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How Can Blizzard Repeat the Success of 2016 Again Next Year?

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With entertainment, esports, and console gaming, Blizzard is casting a wide next in 2017, but that doesn't mean the company lacks focus.

While Blizzard had big announcements for almost all its games at Blizzcon 2016 (from a new character for Overwatch to a new expansion for Hearthstone), it's how the company is set up for 2017 and beyond that's most interesting.

To get a "big picture" view of how Blizzard has tackled this year and how they're taking those learnings into the next, we talked with Gio Hunt at the show, Blizzard's EVP of corporate operations. Read our full interview below.

GameSpot: The thing that's most obvious is from BlizzCon this year is that there's a huge well of things to draw from; Blizzard seems to touch on a little bit of almost every kind of game and every kind of esport. How has Blizzard set itself up to be in this position, and how is that affecting what you guys are doing going into 2017?

Gio Hunt: The wonderful thing about how Blizzard has evolved over the years speaks exactly to what you're describing. If you look five years back at what Blizzard was then compared to today, there's been a lot of transformation. We kind of were a company that was...I hesitate to say it this way because it's not exactly true, but a one-game-a-time company. Each year we'd have one big launch; this year it would be World of Warcraft and then next year it would be Diablo and the year after that it would be a Starcraft thing or whatever.

That's changed a lot for us, because now we have six live games in production spanning four different game universes and they're always on. We stopped using the expression "go to market" because we're almost always in market with these games now. The ongoing support and nurturing of those franchises over time is a really big difference from where we were just even, say, five-ish years ago.

Gio Hunt
Gio Hunt

These are huge games with huge audiences and it takes a substantial amount of resource just to engage with the community, support the community, and nurture and create new content for all these games. That's been a big transformation in the way we operate, what we do, and even how we think about ourselves.

The other really big transformation that we've made just, again, using a five-year time frame, is we're no longer just a PC game company anymore. We now publish our games on PC--we're still predominantly PC--but now two of our major titles, Diablo and Overwatch, are on console and Hearthstone is on mobile. And we have a bunch of other things that we're incubating and thinking about. We don't think of ourselves as a PC-game-only company anymore. That, of course, doesn't even bring into account all of the esports we're doing. And we had the Warcraft movie this year. We have other aspirations to bring some of our universes to either the big screen or a small screen type of thing. There's a lot going on.

Console gaming in particular has continued to be really strong. Sony has just been a dominant force, and Microsoft is making a strong comeback. When you look at Blizzard projects, is it ever a mandate, using Overwatch as an example, where you say, "We need this to be a multi-platform project." Or do you let the teams decide what platform is the best fit for their individual projects?

It's more the latter by far. It's not that we ignore the commercial reality of the other platforms, but we at Blizzard always approach this from a gameplay-first perspective. What that means is we look to the development teams to be artists and artisans in terms of how they approach creating great gameplay experiences. And on the commercial side of the business, we almost look to them to decide where they want these experiences to live. That doesn't mean we don't ask questions, like "Hey, do you think this would work on console also?" Or, "Do you think this could be a mobile experience?" But it's the game team that thinks about where they think the gaming experience that they're creating would be most enriched and most come to life for the player. That's how we make the decisions. It's not guys with spreadsheets.

The other big thing you mentioned is entertainment. The Warcraft movie is the most successful video game movie of all time now. How does entertainment fit into that overall portfolio? Are you ever afraid of stretching things too thin?

I think just the opposite happens. It doesn't stretch it thin. What it does is all of these different expressions of the franchise tend to reinforce one another. You look at the model of other big franchise-driven companies, like Disney for example. If you take Frozen, that's expressed in lots of different ways, whether it be merch, books, movies. There's a lot of different ways to do that. You have to be select and do them all in a high-quality way, but if you do these multiple expressions of a franchise in a quality way, they tend to reinforce each other too. Esports falls right into that, by the way, as well. That's also an expression of the franchise.

