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    Gaming Giant Blizzard Returns to China, Sparking Joy — and Some Anger

    U.S.-based video game maker Blizzard Entertainment has announced a new deal to re-enter the Chinese market. But some gamers still haven’t forgiven the company for leaving in the first place.

    The U.S.-based video game giant Blizzard Entertainment has announced that it will return to China after a one-year absence, sparking an outpouring of joy — and some grumbling — among Chinese gamers.

    Blizzard Entertainment — the developer of massively popular video game series “World of Warcraft,” “Diablo,” and “Overwatch” — withdrew from China in January 2023 over a contract dispute with its Chinese partner, the tech giant NetEase.

    But the U.S. studio — whose parent company Activision Blizzard was acquired by Microsoft for $68.7 billion last year — announced via a post on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo on Wednesday that it has “reached a new cooperation agreement with NetEase.”

    The company added that its Chinese servers will begin operating again this summer, covering series including “World of Warcraft,” “Hearthstone,” “Overwatch,” “Diablo,” and “Starcraft.” In addition, NetEase Games and Microsoft have agreed to a deal to make new NetEase Games titles available on Xbox and other Microsoft platforms, according to the announcement.

    The return of Blizzard has generated a huge reaction in China, with a related hashtag becoming the top trending topic on Weibo, garnering over 300 million views as of Wednesday afternoon.

    Many gamers expressed delight at the company’s decision and the prospect of regaining access to its major titles. Before Blizzard exited China last year, “World of Warcraft” alone was estimated to have at least 3 million users in the country.

    However, Blizzard may not find it easy to win back all of its fans. Many Chinese gamers remain frustrated by the company’s decision to leave in the first place, while others lost access to their Chinese accounts on which they had racked up thousands of hours of gameplay.

    “Do you think it’s that easy to get me to play your games again?” read the highest upvoted comment under Blizzard’s announcement on Weibo.

    Blizzard did not disclose the precise reasons behind its decision to leave China last year, stating only that it had been unable to reach an agreement that was “consistent with Blizzard’s operating principles and commitments to players and employees.”

    Sources from NetEase told domestic media that the dispute centered on Blizzard’s demands for a higher share of the revenues from its titles in China. Under their 2019-2022 partnership agreement, the companies reportedly split net profits on Blizzard titles 50-50.

    The breakdown of the deal ended up having a significant impact on Chinese gamers. In addition to effectively locking Chinese gamers out of their accounts, Blizzard also banned Chinese players from participating in “Hearthstone” competitions. The 2023 Asian Games, held in the eastern city of Hangzhou, was forced to cancel its “Hearthstone” esports competition as a result.

    Many Chinese fans managed to continue playing Blizzard games via the company’s Japanese servers, but gamers told Sixth Tone it was a far from ideal experience. Even those who downloaded accelerators often experienced choppy connections.

    Plus, any Chinese gamer migrating to a different server had to create a new account and essentially start over from scratch. Blizzard has promised that users will be able to regain access to their old Chinese accounts once its titles become available in China once more.

    In reality, many expected that it was only a matter of time until Blizzard returned to China given that it is one of the company’s most important markets. In a 2021 earnings call, executives at Activision Blizzard named China among the firm’s largest overseas markets in terms of revenue.

    In January, reports circulated that the American gaming giant was contemplating a return to China and was eyeing potential partners. Sun Jing, a Chinese gaming industry researcher, told Sixth Tone that she wasn’t surprised to see NetEase and Blizzard agree to renew their cooperation.

    “The gaming industry is a harsh environment. User growth is not large, and their market share is shrinking slightly every year. Cooperating to open up the market was inevitable for both companies,” said Sun.

    Blizzard likely had little choice but to continue with NetEase, Sun added. In China, overseas studios must partner with a domestic company to get their games licensed.

    “Game companies have relatively fixed partners, and it would have been difficult for Blizzard to find a new partner,” said Sun.

    Minutes after Blizzard’s Wednesday announcement, NetEase posted on the Chinese social app WeChat that it was hiring for a series of roles related to the “World of Warcraft,” “Overwatch,” and “Hearthstone” franchises, including designers, developers, and operations executives.

    The Leihuo studio — NetEase’s first game studio, and famous for its user community — will be responsible for running the franchises, NetEase announced.

    Chinese gamers are just hoping that the companies’ new deal proves to be more stable than the last one. Several described the messy breakup of the previous partnership as “tortuous.”

    “We've been hearing about the dispute between the two companies for a long time — I just wish they could consider the players more,” said Wang Xiuping, a 24-year-old gamer who has accumulated more than 2,500 hours of playing time on “Overwatch.” “It’s tiring to play games amid such worries and concerns.”

    (Header image: IC)