Employees of Blizzard Entertainment always look forward to BlizzCon, the Irvine-based gaming company's annual event for fans. Although preparing for it takes weeks of frenzied work, it's a chance to debut games they've been toiling on, and the thousands of fans who pay more than $200 a ticket for entry treat anyone with an employee badge with reverence.
"BlizzCon is sort of like the Christmas of Blizzard," one staffer said.
Some were looking forward to this year's edition, to be held Friday and Saturday in Anaheim, more than usual as a much-needed respite after a punishing and anxious 12 months.
In October 2018, Mike Morhaime, the company's beloved founder, stepped down as president. BlizzCon 2018, falling a few weeks later, was greeted by fans and gaming critics as a letdown, with the major product release, the mobile game "Diablo Immortal," drawing jeers. Then, in February, came the heaviest blow yet: the layoff of roughly 800 people, or about 8% of the company's workforce. Coming after the company reported record-setting profits, bringing in $7.5 billion in revenue in 2018, it was a shock.
To some employees who made it through the past 12 months, this year's BlizzCon represented an opportunity for a do-over, a reset -- a "make-up baby," as the staffer put it. It could mark the end of a difficult era for Blizzard and the beginning of a promising new one.
Then everything got worse.
In early October, with Blizzcon less than a month away, esports player Blitzchung appeared on a Taiwanese broadcast for a post-match interview in a gas mask and goggles, and yelled in support of the pro-democracy protests roiling Hong Kong. As punishment, the company kicked him out of the tournament, revoked his $10,000 in winnings and banned him from "Hearthstone" esports for a year.
In response to the perceived curtailment of free expression by an American company with partial Chinese ownership, an army of gamers took to Reddit to howl their outrage and #BoycottBlizzard trended on Twitter. As the furor mounted, U.S. senators called out the company for abandoning free speech values and bowing to the Chinese government in exchange for a "quick buck."
Employees said they have fielded venomous backlash on social media and in emails and been confronted by passersby while wearing company apparel off Blizzard's campus. Now they are bracing for in-person protests as Blizzard ramps up security for BlizzCon, according to internal emails and accounts from three current employees and two former employees who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak on the matter and feared professional repercussions.
The staffer who compared BlizzCon to Christmas said the prospect of protests has "poisoned" anticipation for this year's event. "A lot of people that would've been happy and excited are now feeling dread that something's going to happen," he said. "You don't know if it's going to be people chanting outside. You don't know if it's going to be someone onstage. You don't know if it's going to be something dangerous that might actually hurt people."