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You take some of our vibrant franchises, like an Overwatch, and you can easily see that if we were to do a movie or if we were to do a TV series around Overwatch, that would only reinforce the esport, which reinforces the game, which reinforces the movie or the TV series. Just to be clear, we have nothing to announce about that right now, but we think of all of these franchises as living franchises, living universes that can be expressed in all these different forms of expression. If we do that right, we'll only just reinforce all the other forms of expression.

Especially on that esports vibe. I don't think there's another developer or publisher that literally has every game they put out also have something that latches onto the esports side. Hearthstone isn't even something I would have thought could be an esport. It works pretty well though, doesn't it?

Where do you see esports going from here? Technology is going to change and games in particular have waxing and waning periods. Is Blizzard prepared for that?

Let me specifically highlight the Overwatch league, because I think that showcases at least one of the things that we're thinking about in esports, which is that we want to create a model for esports that is accessible and sustainable. Where the ecosystem of all the participants in that esport can be ensured a degree of stability in what they're doing. That players can have guaranteed minimum salaries and be on teams that have a guaranteed spot in the league. That there's no chance of being relegated, and that team owners can have an understanding of what the ecosystem can bring to them. That sponsors can know who they can sponsor and that those teams or those players won't disappear overnight.

I think it's been one of the challenges, more broadly bespoke for esports, is that it's been a little bit chaotic all over the place, lots of different teams, lots of different players, and it's changed very, very quickly. With the Overwatch League, we're really trying to create a little more structure, a little bit more stability, and also make it more accessible for people to get involved. We feel that with the amount of interest in esports, the amount of participation in esports, and with our commitment to the community, it's almost an obligation that we take this next step and take esports to this level, to ensure that kind of stability within the ecosystem for everybody involved, whether that be the athletes or the team owners or the sponsors or the broadcasters or whomever.

I know it's just been announced, but has there a lot of regulation and the like that you guys have come up against from an administrative level yet?

I would say what we're trying to do as we've envisioned this is take a lot of our leverage off a lot of the learnings and the know-how and experience that exists within the traditional sports world. We've either engaged with or hired folks from traditional sports to help us think through how do we do this at scale for an esport. Esports aren't exactly the same as traditional sports, but there is a lot in common between competitive play and event based things and broadcasts and the needs of the athletes involved. We're leveraging as much as we can from traditional sports to help inform what we do in esports.

A few years ago when Activision and Blizzard merged, there was a lot of trepidation from the community about what that would mean for Blizzard. But I think the past couple years have proven that Blizzard has maintained its own very unique culture and community and games. How has Blizzard accomplished that?

I think we should give a lot of credit to the folks at Activision Blizzard, our parent company, who have recognized from the beginning that Activision publishing, our sister company, and Blizzard Entertainment are different. We have different cultures. We have slightly different audiences that we speak to. Activision is principally a console audience and we're principally a PC audience, although we're now multi-platform too. Of course now with the addition of King into our corporate family, we have yet a third different culture. I think a lot of credit should be given to Bobby and Thomas Tippl and the rest of the folks at Activision Blizzard for recognizing that, in order to ensure that all of the divisions continue to operate in a good way and continue to produce great quality titles, it's important to not dilute the culture that got them there in the first place.

There's also still lots of cooperation as among all the divisions too, and we're always exploring how we, Blizzard, can work better with King or with Activision Publishing, or with our new AB film and studios division, or with MLG and other sister divisions. There's lots of great opportunity for collaboration among all the divisions, and we're always talking about those things and always looking for opportunities to collaborate, but a lot of credit should be given to our corporate parent for understanding that in order to collaborate well, we have to have a sense of our own cultural identity and that's part of the magic that got Blizzard to where it is over 25 years.

I think a big change this, something that got announced before this year's BlizzCon, was Chris Metzen leaving. IN some ways, he's been the voice of the company for so many years. But this year Blizzard is also bringing back co-founder Allen Adham. How did that process come about? And were those related at all?

