Key TakeawaysAs more major shows announce they're going virtual for 2021, BlizzConline provides a look at the shape of the new normal.World of Warcraft Classic is opening up new servers for the 2007 Burning Crusade expansion.The two biggest upcoming games that Blizzard has, Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2, still have no firm release dates. Activision Blizzard
The 2021 BlizzConline, the virtual version of Blizzard's annual BlizzCon, was a quiet show, with little more than proof of life shown for highly anticipated games like Overwatch 2. It did give fans a few solid looks behind the scenes at the modern Blizzard, and perhaps a little hope that the veteran developer will eventually release its promised games.
BlizzCon 2021 is the latest big event to switch to an at-home format, with other shows like Fanime and E3 having already announced a similar shift. As such, BlizzCon's approach—favoring live streamed panels, virtual performances, and new events such as a Diablo-themed Dungeons & Dragons live play by the cast of Critical Role—puts it on the ragged edge of the new normal. Expect other shows throughout the year to look here for further inspiration, as more cons switch to a virtual approach for safety's sake.
Announcements at BlizzCon 2021 included a look at the upcoming 9.1 patch for World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, the announcement of a remastered edition of the classic dungeon crawler Diablo 2, the debut of a new character class (but no release date) for Diablo 4, and a new expansion for the free-to-play card game Hearthstone.
“Part of what's always made BlizzCon fun is the community, and Blizzard put a lot of effort into making BlizzConline still feel like a community event,” said Elizabeth Harper, editorial director at Blizzard Watch, in an email to Ach5. “There was a virtual ‘March of the Murlocs' [infamous fish-people monsters from World of Warcraft] that included video clips and photos from fans around the world dressed up as murlocs. Things like that made it feel like we were all there even though we weren't.”
The 2021 Convention Circuit
Quarantine lockdowns and health concerns forced the international events industry to evolve in 2021. This is a bigger deal for the nerd community than a lot of fans realize. A big part of the yearly news cycle for games, comics, movies, and other pop culture is built around the convention circuit.
It's not just about the lost social opportunities; a big part of the video games ecosystem, from fan artists to development schedules to hands-on public demos, depended on the con scene. Without it, no one's quite sure what the landscape will end up looking like.
With a major player like BlizzCon switching to an online format, alongside other recent shows like the weeklong virtual Penny Arcade Expo last year, the con circuit is making up new rules as it goes. With virtual shows, event organizers are redefining what a convention even means. Expect that, even after the end of the pandemic, in-person events like BlizzCon will still have a significant virtual component.
They'll Be Out When They're Done
Two of the biggest upcoming Blizzard games, Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2, had a few announcements at BlizzCon, but neither got anywhere near a release date. Diablo 4 revealed a new playable class, the Rogue, who's making a triumphant return from the original Diablo. She can be played as a master of traps, an archer, or a highly-mobile melee fighter, much like Diablo 3's Demon Hunter.
Overwatch 2, by comparison, seems much further from launch. It was initially announced at the 2019 BlizzCon as a direct sequel to the original game, featuring more characters and some fundamental adjustments to its gameplay. While Blizzard did offer a lengthy behind-the-scenes virtual panel, including a long look at the new character Sojourn, most of what it showed about the game is still in active development and subject to change.
Blizzard did confirm some rumors by announcing Diablo II: Resurrected, a remake that updates the classic game's graphics to 2021 standards and does almost nothing else; you can even turn off the fancy 4K visuals and play it with the original 2000 look. Resurrected is planned for a release later this year on PC, PlayStation 4 & 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch.
The State of Play
"Part of what's always made BlizzCon fun is the community, and Blizzard put a lot of effort into making BlizzConline still feel like a community event."
The last couple of years have been tumultuous for Blizzard, marked by controversies, many old-guard developers' retirements or departures, and a lukewarm community response to projects like Battle for Azeroth and the Warcraft III remake. While Blizzard's in no danger of bankruptcy, due to popular games like World of Warcraft Classic, one of the big challenges for this year's BlizzCon was to show its fans and detractors that it knows where it's going.
"Change is always a little scary, a little worrisome. We knew exactly what to expect of old Blizzard, but we don't yet know what to expect from this Blizzard,” said Harper.
“But the old guard moving on is what allows new talent to move up and show off what they can do. We may not know their names yet, but that isn't a reason to believe that those people aren't there, ready to move these games forward.”