Last week, the popular video game Overwatch went offline in China. This comes after Chinese publisher NetEase turned down Activision Blizzard’s plea for a contract extension, endangering the careers of esports professionals competing in the Overwatch League.
To release video games in China, a company must first reach a licensing agreement with a Chinese publisher. Activision Blizzard and NetEase had such a partnership for fourteen years. But due to concerns over intellectual property rights and control of user data, NetEase has terminated their relationship with the American video game giant, Bloomberg reports.
Blizzard has a storied history in the world of video games, releasing immensely popular titles such as World of Warcraft, Diablo, and Overwatch. For the latter, they ventured into esports, or electronic sports. Similar to traditional sports, professional gamers play their favorite video games and compete for cash prizes and championship titles.
In 2017, Blizzard premiered the inaugural season of the Overwatch League (OWL), “an international esports league comprising 20 city-based teams and featuring the best Overwatch players in the world.”
Five of those teams are based in China. In fact, one of them, the Shanghai Dragons, is even owned by NetEase. Each team consists of up to twelve players. Since Overwatch is no longer playable in China, the careers of those who play from there are practically over.
As Overwatch servers shut down, Chinese team Chengdu Hunters tweeted “Goodbye and see you again.” The future is unknown, but “unless something changes, I feel like the esports scene will eventually fizzle out, and the vast majority of pro players will either switch to a different game or retire,” says Lionel Li, a prominent community figure.
Li runs Chengdu Hunters Facts, a Twitter account providing information about players and translations of their posts on Chinese website Weibo. He mentions rumors that “the Chinese teams will move to Korea and play there,” adding that “this is a likely solution and I don’t see anything stopping teams from doing this besides visa issues, but it’s still just a rumor.”
After learning about the situation, Li was devastated. He says “many fans are upset and disappointed. A lot of Chinese fans are really angry at Blizzard; they blame [them] for mishandling the agreement.”
The Chinese fandom stretches beyond the borders of its country. “I’ve always enjoyed watching the Chinese Overwatch scene, particularly seeing the Shanghai Dragons rise from its infamous and record-breaking 42-game losing streak, to being OWL Season 4 champions,” says Bailey Carroll, a long-time fan from the UK.
In 2022, there were eighteen Chinese players in OWL, third-most in terms of nationality after the US and South Korea. The loss of teams like Chengdu Hunters, one of Carroll’s favorites, famous for their unconventional, chaotic and fast play-style, will definitely be felt.
Carroll thinks losing the Chinese region is the biggest disaster in the league’s history: “This is a very worrying time to be an OWL fan as everyone’s faith in the league was already dwindling due to other large issues, and I worry this could be the final nail in the coffin for OWL.”
Activision Blizzard recently announced the countries that will be competing in its Overwatch World Cup, an event China has historically done very well in. Fans will likely be disappointed not to see them compete again this year.
As Activision Blizzard continues looking for a partnership opportunity in China, fans can only hope that Chinese esports will one day return.
The Groningen Observer reached out to Activision Blizzard, but they did not get back to us.