Completely unrelated things that just happened to happen in the same year, and honestly even about the same time, which is crazy the way the world works. We're all very sad to see Chris take some time off and step away from the company. Chris has been so awesome for the company for so many years and such a vocal presence and spokesperson for the company. He's, by the way, a totally awesome dude and a great guy, and I miss him every day when he's not on campus. We carry on; we're carrying the flag. Blizzard Entertainment and everything that we stand for is bigger than any particular individual at the company, and we still have a lot of the original founders, both Mike and Frank are still here after 25 years.

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It was completely serendipitous in the best possible way that Allen decided he wanted to come off the bench and get back into gaming after a pretty long break. They were completely unrelated and it's awesome to have Allen back. I think he's doing a great job focusing on some of these newer incubations that we're exploring. I'm sad to see Chris go, but there's a lot of great people behind Chris who have worked at the company for a long time and are picking up the flag and carrying it forward. We're in a good place. I miss him, I miss him every day, but we're marching on. The mission continues.

For you, what is the mission for Blizzard? What do you guys want to accomplish by the next big milestone anniversary?

I've been at the company for three years, so I don't have the same type of personal legacy and history that some of the other folks on the executive team like Mike and Frank do. So for me, I've played these games for the longest time, and it's a real pleasure and joy for me to be part of this company now. But I'm really focused on the future and what we're going to be doing over the next 25 years. It's like "Yay, yes, for the past 25 years," but the next 25 years have to be even bigger and better.

We think a lot about creating these great, epic video game experiences. Not just the video games themselves, but it's all the experiences around the video game too. They all have to be epic, and they all have to be great. That includes not just the games, which we now have six live games in production and four unbelievably deep and beautiful universes to plumb from as we create these new video game ideas and video game experiences, but it's the games themselves. Particularly in our competitive games, the esports around those games, and then it is all these other forms of expression. All of that together creates this great sort of entertainment enterprise that can touch people in very interesting ways.

One of the things, at least for me, that threads it all together is the opportunity to use these video game experiences to bring people closer together. One of the great things about Blizzard games is they all have a social element to them. It's great to play video games by yourself. All of our games have some kind of solo mode too. I like playing games sometimes by myself, but I also really love playing video games either with my friends or my family or making friends with sometimes the strangers that I end up playing with. That's a beautiful thing when you're not just creating great video game experiences, you're creating great human and human interaction experiences.

In all of our games and all of our game experiences, we celebrate and love the fact that we're bringing people closer together through these experiences, whether that is in the games themselves or in stuff like e-sports or on the floor in the show today. Bringing gamers from around the world together to embrace one another in the thing that they love...that keeps you getting up every morning, getting to work. It's a really fulfilling mission.

Thinking about bringing people together, this is probably a weird tangent, but that makes me think of virtual reality. Virtual reality definitely has opportunities for bringing people together in ways that I don't think we've fully realized with what, but I've definitely seen that inkling in some of demo experiences. From your perspective, what do you think about VR's future? Is that something that you want to do more with or are you maybe just waiting on the sidelines to see where it goes?

We're not exactly waiting on the sidelines, because we're experimenting with all that stuff. I can't wait to see virtual reality come into its own, or augmented reality, or one of those platforms. That's the thing. There isn't even just one virtual reality. There are like four competing platforms that are different tech-wise and everything else. Today, the equipment is very expensive. There are still nausea issues which people are dealing with in virtual reality that haven't been solved yet. There's an interface problem with how exactly you interact with the experience. There's all of these very significant technological challenges around VR as a platform, awesome scientific and human interaction challenges and hardware engineering challenges, that have to be overcome and are still not solved.

You have many different platforms trying to solve them. No one of them is the clear winner by any stretch yet. Nor do any of these platforms, the VR platforms or the AR platforms, have a very significant install base yet. I think the space, the whole VR/AR space, is incredible exciting, incredibly interesting. You're absolutely right. It's not hard to imagine a can see a future state where we're all logged in, plugged in, whatever it is, into a virtual reality environment where we can visually and tactically connect with people all over the world in a very virtual experience.

