The Tale of my Tenth Blizzcon – A Report on 2019

It feels like yesterday that I went to Blizzcon 2005, the first one ever.

And last weekend, 14 years later, the tenth one I’ve attended came to a close.

My history with Blizzcon is largely tied to my engagement with WoW. During the Burning Crusade years, I did not attend. I was there for the first, and after the TBC era, I attended nearly every Blizzcon from 2009 forward, except 2011. The first Blizzcon was a far cry from today – 1.5 halls, registration as two desks staffed by old ladies in the front lobby of Hall A, the arena saved solely for the closing ceremony, and public internet access on the demo machines, which allowed me to use the concert time to level my original main to level 40 from the show floor. A small vendor corner that resembled an artist’s alley from an anime con more than a vendor booth – just small wire-mesh stands with a few products on demo and 1-2 people watching over them.

2019 had nearly none of the same flourishes. The show, much like Blizzard, has grown massively from those early roots, and much like the warts on Blizzard’s 2019, Blizzcon also similarly has growing pains to deal with.

Let me first state the simple version of what this post will say – Blizzcon 2019 was good, but only through the sheer volume of announcements overshadowing the rough edges. Unlike 2018, for most that attended, the show did well enough to conceal the blemishes, but for me, this is the first year I found myself contemplating not attending next year – at least until I decided to use the upcoming year to get into cosplay (which will inevitably be the subject of many future posts!).

Let me first touch on the bad points, which are often those that hide most effectively from the larger virtual ticket audience.

Show Dates, Deadlines, and Announcements Were Done Poorly: Blizzard announced ticket on-sale dates and pricing 1 week before sales, cutting nearly 75% of the time allotment they’ve given people in the past to save any additional income and make a decision on purchasing tickets. If I were to put on my tinfoil hat, I would argue that the increase in pricing at the main level of ticket coupled with the existence of an additional middle-tier for substantially more money had something to do with that. As a distinctly lower-middle class person who finds a way to go, this made planning and budgeting for the show hard, and if the sale date had not been close to when it has traditionally been since 2013, I might have found myself screwed out of a ticket for this.

I thought this was the end of such delays, but they just kept coming – the 2019 version of the mobile app did not release until two weeks before the show, with a schedule that confirmed no franchises for the What’s Next panels on the first day, making planning a schedule absolutely awful. The funny thing is that putting the franchise on the schedule would not have caused much additional speculation – Diablo IV was a no-brainer announcement to all, and an Overwatch and WoW What’s Next panels wouldn’t have led to as much as a batted eye. Yet, all this mystery.

However, the biggest delay was in announcing the closing concerts. Normally done at least a week or two in advance, if not longer, this year the announcements came a staggeringly stupid 90 minutes prior to showtime. All kinds of conspiracy abound there, but I think it was just poor planning – given the target audience of Blizzcon, the bands were kind of a thud. I like The Glitch Mob, because my music taste samples down on occasion about 10 years younger than I am, and I probably would have liked Haywyre too. I saw a bit of the Fitz and the Tantrums performance roaming the show floor and it was fine, but nothing amazing. The era of marquee bands at Blizzcon is over, I have to say – it is no longer assumed that Metallica, Linkin Park, Blink 182, or the like will show up, especially in the 3 performance era. Last year demonstrated this – Kristian Nairn was a very odd choice, but good, Lindsey Stirling is very popular among a gamer audience, and Train is decently mainstream. This year’s lack of genre diversity was a problem, and waiting to announce it wasn’t a good or exciting move. Obviously Blizzard knew who would be there sooner, so it boggles the mind why this was not announced sooner than 90 minutes prior to showtime, and it is a big miss on their part.

Change Management Is A Struggle For Blizzard: Blizzard in 2019 moves poorly, and this was no exception. Registration for the show was handled by AXS, who did an admirable job, I think – the waiting room for tickets was a nice change I really liked, and the app worked well, especially since it was only needed one time to pickup your badge and wristband.

