2019 has so far been a tumultuous year for two of the gaming industry’s biggest players, Riot Games and Activision-Blizzard. Their situations are similar in many ways, they were both beloved by their communities, they both faced major controversies, and now both companies have announced their huge plans to shake up the online gaming world in the coming years. These two giants have been compared and contrasted consistently over the years by the media and others, and now it seems that the pair will be major rivals for the hearts of gamers in the near future.
Riot Games faced major public backlash over the course of the past year due to a slew of sexism and sexual abuse scandals emerging from the company. As originally reported by Kotaku, several female employees at Riot felt they were treated unfairly when it came to salary, promotions and the acknowledgement of their ideas. Gender discrimination was purportedly rampant at Riot Games. Worse still was the reported sexual abuse occurring at Riot, such as leadership passing around lists of which female employees they would most like to sleep with and official work emails being used to discuss sex with co-workers. Company COO Scott Gelb was temporarily suspended from his post after it was revealed that he regularly flicked the testicles and farted in the faces of his co-workers as a practical joke. In August of this year, a class-action lawsuit against Riot was settled but only after significant media attention and a public walkout by some of the company’s employees.
Blizzard, on the other hand, faced enormous community backlash over their decision to ban Hong Kong professional “Hearthstone” player Ng Wai “Blitzchung” Chung from official competition after he voiced his support for the Hong Kong protestors on an official Blizzard stream. The backlash was so intense that a bi-partisan letter was sent by the U.S Congress to the company criticising their decision. Many consumers of Blizzard products also decided to publicly delete their accounts in protest of the company’s actions. Blizzard would eventually reduce the severity of Blitzchung’s punishment, though they maintained their weak overall stance that politics suddenly have no place on their streams. It’s clear that both companies needed to do something exciting to win back and energise their communities. And they did.
On October 27th 2019, Riot’s sole creation “League of Legends” turned ten years old and the company planned a blockbuster celebration for its community. The 10th-anniversary “Riot Pls” live stream revealed an abundance of new projects that Riot Game(s) has been cooking up. First, their tactical auto-battler “Teamfight Tactics” which is accessible through the League of Legends client will be coming to mobile in the near future. Teamfight Tactics isn’t the only game going mobile, however. “League of Legends: Wild Rift” is Riot’s take on a mobile version of League, it’s been built from the ground up to more effectively bring the MOBA experience to mobile devices. By all accounts, Wild Rift is an incredibly smooth experience.
Eager to justify the ‘s’ in their company name, Riot also teased new games that are in various stages of development. “Legends of Runterra” is Riot’s take on a competitive card game, deck-building and creative combos are an integral part of the gameplay. This is also interesting as it’s the first time Riot has stepped into direct competition with Blizzard of their own accord, Blizzard currently dominates the competitive card-game scene with their game Hearthstone and Legends of Runterra threatens to upset that balance. What’s especially telling of Riot’s intentions is the promotional deals for the game which they entered into with various popular Hearthstone streamers such as Kripparian and DisguisedToast. Creating a direct competitor to a game and then employing that game’s most popular influencers to promote it is the game development equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet.
Riot wasn’t finished entering Blizzard’s territory, yet. Riot describes “Project A” (working title) as a “stylish, competitive, character-based shooter”. Sound familiar? Project A seems to be in the same vein as Blizzard’s “Overwatch” but with a less quirky vibe. Unlike Legends of Runterra, Project A is only in its early stages of development so’ll have to wait and see if Riot’s shooter can compete with Blizzard’s cash cow. Throughout the course of the live stream, Riot also teased other projects which they didn’t go into detail about. These include a 2D fighting game featuring League of Legends characters, a top-down adventure game which seemed to feature the League of Legends character Blitzcrank (people have called it “Diablo-esque”, another step into Blizzard’s ball park) and “League of Legends: Esports Manager”, Riot’s take on a sports simulator in the League of Legends esports scene. On top of these exciting projects, Riot also released a Netflix documentary called “League of Legends: Origins” which details the rise in popularity of the game and are working on a fully animated show set in the League of Legends universe called “Arcane”.
With Riot teasing these exciting new games and Blizzard embroiled in controversy, many believed that Riot had finally toppled the older company off the podium. Blizzard needed to respond quickly to keep up and the perfect opportunity presented itself on the weekend of November 1st when the annual company convention Blizzcon would be taking place. At the event, company president J. Allen Brack addressed the Blitzchung situation and admitted that Blizzard had mishandled the situation. However, he didn’t reverse the ban and didn’t really say anything meaningful to fix the problem. Clearly, Blizzard wasn’t going to budge on the Hong Kong protests so they had to capture the minds and hearts of their community the old-fashioned way, through video games.
To kick things off, Blizzard fell back on their bread-and-butter, a new “World of Warcraft” expansion. As the cinematic for the new “Shadowlands” expansion played, long-time players of World of Warcraft were energised once more. Though it’s a cynical view of humanity, new content goes a long way to mute protest and Blizzard were fortunate that they had enough content developed to announce Shadowlands on the heels of the Blitzchung controversy. Hearthstone is also getting updated, it’s new expansion “Descent of Dragons” seeks to freshen the game’s meta and keep players coming back (and Blizzard will be hoping it keeps them away from Legends of Runterra).
In a strange move, Blizzard announced “Overwatch 2” with a flashy cinematic trailer featuring many of the universe’s characters. With a young and successful esports scene and a respectable player base, it’s a questionable move to upset this balance by announcing a sequel. Overwatch 2 will have crossplay with Overwatch and cosmetic items earned in Overwatch will carry over to its sequel. This means that people who buy Overwatch 2 are essentially just getting a campaign mode to play. This could have easily been introduced to the original game via a paid expansion or through a similar mechanism. At the moment, Overwatch 2 feels like a forced cash grab but as development continues the game may prove more robust than it currently appears.
The biggest announcement coming from Blizzcon was “Diablo IV”. Blizzard’s iconic adventure RPG is getting another instalment and fans of the series are certainly excited. Blizzard has promised a non-linear campaign which will feature five powerful classes the player can play as. With updates and sequels to many of its most popular series, Blizzard has sent the message that they won’t lie down as Riot Games seeks to dominate the market. The company is over double the age of Riot and has navigated controversial waters before, signs seem to suggest that Blizzard will be able to overcome this blip in their history and will remain a major force in the gaming industry in the future.
Riot and Blizzard both experience major controversy this year, and their communities have not forgotten. Both companies were up until recently beloved in the minds of their fans but their missteps have evaporated much of that goodwill. However, it seems now that both Blizzard and Riot are doing their best to win back the minds and hearts of their players with new and exciting projects. In the process, they are also battling for supremacy over one another and the online gaming scene in general. Only time will tell how these projects will fare, and which one of Blizzard and Riot will reign supreme at the end of the day.