty gritty on their games and even offer some choice feedback than BlizzCon. Developer panels are a highlight of the con, with retrospectives on what games features worked and what didn’t, spotlights on newly implemented patches, and teases of what’s to come. Building hype for games you’re already hopelessly addicted to is a BlizzCon trademark; with the announcement of Sombra came Overwatch’s new Arcade, which would offer new game modes to players looking for a little variation beyond the typical six-on-six, objectives-based action. Q&A sessions are particularly interesting, as developers can expect to field just about any question. You’ll get balancing questions such as whether a certain character is overpowered (and even suggestions on how to fix them), as well as deep lore questions that require a back-and-forth between developers and fan as they fact-check each other for answers.

The bottom line is players care about these games, and so the questions they ask reflect which aspect — which facet — they care for the most, even if that aspect is independent of the game itself. What surprised me most this time was how a large majority of questions at the Blizzard 25th Anniversary panel were preceded by stories of fans saying how they had met their wife or husband through one of Blizzard’s games, and how their family has grown since then. Maybe I would have been a bit cynical back in 2008, but hearing that this time I never felt so proud to be a Blizzard fan.

Next page: Where Eric Spent All His Damn Time…

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Eric Seal

Eric Seal is a writer, drummer, gamer, husband, son, and father, and he can't decide which of these he likes best. Also writes fatherly musings at mostlymetaldad.com.

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