However, this is where it gets wonky. Badge…and wristband. I don’t mind the two-factor authentication on a con, because I witnessed attendees with obviously fake badges inside in 2017 talking about beating up attendees. Having an RFID bracelet that was required was good – however, they managed the process poorly. The process was confusing with labeled “scan out” points that were never used, a bracelet that could only tighten and would not loosen for comfort (and to avoid transfers), and the threat of a removed bracelet not being reissued not being adhered to. Blizzard did not communicate these changes until much later in the process, about a month away from con, and then did not adhere to their own communicated rules anyways, allowing replacement wristbands.

The wristband was a big sticking point for some, but I at least felt okay with the idea because of the aforementioned easy badge fraud in prior years, coupled with data collection to allow future years to be better (you had to swipe the wristband at a few other points once inside, like to lineup for a demo station or to enter certain high-traffic con areas like the store and Darkmoon Faire. However, what wasn’t okay is that Blizzard changed the badge size to nonstandard from my full collection, making it larger, so now my badge collection looks askew, and that is the real crime! Also, they didn’t allow character names or nicknames on the badge this year, so that was a bummer.

Further, there were some issues with the Portal Pass exclusive perks as well. On day 1, I heard that the snacks were poorly stocked and the parking garage being held exclusive to PP attendees was not being truly saved. I had a regular badge, so I don’t care for the fate of the Blizzcon Bourgeoisie, but if you’re going to offer those perks, I guess people will complain if they aren’t up to par!

The Store Was a Clusterfuck, No Way Around It: Several years ago, Blizzard added the perk of Blink Shopping to the store. Via the Blizzcon app, you could pre-purchase your merch haul, then go to wait in a separate line to pickup. Your order was already in and paid for, so in theory you just scanned in via your confirmation and waited for them to pull the order and call. Great, until the past few years. Now, Blink is no better than the main store line, and is oftentimes worse. However, even worse than just the line is an awful twist – in theory, Blink works and should peel off and reserve the items you’ve ordered and paid for – but it seems that it doesn’t. The process has always been that the order is picked once you arrive to pick it up, but the inventory should be reserved. However, this year, with a pivotal limited item that will never see another production run (the Shadowlands cinematic print), Blizzard oversold by at least 50, meaning 50 people put up $60, showed up for the print they paid for already, only to be told that their print wasn’t there and the store could refund them within 7-10 days.

Just an awful process for managing that this year, and there was no real effort made from people I heard from to remedy the situation in any way other than getting their money back…eventually. Not much I can say to make the point clearer than that, so moving on to another tale…

The Darkmoon Faire Is a Bigger Clusterfuck: The Darkmoon Faire went from a fun diversion at the convention to another way for Blizzard to sell you things. Starting last year, they made two huge shifts – they offered a “Timewalkers Treasure Chest” and also offered special collectible pins limited to the Faire that cannot be purchased elsewhere. It’s a fun idea in theory – the Timewalkers chests are basically real life loot boxes, which come with a base set of items (this year it was the ill-fated Blizzard Cosplay book and a golden Sylvanas Funko Pop figure) and then some random items, which can include special card with codes for old WoW TCG loot (like the Spectral Tiger mount and pet, Magic Rooster mount, all the fun little toys that old game had). To say these are popular is an understatement. Last year, Blizzard wasn’t prepared for the possibility of overwealthy douchebags ruining it for attendees, so some “enterprising” assholes bought out boxes in transactions of around 50 chests at once, meaning the average attendee had no chance of getting them. Surely, a part of the popularity of the Portal Pass was the early Thursday access to the Faire, the cost of which, for someone ready to spend $2,500 on real-life loot boxes, would be nothing. Luckily (sort of!) Blizzard put a “soft-cap” of 5 boxes per purchase, so you could either wait in line with friends and have them all buy 5 for you, or you could buy 5, get back in line, and do it again. Further, they also capped with a daily limit, ensuring that Thursday for Portal Pass, Friday and Saturday for all attendees would have an allotment of boxes available. They still sold out, but the process of managing the caps was a clusterfuck and it was unclear on all days if they were truly sold out or not, as they didn’t handle the announcement of that well.

