Lately I’ve wondered – what does it mean to be a community? Is it a group of people living within close proximity helping one another, sharing similar belief systems, values, morals and goals? Traditionally I’d say yes. But recently I was exposed to a different kind of community which seems to encapsulate all of the previously mentioned traits, save one: proximity.
Enter BlizzCon, an annual gathering of 26,000 gaming enthusiasts who participate in a two-day, all-out game-fest hosted by Blizzard Entertainment. Blizzard produces the games World of Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo III, Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone and Overwatch. Their gaming community exceeds 42 million active users worldwide. Thousands more purchased “virtual” tickets and attended online.
BlizzCon is the one event players of the games anticipate with eager delight every year. This year’s BlizzCon marked the 10th iteration of the event and the 25th anniversary of the company. Gamers come from all over the globe – Argentina, Korea, Japan, England, South Africa, Russia and Europe to hear what news is announced in regards to their favorite games and to meet game developers, audio designers, Blizzard Execs, surprise guests, and to see some of their favorite eSports teams compete head to head in dazzling, high-tech arenas. Another plus of attending is to meet members of their online teams (in some cases called a Guild). I’ll talk more about the eSports phenomenon a little later.
I’m going to take a pause here to say that some of what I write after this point may be Greek to you, dear Reader, as it was to me prior to attending. Thankfully I have three experts (who happen to be my sons) that have willingly guided me through it all, showing me the ropes as it were and putting me through a “Blizzard Boot Camp” at my house so their dear old dad doesn’t embarrass them and at the very least gives the appearance of being kinda cool and maybe a little hip. My exploits in Blizzard Boot Camp can be viewed on my son’s YouTube page at:
Laugh if you will (and I hope you do), because we had a blast making the videos.
Is it still hip to say “hip”? Ugh, I’m old.
I will admit up front that I am not a gamer and I have never been much of one. I did play some early PC games like Wolfenstein, Doom, Duke Nukem and Myst. It’s not that I don’t appreciate games, I do. But for the majority of my adult life I’ve worked in the IT industry supporting primarily Windows servers for Fortune 100 companies and at the end of my day the last thing I wanted to do was stare at a computer monitor any longer than I had to.
When console games like Halo became more popular, I attempted to play the games with my sons only to find that A) their skills and reaction time were far superior to my own, and B) the controllers were too confusing and cumbersome for this fat-fingered old guy. Eventually I became mere cannon fodder and at times a target standing in the middle of a crumbling neighborhood so my kids could get sniper practice.
(Sigh…) Can’t I just play some Galaga, man?
Everything covered at this year’s BlizzCon is out on the Internet, particularly YouTube, so I won’t get into those details here. What I’d started to talk about at the top of this article was community, so let’s get back to that.
During the opening and closing ceremonies, the presenters – executives and founders Mike Morhaime and Frank Pearce – recognized they would not have been around for 25 years without them. Unlike many corporations today who place their executives and shareholders before employees, Blizzard elevates their user community to the top of their business model.
When they addressed their fans, they affectionately used the term “community” and were passionate about saying so over and over – with the fans cheering loudly each time – everyone feeling as they belonged to something much larger and more special than themselves. Occasionally when they’d use the word, I’d see other attendees glance around and give each other the “yeah” nod, fist bump or a high-five.
As the event progressed and I spent time with my sons going from event to event within the cavernous Anaheim Convention Center, I witnessed what may possibly have been the best definition of community. All around me, lovers of Blizzard games chatted excitedly among each other – many of them complete strangers – about the new characters within the games, or some other exciting content that had been revealed. At times I saw groups of six or more talking to each other all at once, but still somehow managing to make sense to each other.
I myself struck up a conversation with a young, tattooed, purple-haired woman about the newly announced character in Diablo III called the Necromancer. She was giddy with excitement about this new addition and shared with me some of her diabolical plans to use the Necromancer to destroy her enemies. She shared that her and her boyfriend met online playing Warcraft and had been together for several years now. By sheer happenstance they had discovered they lived in the same city after playing in the same Guild for a considerable time. (She did jokingly insult her beau calling him a plebe for playing the faction called The Horde while she was deeply loyal to The Alliance. If that last statement makes no sense to you, see the recent movie “Warcraft”.)
Two of my sons play the Blizzard game World of Warcraft and participate in teams called Guilds. Each Wednesday and Sunday night they and their teammates from across the country collectively log in to the game and perform raids and missions trying to complete specific game scenarios Blizzard has created where they’re able to gather weapons, spells, health and other items. Each member of the team performs a specific task such as tanking, damage dealing or healing. Prior to this BlizzCon neither of my sons had met any of their Guild members in person; only chatted with them online. Yet on day two the convention, my sons got to meet the some of their Guild and take a photo outside the convention center with 40-foot-tall banners of the Blizzard games emblazoned in the background .
I watched from a distance as they chatted with one another, excitement in their eyes, on their faces, and in their hand gestures, indicating they were discussing raids, strategies and just plain getting to know one another. They were in an entirely different realm, communicating in a common language about worlds that exist only in cyberspace. I imagined a cartoon thought cloud connecting them with scenes of characters battling in faraway exotic lands like a small, self-contained movie only they could see.
