VIDEO: BlizzCon attendees largely said that they support the protests.
Early on Friday morning, a small group of protesters gathered around a fountain in front of BlizzCon’s main security checkpoint, some standing on rocks near the water to avoid blocking passage through the small square. A few convention employees stood facing the black-clad group, holding signs that said “Questions?” on long poles. They reminded me of Swiss Guards as they passively watched the protesters unpack boxes of t-shirts.
Not many had questions. The attendees already knew the score. Security is directly ahead. Protesters in Hong Kong demand more autonomy from mainland China. Backpacks should be open for inspection. Blizzard angered fans by punishing Hearthstone champ Blitzchung after he called for the 'liberation' of Hong Kong on an official stream. Professional video and audio equipment is prohibited. Blizzard is also in hot water for punishing the two casters who were present. Please, have your backpacks open before approaching security!
Throughout the two-day convention, the crowd of anti-China protesters waxed and waned, reaching its largest numbers (around 40 to 50, by my count) in the early afternoons. They handed out black shirts (“Mei With Hong Kong”), fliers, and stickers. Some attendees stopped and chatted with them, many walked by without turning their heads.
As the first day went on, signs reading “Down with CCP” and “Blizzard = China’s bitch” came out as early risers such as Charles Lam of the Los Angeles Hong Kong Forum were joined by louder gamers who chanted slogans (“gamers unite, human rights”) and promoted the free t-shirts with a megaphone. Hong Kong flags were waved. Winnie the Pooh costumes were worn. A circling truck with an LED display cheesily depicted the Chinese flag shattering the words “freedom” and “democracy.”
Such is the consequence of doing business with a communist country in sight of staunchly anti-communist Americans. But the fallout from Cold War 2: The Big Blizzard was minimal.
Peace, but not quiet
Though many protesters mimicked the Hong Kong aesthetic with face masks, gas masks, and helmets, I saw no conflict. The police on scene were mostly concerned with directing traffic, and numbered no more than usual for a big convention.
Inside, a kid shouted “free Hong Kong” during a World of Warcraft Q&A, and then was allowed to take the mic to repeat it. The panel awkwardly resumed.
Two Hearthstone developers I interviewed were visibly uncomfortable when I asked about J. Allen Brack's apology during the Opening Ceremony and if the punishments would stand. A PR representative told me they couldn't really say anything about it. I knew that, but I had to ask. (This was before we got a phone call with Brack.) Acknowledging that designers and artists aren't going to have corporate policy answers, I suggested we talk about something else, and the tension lifted. I suspect they went through that a few times.
Otherwise, though, the devs I spoke to were cheerful, and the attendees were having a good time. Fans met up with guildmates, posed in elaborate costumes, and wandered the halls in varying states of excitement, exhaustion, and sobriety. A few wore the t-shirts they’d picked up from the protesters. More carried giant bags full of merch shop collectibles.
While almost everyone I spoke to said they supported the protesters, that wasn't going to stop them from being excited about World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, Diablo 4, and Overwatch 2. Every fan in the convention center paid at least $229 to be there. For that price, it's possible to be mad and have fun at the same time.
By the middle of day one, the protest felt like part of the party—an attraction on the way in, with free t-shirts and all. One cosplayer who hadn’t seen the protesters exclaimed “are they here?” when I brought them up, and made plans to go check out the scene. She said she felt no disconnect between attending BlizzCon and supporting the protest. It's stuffy executives who make policy decisions, after all, not the game developers.
To most fans I spoke to, this year’s show was an improvement over last year’s, even with the Blitzchung situation in the background. The 2018 uproar over a Diablo mobile game seems quaint in comparison, but BlizzCon is judged by the announcements, not the chants outside.
By this time next year, Blitzchung will be allowed to compete in Hearthstone tournaments again, and the banned casters will be back on mic should they return after their six-month bans are up.
Will the protest happen again? It's possible. One protester told me that only a full reversal of the punishments would appease them, and that won't happen, Brack told us.
BlizzCon 2020 will also be another opportunity to play Diablo 4, though. I suspect the latter will draw the bigger crowd.