The pin booth was similar, but also bad – they preannounced all the pins last year, so you could wait if you knew one you wanted would be there (my now-fiancee waited so I could get the Heart of Azeroth pin they had last year, thankfully!) but this year, one of the pins was a secret, because it was Lilith from Diablo IV. The pin art was put on a cardboard sign at the top of the stall, which was great in theory until the line wound around it and made the small image very hard to see. The line also wound around the booth like a weird snake, and even though I wanted a WoW 15th Anniversary logo pin, the line structure and lack of staff to facilitate rapid movement of transactions got to me and we left the line, giving up on getting the special pins for the year.

All Things HK-Related: J Allen Brack appeared before opening ceremony in what seemed to be a non-rehearsed, off the cuff apology, but also avoided mentioning what he was apologizing for – keeping everything vague. It was fine, but nothing that was going to move anyone an inch – either you were over it already, or you weren’t going to be moved because an apology isn’t up to the standard of undoing the suspensions, or you were attached to the movement because it was anti-Blizzard and the facts of the matter didn’t matter anyways. Leading up to the con, a lot of people speculated Blizzard would crackdown on Pooh outfits, Hong Kong flags or insignia, and would hide Q&A sessions from the livestream or just simply not have them. However, Blizzard remained open – the WoW Q&A had two mentions of Hong Kong handled well, no one was turned away for Pooh costumes or any other shirts in support of HK, and despite that, I still saw Twitter trolls claiming they were hiding the audience anyways – I mean, most were Tweeting at The Quartering, so they are lost causes already, but nonetheless, when reality didn’t match what the people unhappy with Blizzard wanted, the fiction rolled out. On top of that, there was a protest outside the main entry point that was never more than around 30 people, who left all of their trash where they protested on Saturday…great. On top of that, many of those outside also went inside and it was not uncommon to see Pooh-costume wearers with hundreds of dollars of new Blizz merch. Given how…”vocal” many of them were in the leadup about how supporting Blizzard was “a vote for censorship,” it was interesting to note!

Security and Crowd Management: Blizzard always gets the worst, most confused security staff. People turned away with tablets, which were allowed, people allowed in with detachable lens cameras, which aren’t allowed. Random changes of exits from the courtyard, with the security staff belligerently redirecting to the randomly-chosen new exits. Security enforcing a path around the outside to enter, and then randomly not doing this. Doors were listed as opening at 9:30, but they let people from the courtyard into the lobby as early as 8 AM. It was fine enough, but not particularly well-handled.

On that same note, the Friday night WoW 15th Anniversary event was supposed to force people to get into line and buy a drink from Bottle Logic to get a commemorative (cheap) mug. When I came back to the convention center to line up for this, the line was thousands deep, wrapping around to the front of the con, so I gave up and played Diablo IV while that line was short. By the time I came out, they gave up and were handing mugs out for free to people all over. So I could have chosen to wait in line, get the mug, but not get the easy access to the Diablo IV demo, which thousands did, or I could do what I did anyways, still get a mug and get to play the Diablo IV demo easily! If they had just handed them out for free in the first place instead of insisting on the purchase and line, they could have allowed everyone to have the nice experience I did.

And now, on to the good!

Density of Announcements:  2018 was a dumpster fire of announcements, using mobile game Diablo Immortal as an ill-conceived marquee announcement when the best announcement was, arguably, Warcraft III Reforged. Naturally, going into this year’s con, the expectation was that Blizzard needed to make up for last year. Make up they did, with 3 major, high-value announcements that easily got people excited. World of Warcraft Shadowlands, the eighth WoW expansion, is the one I’ve largely focused on since returning from the convention, but I did get hands on Diablo IV and once I watch the last panel I missed, I’ll have a lot to share on that. Overwatch 2 seems cool, but also largely seems like Blizzard’s way of dodging the fragmentation of audience issue is to simply make an expansion, call it a sequel, and allow cross-play between the titles with items moving from the original to the “sequel” to keep people able to buy those sweet, sweet loot boxes from now until 2 launches. The story mode is compelling, and the trailer was extremely well done, but I have to admit that Overwatch isn’t my cup of tea and so I didn’t wait through the big lines to try it and probably won’t write about it past this point.

