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Annual gaming convention BlizzCon typically hosts a rowdy 40,000 people at the Anaheim Convention Center. Not this year.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, BlizzCon has morphed into BlizzConline, a two-day virtual event that will take place Feb. 19-20.
“There certainly was a pivot that we don’t have the huge stages at BlizzCon with a lot of people sitting in front of us, but creating a show that was also consumable online is something we felt like we had a lot of experience with,” says BlizzCon executive producer Saralyn Smith, explaining that the company behind the event, Activision’s Blizzard Entertainment, has been broadcasting the events that take place at BlizzCon for years.
The event is free for viewers and participants, and will include cosplay and digital storytelling segments, among numerous other activities. “We’re localizing select content in up to 12 languages, so we really hope we can get a very broad reach as we’re focusing totally on the online audience,” says Smith.
Ultimately, the goal is to capture the most important elements of BlizzCon, which Smith explains is known for including “the latest and greatest news about Blizzard’s games.” The re-imagined event will also have emphasis on “making a moment” for the whole gaming community by giving gamers a platform to share their talents.
“We were watching very carefully what SAG has been doing up in Hollywood for different productions,” Smith says of transforming the traditional convention into a digital celebration. This meant that anyone who came to the Blizzard campus or was sent to a local studio to tape segments for the event had to undergo two COVID-19 tests ahead of time, as well as follow “rigorous zoning protocols.” Some segments that were initially planned to be shot on campus were later adapted so that they involved “no interactions with other humans,” Smith says.
“Community is at the core of Blizzard games and we really like to put players first as a mentality and I hope that BlizzCon also supports that,” she adds. “We really think about building the show with them and so the community showcase is basically our translation of what otherwise at traditional BlizzCon is community night, and this is a time for cosplay contests and also exhibition, for people that don’t want to compete but really love the craft of cosplay.”
A lot of the production processes are similar to that of producing an in-person show, Smith says, explaining that event organizers had the “added complexity” of needing to figure out where certain segments could be filmed since they didn’t have access to the Anaheim Convention Center.
Smith and her team also had to get creative about how to program the event without in-person attendees. “We know we have the Blizzard campus and we thought we could do some segments at a local studio — these are environments that we knew we could control and have pretty rigorous COVID safety protocols — but everything was dependent on what was happening in Orange County at the time of restrictions.” she says.
To produce the event, Blizzard sent broadcast kits to developers’ homes so that they could set up remotely. Sometimes that created minor problems. “We had to re-film a handful of times,” says Smith. “There were lessons there. You have someone that maybe isn’t a technical expert in setting everything up, or they take a break and the mic doesn’t get turned back on and we would lose all the audio, so we had to learn some of that.”
Though COVID-19 has forced most employees to work remotely, Smith says that the gaming industry has a leg up in that environment. “I do feel like, because a lot of us are gamers, it maybe wasn’t as disruptive as for some other folks in different industries,” she says. “We’re all pretty tech savvy — we’re missing the water cooler talk and some of the face-to-face stuff, but other than that I’m still optimistic we’re hitting all of our timelines as we laid them out.”
BlizzConline will kick off with an opening ceremony. Then, on the second day, it will host a Q&A where attendees can have their questions answered. The event website will feature additional content like downloadable Zoom backgrounds or cooking recipes inspired by the various World of Warcraft games. “You’ll see a mix at the show; there’s a little bit on campus, a little bit on mobile studios, and then quite a bit where we’re just tapping in and seeing behind the curtain of Blizzard developers,” Smith says.
The event coincides with the 30th anniversary of Blizzard on Feb. 8. “We’re hoping that a lot of the celebrations culminate at our show, and we do have some features with original employees from 30 years ago,” she says.
As Smith looks toward the event’s next 30 years, she says that the intent is to keep reaching more people: “We have large, truly global communities, and how could we have more of them experiencing BlizzCon in some way? So maybe BlizzConline is a big part of how we keep achieving that.”
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