If you've ever read science fiction, you can imagine this stuff. It's just not there yet. For us as a game publisher and as a business, we kind of have to time that right so when there's a very meaningful audience on VR, when we think the experience is right, I'm sure we will enter that in a very meaningful way. That time hasn't happened yet. It's not that we're just waiting on the sidelines. I wouldn't describe it that way. I'd describe it as very very carefully and with a high degree of interest looking at that, those platforms and that whole set of technologies. Because when it's there, we'll be there.

Talking about BlizzCon itself, is it profitable for Blizzard or is this something that you really just do for the fans? We've seen a lot more experiences come up in recent years: the PlayStation Experience; PAX keeps expanding; there's another new Comic-Con every year. Is this something you'd ever want to expand, if it is successful, into your other big audience regions?

I'll answer the two questions in order. I won't get into the specifics on the financials of BlizzCon, but let's just say we don't do it for the money. [laughs] It costs a lot of money to put on a show like this and we really do it because we enjoy the experience of doing this for the fan community every year. It's a true pleasure for us to celebrate all that is awesome and wonderful about our games and our universes with the fans and the players in a way that's hard to imagine.

For us, as employees of the company, as the custodians of this universe, we feel a tremendous obligation and commitment to our player base and to the fans. Getting to engage with them on the floor and getting to talk to them and have drinks with them in the hotel lobbies after hours and stuff like this is so energizing for us. By the end of the weekend, we will all be completely wiped out and exhausted. We'll be so so drained and so energized at the same time. We'll be so wiped out on Sunday morning, and then Monday morning we'll be more enthused and more excited than ever to come back to the office and continue to do what we do because it leaves us all with such an overwhelming sense of obligation to the community to keep fulfilling the promise that we make to them every single day.

It's wonderful for us. It's a lot of work, but it's totally wonderful for us and we love doing it. It's a lot of work just leading up to it. You can imagine the number of hours. And just to put a finer cap on that, the team, particularly the core team, our events team that works on doing everything that is BlizzCon, they get right back to work next week on BlizzCon 2017. It's literally like that. That's what BlizzCon means to us and how we think about it is certainly not a financially motivated endeavor.

The thing about doing other BlizzCons in other areas, that's a big challenge for us. Doing one a year is huge. It's a huge, huge undertaking. What we have done is, and I'll explain why we always do it here in Irvine too in a moment, but what we have done as you've probably seen is we're increasing the level of presence we have at some of the other big gaming conferences around the world. For example, at GamesCon in August, every year now we're increasing how big of a presence we have there and we continue to see that happening into the future. It's not exactly BlizzCon, but for those who are in Cologne, Germany, they get to have as close to a BlizzCon experience as we can provide outside of the southern California area.

One of the things that's great about having BlizzCon here in Anaheim is we're really close to Irvine, where half the company works. There are so many logistical advantages to that, including, you can imagine, the network setup, the IT and infrastructure setup that's required to throw all these big esports events. If you've ever seen our control booth or anything else, it's a little bit mind blowing actually, and it would be much much more difficult to do that if it weren't local to where our headquarters are.

The other thing that's great is what we do for BlizzCon is we ask all of our Irvine-based employees to work a shift here. We are hosting our guests here, and so we ask every one of our employees work a shift on the floor: manning the line, manning the booth, helping in the store. We do hire some contractors but that's only because we can't man the whole thing with just the employees that we have. From our 2400 Irvine-based employees, almost everybody works a shift at BlizzCon.

We do it because we want to provide the attendees with that kind of personal individualized experience that only one of us can provide and a contractor couldn't really provide in the same way. Not that the contractors are not very good at their job, it's just that people come here because they want to interact with our developers, with our Blizzard employees. And we want to make sure that they have the opportunity to work the show and do that for them. It would be harder to do outside of the southern California area.

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Justin Haywald

GameSpot's Managing Editor and part-time stunt double for Elijah Wood.
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