Overall, the announcements were strong and in addition to the obvious (Diablo IV) and the predictable (Shadowlands) we also got a surprise (OW2)…well, it would have been if not for leaks due to mismanagement on Blizzard’s part.

Overall Floor Experience: The management of the demo areas was better this year, in part due to the reconfiguration of the space. By moving registration outside to a tent, Blizzard gained a hall for other stuff and could also expand the store to make more room. Losing Heroes of the Storm eSports meant more stage room that could be general and reconfigurable. Using the Overwatch arena for Starcraft II on day 1 meant the SCII stage could be ditched, and while it was a cool stage setup I really liked (especially the arena version!), doing this meant even better space management on the main 4 halls. It allowed Hearthstone a proper tavern area, more demo stations for the big titles revealed, and fun extras like the Diablo IV experience (I sadly did not get to do this, which included getting a video of you being sacrificed by a cultist!). Also, for what it is worth, if you are in any sense of denial about the death of Heroes of the Storm, it had demo stations…about 20 total tucked into a corner of the new Hall E Blizzard Arcade area, along with Starcraft II and Blizzard’s old games like The Lost Vikings and Blackthorne that most people there (myself included) never played. Speaking of which, the Arcade was cool, and they used that space fairly well to put a sort of archive up with a mix of exhibits of Blizzard items like the special Korea Air Starcraft plane, Joeyray’s Bar (which used to be up top with the SC II demos), and the Cinema (which just showed cinematics on cycle along with a sanitized version of the Diablo IV intro cinematic).

The Hall D mainstage design was better and worse this year. The hall had both the Mythic stage and the Diablo IV demo/experience, which required some reconfiguration even compared to last year, where the demo area at the back of the hall was Diablo Immortal. However, by more carefully managing the capacity, it was both annoying (in a way) but also better, as being allowed entry to the hall meant you had relatively good odds of finding seats, especially on day 2 once the rude folks that hold 8 seats for their friends and family realized that unless those people came in with them, it was going to be difficult to guarantee they’d get in to their seats. They did this by creating overflow lines for both the Diablo IV demo and the stage in Hall C, which was great – if you wanted to play the Diablo IV demo quickly, you could gauge how easy the wait would be without getting into line, because you could just see if people were standing in the large overflow line space. The rest of the show, saved for the Darkmoon Faire, was fairly well managed, although the arena for Overwatch continues to be a high-congestion area and if you happen to be an Overwatch fan attending and wanting to watch the World Cup for the game, you need to pretty much start the day there and stay there.

Opening Ceremony Stage Management: Using the stages across the building for various game announcements works out really well. I wanted to see the WoW part live, so I went to the WoW stage. I didn’t have to fight a big crowd, I got the Diablo IV announcement without video errors that the main stage it took place on had, and I got to see the announcement I wanted live, and then leave after to get into a Darkmoon Faire line. However, Overwatch ended up using the main stage instead of Overwatch Arena, which is weird and probably threw off a lot of attendees. Either way, the management of this felt smoother this year!

Registration: Registration being outside seemed like it would be bad, but in the end, it worked exceptionally well. The systems went smoothly, and the process felt faster and easier than prior years. No longer needing printed barcodes, stamped paperwork, or multiple checks, it was a simple line, with employees scanning QR codes from phones and immediately printing a badge, sending you inside, associating your badge with the RFID wristband, and sending you to grab your statue inside near the store, where you could also then wait in line to buy things. The process was simple, although it also meant you basically waited in 3 lines to complete the process – badge, wristband, and statue. Still, the process went smoothly (my experience was colored by waiting until 3 PM on Thursday to line-up, meaning there was no line!) and the Portal Pass attendees got to use an indoor line in the Hilton, avoiding the stench of the hoi polloi and being able to have air conditioning while they waited, so that extra $320 going to good use!

Demo Machines: The demo stations for the big 3 announcements this year got new hardware, which ran very smoothly and was a little bit nicer to use. My home PC is still better overall, but I only got to say it was clearly better last year! Also, glad to see that Blizzard used that Corsair sponsor role to get locked in to an RGB ecosystem so they could color sync every station for the game it was used on – Diablo with red lighting, Shadowlands with white lighting, and Overwatch with that orange hue.

