Blizzard is still looking for a “new partner” to bring their games back to the Chinese market, but so far, no luck.
January 23 has already come and gone in China, meaning that Blizzard games, including World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, Diablo 3 and Overwatch, have been shelved in the country, with no prospect of a return at the moment.
The stoppage is no surprise: it was first announced in November 2022, when Blizzard and Chinese publisher NetEase failed to agree on a partnership renewal, and then reconfirmed just over a week ago.
But this is literally the end of an era. NetEase has published Blizzard games in China for 14 years. The partnership, which NetEase CEO William Ding says, fell apart “due to material differences on key terms.”
No specific reasons were given for the breakup, but there were undoubtedly indications earlier. In a November message posted on LinkedIn, NetEase’s president of global investments and partnerships, Simon Zhu, said that “developers and gamers will have a whole new level understanding of how much damage a jerk can make” when the whole story comes out, while Blizzard recently placed the blame for the shutdown squarely on NetEase’s shoulders: “It is a pity that NetEase is not willing to extend services of our game for another six months on the basis of existing terms as we look for a new partner,” reads a statement last week.
Regardless of whose fault it is, the shutdown is a huge problem. China has a massive audience for these games. There are an estimated three million WoW players in the country. In 2019, Chinese Hearthstone pro Liooon – real name Li Xiaomeng – became the first woman to win the Hearthstone Grandmasters Global Finals.
Imagine if Blizzard pulled the same thing in North America or Europe – that one day WoW, Diablo 3, Overwatch 2 and all the rest would simply disappear!
I don’t want to exaggerate, but it would be an absolute cataclysm, at least from a video game perspective. VPNs are not going to save the day, either. They may allow Chinese gamers to access games from other regions, but existing accounts won’t go with them. Hearthstone accounts are tied to the region where they were created. And China has its own unique edition of World of Warcraft. This means that money spent on cosmetics or DLC is effectively gone.
The good news for players in China is that the situation may not be permanent. Blizzard has previously said that it is looking for a “new partner” to distribute its games in China. (By law, all video games in China must have a Chinese publisher.) A company representative in China told The Guardian that the shutdown is not “the end” but just a “temporary unhappy suspension”.
Given the amount of money Chinese gamers leave on the table, it’s unlikely Blizzard will let this market lie fallow for long.
It is also worth noting that this situation is not unprecedented. Before NetEase, World of Warcraft was published in China by The9. The switch to NetEase was made under increased scrutiny from the Chinese authorities. This eventually led to several changes and an extended closed beta test period. This effectively closed the game for a few months. Interestingly, The9 is rumoured to be in talks with Microsoft to take back the company’s Chinese publishing rights. Presumably, they expect Microsoft to be able to complete its planned acquisition of Activision Blizzard.
Source: The Guardian, SuperPixel
God this is so tragic 😭😞
— Ben Brode (@bbrode) January 23, 2023
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