Last weekend’s BlizzCon was perhaps one of the most momentous in the company’s history. Not only is it the 10th anniversary of the convention, it also marks the 25th anniversary of Blizzard Entertainment, and it also happens to be the 20th anniversary of the beloved Diablo series. Beyond those milestones, BlizzCon has grown and transformed in spectacular ways over the past decade. Not only is it a convention where fans can celebrate all things Blizzard, but it has become a major eSports destination for a company that helped originate the industry when it released StarCraft in 1998.
President and CEO of Blizzard Entertainment, Mike Morhaime, wasn’t exaggerating when he described BlizzCon as “The NFL of Blizzard Games,” during the opening ceremony. The championship tournaments for StarCraft II, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, World of Warcraft Arena, and (for the first time) the Overwatch World Cup all took place at the event.
Morhaime also stated that over $2.7 million would be given away over the weekend alone, and that pro-gamers took home more than $8 million in Blizzard tournaments this year. Additionally, Arizona State University’s “Real Dream Team” won the 2016 Heroes of the Dorm tournament last spring, which aired on ESPN2, winning full tuition for the remainder of their college careers while furthering Blizzard’s attention on collegiate eSports and impacting the future of sports heroes.
But perhaps the biggest news was the announcement of the Overwatch League, which “represents a true, next-generation eSports experience,” according to Morhaime. “There will be a combine where players attend tryouts and will be evaluated by team owners and coaches across a series of tests. Teams will be formed around major cities to support the growth of a regional fan base. There will be regular schedules, professional contracts, free agency, baseline minimum salaries and benefits—providing more stability for teams and players.”
Season one begins in 2017, and it will mark another milestone for not only Blizzard but the eSports industry in general. Although the shooter isn’t even a year old, Overwatch is Blizzard’s fastest game to exceed 20 million players worldwide. Given the game’s tremendous success at launch, and the how organizations such as ELeague have already adopted it for tournaments, creating an official Blizzard eSports league isn’t an unexpected move—just the scope of it is.
If Blizzard excels at one thing lately, it’s in creating games that are, more often than not, adopted for eSports. It’s an area that has received major attention since the original StarCraft became a kind of national sport in South Korea in the ‘90s. When StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty was first announced from Seoul in 2007, the developers pointed out how the gameplay and balance were designed specifically to suit eSports play. This was still years before platforms such as Twitch launched in 2011, helping to grow the global popularity of eSports. Now Overwatch remains one of the most streamed games on Twitch, and its popularity is likely to expand even further when the new league begins.
Given how five out of its six biggest games have a competitive element, it’s no wonder why Blizzard has become one of the most eSports-focused developers in the world, and it’s ultimately the key to Blizzard’s success for the next 25 years. Although the company has sometimes been criticized for not pioneering new game genres as it did with Diablo, it is exceptionally proficient at doing something that’s arguably much better: taking hardcore genres such as MMOs, MOBAs (which Warcraft III happened to help originate) and first-person shooters and making them approachable for a wider audience. This strategy, accompanied by relatively long beta test periods and word-of-mouth promotion, has served the company tremendously well in building a massive fan base for its games. However, eSports takes that to another level by getting both viewers and players involved in the action. With eSports, a fan base grows to include both players and viewers who may have never even tried the game.
Games like Overwatch, which is easily understood and enjoyed by both players and audiences, regardless of skill level, can help make the game stay relevant for years, when most other shooters would fade from memory. Furthermore, celebrating the game every year at BlizzCon continues its popularity because the event takes fandom beyond the games to the players themselves. It’s a virtuous circle, where fans celebrate the games and the company celebrates the fans.
Blizzard made a big bet when it hosted the first BlizzCon in 2005, becoming one of the first gaming conventions dedicated to a single developer. There were times when the future of the convention seemed uncertain, especially when none were hosted in 2006 and 2012. But with all the eSports tournaments, BlizzCon continues to be an ever-growing annual event that will keep the game development company loved by millions around the world for many years to come.
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