Darin DePaul Just In General: The man is a treasure, and this must be acknowledged.

The Voice Actor Panels: Andrea Toyias, voice over director at Blizzard, has lowkey had the best panels at Blizzcon for years now. She’s energetic about the games without the branding and corporate bullshit, she clearly believes in the art that she manages, and she cares about creating a good experience for fans. Last year, her WoW VO panel had Laura Bailey (voice of Jaina) sing Daughter of the Sea live, and this year the voice actors behind the most recent two WoW prerendered cinematics performed them live. On top of that, we were shown an improv session used as warmup between Chris Metzen and Andrew Morgado, as they attempted to get into the roles of Thrall and Saurfang.  It was genuinely funny and actually a little touching too. I sat down at the Mythic stage on Saturday morning waiting for a Deep Dive panel on Shadowlands, not even knowing that panel was going to be there, and then it happened and it was the biggest treat of my con.

Taliesin and Evitel’s Hosting of the WoW Q&A Panel: T&E were judged by internet miscreants like TheQuartering as a safe choice, shills for Blizzard as they are so often labeled. Yet, their management of the Q&A panel was done well in a few regards. Firstly, I appreciated their questioning, but that is partially because I enjoy their content. It did start to feel excessive and frustrating to see them constantly add their own questions, but they did two things really well that I liked – firstly, they acknowledged the screaming Hong Kong protester quickly and defused the situation by letting that person take the mic (almost, like, the opposite of the claimed censorship the Twitterverse was talking about waiting for), which let things stay on track without being disregarded – partially because Taliesin disagrees with Blizzard’s handling of the situation, but also because he had a great instinct in that moment and it played out well. Second, however, where he really won me over, in the tail end of the Q&A panel, an attendee asked the team a question about raid tier sets, which Ion confirmed were not coming back in Shadowlands. Ion then gave a mealy-mouthed, evasive answer about how high-end raiders got their sets in 3 weeks so it was devaluing the bonuses, and it was only cool for a little while, and the art team has some cool work in mind to keep the standards up. Taliesin, very out of role for a “shill” then pressed on the question – stating how players actually enjoy collecting the sets as a long-term goal and the majority of the WoW audience has no reason to farm BfA raids for set appearances because there is no longer a tier set per class, but one per armor type, reducing the gameplay and often meaning most have the one armor-type appearance for their characters relatively quickly, giving them no reason to replay the raid content.

Honestly, this saved my frustration with them constantly interjecting with their own questions, because it obviously put Ion on the spot and called out how insufficient his answer was. The truth of the past is that most of the Q&A panel hosts that have come from outside of Blizzard are perfectly pliant – I wouldn’t call someone a shill because I think it is stupid anyways as a concept, but the past hosts have often been fawning and fanboying out. T&E did a little of that, but they handled questions well, they helped questioners contextualize their questions, and then by sticking the landing with the raid sets question, just confirmed to me that they should host the panel in perpetuity. Far from living up to any perceptions of being in Blizzard’s pockets, they set themselves apart from past-year hosts in a really positive way I think all but the most ardently anti-Blizzard or anti-T&E commentators can see readily.

Overall, as I told Blizzard in their post-con survey, I think it was a weak year to attend in person, with a crammed schedule announced poorly, live entertainment handled equally poorly, and with clear growing pains and attempts to milk more cash with higher store prices, higher badge prices, and more opportunities to spend money. However, the sheer volume of announcements and the excitement those created, coupled with excellent demos for my favorite titles, erased my doubt about returning next year. Blizzcon is ultimately like the games it is for – if you have friends or reasons to be excited about the titles, it is absolutely worth attending, and even if you aren’t in that camp, it can still be a good time. Just prepare yourself for what it is like – long lines, fire marshal maximum capacities that can limit access to panels, and a lot of “opportunities” to be parted from your cash. Given all of that though, it has been ten events now that I have been to, and by this time next year, I’ll likely be discussing my eleventh.

 

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