The end of an era has come to China as Blizzard games including World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, Diablo 3, and Overwatch have been shut down in the country, with no return currently in sight. The shutdown was first announced in November 2022, when Blizzard and Chinese publisher NetEase were unable to reach a renewal agreement on their partnership, and then reaffirmed just a week ago. NetEase has been publishing Blizzard’s games in China for 14 years, a partnership that NetEase CEO William Ding said fell apart over “material differences on key terms.”
Specific reasons for the breakdown weren’t cited, but naturally, there were plenty of pointed fingers. In a November message on LinkedIn, NetEase president of global investments and partnerships Simon Zhu said “developers and gamers will have a whole new level understanding of how much damage a jerk can make” when the full story comes to light, while Blizzard more recently placed the blame on the shutdown squarely on the shoulders of NetEase.
The fact is that the shutdowns are a very big deal. There’s a massive audience for these games in China: Sky News says there are an estimated three million WoW players in China, and in 2019 Chinese Hearthstone pro-Liooon—real name Li Xiaomeng—became the first woman to win the Hearthstone Grandmasters Global Finals. The good news for gamers in China is that the situation may not be permanent. Blizzard has previously said that it’s looking for a “new partner” to handle its games in China, and a Blizzard China representative told The Guardian that the shutdown is not “the end,” but just a “temporary unhappy suspension.” Given the amount of money being left on the table, it is unlikely that Blizzard will let it slide for very long.
It’s also worth remembering that this situation isn’t unprecedented: Before NetEase, World of Warcraft in China was published by The9. The changeover to NetEase came amidst increased scrutiny of the game from Chinese authorities, which ultimately led to numerous changes and an extended closed beta test period that effectively closed the game for a few months. Interestingly, The9 is rumoured to be in talks with Microsoft about picking up Blizzard’s Chinese publishing rights again—presumably on the expectation that Microsoft will be able to complete its planned acquisition of Activision Blizzard.