Pretty darn amazing if you ask me.
What struck me as most interesting was that even with the impending Presidential election just days away, I never heard the election mentioned once.
Not a single time.
No one cared.
There were no riots. There were no insults (other than a passing shout from the crowd of “Horde scum!”). Here there was no race, no color, no genderism, no sexism, no bigotry, no name calling, no judgement, and no investigations.
And no hate.
Why? Because this is BlizzCon. The problems and issues of the outside world have no place here and can find no purchase. In here, the Outside World’s magic is very weak indeed.
To cite on a well-known aphorism – everybody just got along. What a refreshing and unique concept, right?
One of the most exciting moments for me was attending the World Championship for the game Starcraft with my son Tanner (who goes by the name Siphrex online).
In this final match ByuN was facing Dark, both players from South Korea (most of the best players come from South Korea. In fact, any player getting into the championship bracket that isn’t Korean is called a “foreigner”). ByuN was clearly the crowd favorite although Dark was the sure bet as he’d been virtually unstoppable, easily dispatching his adversaries as he bullied his way through the bracket. The two rivals played a best of 7 set with ByuN playing as Terran (human) and Dark as Zerg (I don’t even know how to explain the Zerg, so just Google it). Each player was behind glass on a magnificent stage made from ultra-high definition screens that showed the map of the “world” they were currently playing and the strategies they used to try and win. The excitement of the crowd was palpable; electric. With announcers calling out the plays and theme music booming in the background, it was truly a sight to behold. Between matches the TV screens cut away to game analysts on a separate stage that dissected and commented on the match not unlike an NFL halftime show. Ten thousand Starcraft fans shouting and rooting for their favorite player was as exciting as any rock concert I’d ever been to. And I’ve seen some great concerts, folks.
Additionally, seeing my son Tanner and his friends watch the tournament and react with the crowd is something I’ll never forget. It was the ability to experience the contest in a dual state as first person and also vicariously through them. As the games between ByuN and Dark unfolded, Tanner and his friends would cheer when ByuN would make a decisive move against one of Dark’s bases and wince when Dark would retaliate. The crowd answered in kind with oooh’s and cheers and occasionally jeers.
Fortunately, having been through Blizzard Boot Camp, the terminology, methods and maneuvers used by the players were not a complete mystery to me. A number of times I knew exactly what was going on which made the competition even more thrilling.
In the end, ByuN was triumphant and became the 2016 Starcraft World Champion. ByuN sprinted down two flights of stairs to center stage in what seemed like three bounding steps to be awarded the trophy. Via an interpreter he relayed his joy at winning and thanked the crowd for rooting for him. He also congratulated Dark for being such a worthy opponent. The level of gratitude and sportsmanship was impressive. I left the arena almost euphoric, but definitely more appreciative of how exciting eSports can be.
The topic I overheard the most was the announcement of creating professional eSports teams for the Blizzard game “Overwatch”. What this means is that Blizzard plans to create teams in cities across the U.S. (for starters) that mimic the structures of Major League Baseball, NFL, and the NBA where players could be drafted and paid for playing Overwatch competitively. Players would be able to eventually be traded and even opt for free agency. With the rise in popularity of these eSports on the Internet, Blizzard hopes to enlist cable TV channels such as ESPN to broadcast the tournaments. This notion sparked quite excitement across the convention hall as it could set precedence for other Blizzard games to have the same type of eSport structure in the future. (For a small taste of this, get on YouTube and search for “Heroes of the Dorm 2016”.)
Now dear Reader, before you laugh at the notion of someone sitting on their couch watching young kids playing a video game on high-end gaming PC’s, ask yourself this question:
“Have I ever sat at home or in a bar somewhere and watched Championship Poker for more than 30 minutes?” If the answer to that is yes, then you now understand the potential appeal for gamers to watch their favorite teams compete.
Also , dear Reader, if you think video games that deal in dragons, castles, aliens, epic heroes, wizards and elves aren’t “real sports” but you look forward to putting together your Fantasy Football league every August, you’re really just doing the exact same thing as the gaming community. The difference is you’re limited to a 5-month football season. These folks can do their thing 24/7/365.
Besides, what community doesn’t rally behind its local heroes and its teams?
I think Mike Morhaime and Frank Pearce have hit the nail on the head with their followers. They’re not just fans; they’re not just an invoice or an annual or monthly subscription to an online product. And they’re definitely not just ticket sales to an annual event.
They’re family. They’re friends and competitors and game enthusiasts who enjoy being part of something that is significantly greater than the sum of its parts. Each member of this community owns a piece of the Blizzard universe and is eager to share it with each other without hesitation. Members of the Blizzard family are fiercely loyal to their games, their race, clan or Guild yet still offer help to “noobs” like me who are just getting their first taste of this incredible realm of fantasy and action.
So we have millions of people across the globe sharing a common cause, a common belief system, desire for healthy competition, common values and a strong sense of morality?
Sounds a lot like a community to me. The outside world sure could learn something from BlizzCon.
For the Alliance!
p.s. – for a brief look into BlizzCon 2016, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdqnL2TR4I8