The opening ceremony at BlizzCon 2017 was accompanied by all of the spectacle you might expect from a massive gaming convention: bright strobe lights, screaming crowds. In person, it was certainly impressive, but there was one quieter message during the proceedings that managed to outlast the glamour. President Mike Morhaime stood on stage, and after he talked up the record number of panels and attendees, he said something notable.
"No matter who we are, or where we’re from, we’re all here for the same reason. We have a shared love of games, and their story and characters. We’re here because of the relationships we’ve built and fostered through gaming. There are no strangers at BlizzCon, only friends you haven’t met yet.”
Morhaime’s statement was earnest, and it ran next to footage of Blizzard fans from all walks of life explaining their passion for the game. Those principles will set the stage for BlizzCon 2018, where Blizzard is looking to expand the convention. From the Virtual Ticket, which allows viewers to livestream panels and content, to a new section of the convention called the Inclusion Nexus, Blizzard is making a massive attempt to make BlizzCon accessible, inclusive, and fulfill that promise of a family reunion that is open to all.
Welcome to the Nexus
The Nexus is the standout inclusion to BlizzCon 2018 this year. This section of the convention can host 200 attendees at a time in an open-house format, and will be active throughout the entire convention. Blizzard employees and external speakers will be hosting talks that are unique to the Nexus; Blizzard staff will also be hosting trivia games, a graffiti wall, and opportunities for players to share their stories.
“These are individuals that are coming to tell their story, and none of them are on the other panels,” says Kelly Stevens, a Diversity and Inclusion Leader at Blizzard Entertainment. “Think of it like a TED talk. People can come and listen to a story related to that individual, related to diversity and inclusion in general, or at Blizzard. It’s something new that we’re looking forward to this year, the folks internally can’t wait to share their perspective with the Blizzard community.”
The speakers include members of the LGBT community, women, military veteran representatives, and people with disabilities. The Nexus is near an escalator and an elevator, and gender-neutral bathrooms will be available.
“Last year, we had a diversity meet-up,” says Stevens. “That was an initial step for us as an organization, to have open, casual conversations and be able to hear from our players first hand what’s important to them. We collected all of that feedback from that event and that helped shape what has become this year’s Inclusion Nexus.”
BlizzCon’s Inclusion Nexus looks to build structure for players to share their stories and relate to people like them, creating a space of connection in the chaos of the convention. “When people think of diversity, they think of age, gender, sexual preference, but there’s so much more to it,” says Stevens. “It’s you, at the core, you as an individual.”
Stevens and Blizzard are hoping that the Nexus continues to build on Blizzard’s diversity and inclusion efforts, by bringing players into a place where they can feel welcome and heard.
Outside of the Nexus, BlizzCon will be at standards “beyond ADA compliance," with quicker queues, wheelchair seating at stages, an accessibility kiosk, listening devices, and three sign language interpreters available on site.
BlizzCon may host tens of thousands of players, but Blizzard games reach tens of millions of players. The Virtual Ticket is becoming a backbone for Blizzard’s efforts to reach players who aren’t necessarily able to make it out to LA for the weekend.
“Blizzard’s a global company, we have people in a lot of countries — last year, our virtual ticket audience came from over 180 countries,” says Saralyn Smith, an Executive Producer at Blizzard. “Inclusivity and accessibility is very important to us; it’s a huge priority for Blizzard and BlizzCon. Our number one goal this year is making BlizzCon as welcoming to as many people and players in our community as possible.” That effort includes players who aren’t actually able to step foot in the convention center. “We’re bringing BlizzCon to our global playerbase.”
There will be full streams of all panels, of course, but Blizzard is looking to take it further. Users will be able to vote on topics and questions, respond to questions in panels, join in on Q&A with developers, and vote to influence the direction of events. The World of Warcraft Classic floor demo isn’t just on BlizzCon floors; it’s accessible to all Virtual Ticket holders, for a global online demo of convention content.
Of course, this virtual content will have pains taken to remain accessible. There’ll be closed captions and subtitles, including on archived content, for viewers who are hearing impaired. It’s an ambitious effort to build a digital parallel infrastructure that supplants the one access problem BlizzCon can never dodge: scale. If the Virtual Ticket works and continues to grow, being at home really might be the next best thing to being at BlizzCon.
Throughout my conversation with Smith and Stevens, both women came across as dedicated to the topic of diversity and inclusion. Whenever a topic becomes hotly discussed — or even controversial — in the industry, there’s always the concern that developers may pay the concept lip service without genuine investment. Stevens and Smith both dispelled that concern; it was clearly an issue close to their hearts.
Diversity is something that’s been showing up in Blizzard’s work as well in recent years. Overwatch is built top-to-bottom as an inclusive game, with a diverse cast from around the globe. Tracer was revealed as a lesbian character in the 2016 comic Reflections, and the three headline Warbringer characters for Battle for Azeroth are women. As Blizzard’s creative teams branch out and the company expands, that shows in their work. “Our creative teams get their inspiration from their own lives, life experiences, and travel,” says Smith.
“We’ve had employee counsels and think tanks [on diversity and inclusion] for several years now,” Smith continues, noting that the departments in Blizzard work in harmony towards these goals, as opposed to directly influencing the final products. “The LGBTQ one is our longest standing. We just try to live by our values. We’re a value driven company, our founders are still here, and those values have made it through multiple decades. It’s not trite. We bring those values up in meetings every week, and we think about that. We think about the reality of how complex it is to be in a global industry.
“It’s always been very top of mind for people,” agrees Stevens. Stevens is a more recent addition to Blizzard, but the groundwork for her role was built through internal groups at Blizzard. This will be her first BlizzCon. “It’s not about competing, it’s how do you make the biggest gaming industry, or the entertainment industry a better one? If we do something really well, what a great feeling if another company follows along in those steps. I certainly hope we are inspiring people to think about inclusions and what that means. That’s an honor.”
While Stevens has yet to attend a BlizzCon, she’s already confident that the Inclusion Nexus and similar measures matter. “I introduce myself to people on our campus, and when they find out what my role is, they are so excited,” she says. “People tell me that video games have changed their lives. I know someone who has an autistic child, who tells me that the social interaction in their online games has allowed their child to be connected to other people. I get to see what kind of impact these programs and initiatives have on people, and it’s the reason I continue to do my job.”
BlizzCon kicks off on Friday, Nov. 2, at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California. The BlizzCon Virtual Ticket is available for purchase and costs $49.99.