Tonight’s keynote for BlizzConline, Blizzard’s virtual showcase, was a tepid hour of previously leaked reveals for World of Warcraft and Diablo, some Hearthstone news, a passing mention of Diablo Immortal, and no Overwatch 2. As we’re fond of saying these days, it could have been an email.
To be clear: I get it. 2020 was an impossible year for everyone. It’s not easy for most of us to get through our individual days, much less make some video games and then put on a two-day virtual event about them. I wouldn’t expect Blizzard to have a ton of new and exciting stuff to show, and what its teams presented clearly took a lot of work that must have been done under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. That Blizzard President J. Allen Brack and the rest of the presenters managed to put on entire outfits appropriate for wearing outdoors is an achievement far greater than any I’ve attained this week.
Still, the keynote felt disappointing. Making these presentations in an empty room, one that’s usually full of excited fans, felt awkward to watch. The week’s leaks might’ve taken some of the air out of announcements, but even the announcements themselves were sparse and flat. Ending things with Metallica valiantly thrashing around in what looked like an expensive rec room is a nice throwback, but grasping at normalcy just made the whole thing feel less normal to me. I’m admittedly not much of a Blizzard fan, but I was really hoping for something to be excited about. Instead of being the brief reprieve I’d hoped for, I just felt kinda sad.
Compare tonight’s keynote to Nintendo’s surprise Direct earlier this week, which was jammed with announcements. They weren’t all blockbusters, but it was an energizing event. Nintendo also had its standard pre-recorded video format to lean on: The Direct looked like a regular Direct, despite the mention of covid in a title card at the beginning. As a result, it felt like something clearly affected by the pandemic but not so much battered by it. It works in non-pandemic times, and it worked this week too. Given its storied history as a live event, a BlizzCon in 2021 faces a tougher challenge.
I get wanting to have BlizzConline, especially after cancelling last year’s. But in his opening speech, Brack said, “So...this is pretty weird” as he gestured to the empty proscenium. And it is weird! Everything is weird now! Maybe we can just stop “this is fine”-ing everything, the drumbeat that’s underscored America’s entire pandemic response to catastrophic effect. Maybe we can all just give each other a break and not have to carry the burden of normalcy around, in big and small ways, all the damn time.
The rest of the weekend’s BlizzCon lineup has panels, Q&As, and community showcases. I earnestly hope they’ll give the event some semblance of community in a year when we all feel so on our own. It feels like a lovely thing to try to offer fans, despite the challenges, and I’m rooting for it to feel good for presenters and attendees alike. But I can’t shake my own fatigue, one tonight’s keynote only exacerbated. It’s strange to live in a year that feels both so jam-packed and so boring, when so many world-changing things have happened but they all feel like they’ve taken place on my couch. “Nothing about the last year has been usual,” Brack said. I appreciate him admitting it.