Millions of players in China have lost access to the iconic “World of Warcraft” franchise and other popular video games when Blizzard Entertainment’s servers in the country went offline after two decades.
The company’s services in China were suspended at midnight local time on Tuesday, marking the end of an era for fans after a licensing agreement with longtime local partner NetEase (NTES) expired.
“World of Warcraft”, also known as “WoW”, is a hugely popular online multiplayer game that allows users to fight monsters and travel through expeditions in the medieval world of Azeroth.
Many gamers around the world have grown up with the blockbuster, including in China. That was underlined in recent days when Chinese fans expressed their disbelief at the loss of their longtime pastime in social media posts.
“When I woke up, I still didn’t want to accept (it),” said one user on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, on Tuesday. “I cried myself to sleep all night because the game went offline. I dreamed I was crying in the middle of class.”
Another player described “World of Warcraft” as “my first love.”
“I really can’t forget it,” they wrote.
The suspension follows a bitter dispute between Blizzard, a unit of Activision Blizzard (ATVI), and NetEase.
Foreign publishers must work with local partners to offer video games in China. Last November, however, Blizzard and NetEase announced that they would not be renewing licensing agreements that were set to expire this month.
Those agreements had covered the release of several popular Blizzard titles in mainland China, including “World of Warcraft,” “Hearthstone” and “Diablo III” since 2008. In separate statements at the time, both sides said they were not able to reach a new agreement on key terms, without giving further details.
Now the discussions seem to have become tougher.
In a statement last Tuesday, Blizzard said it had contacted NetEase to seek “their assistance in exploring a six-month extension of the current agreement.”
The US company said it had appealed to NetEase to allow fans to continue playing uninterrupted, “based on our personal feelings as players and the frustration expressed to us by Chinese players.”
“Unfortunately, after renewed discussions last week, NetEase did not accept our proposal for an extension,” Blizzard said.
NetEase hit back with its own statement last week.
In unusually terse comments, the Chinese tech and gaming giant accused Blizzard of overthinking it with its “sudden statement” and called the US company’s proposal “outrageous, inappropriate and inconsistent with business logic.”
NetEase also pointed out that Blizzard had already “started work on finding new partners” in China, putting the Hangzhou-based company in an “unfair” position.
The public spear marked an unexpected turn in the companies’ 14-year partnership.
Under a separate agreement, the companies are working together to jointly develop and publish “Diablo Immortal,” another widely followed multiplayer game that allows users to slay demons in an ancient world. NetEase said in a statement in November that this collaboration would continue.
Blizzard said in December that “World of Warcraft” fans would be able to back up their game history and ensure all progress was saved as it wound down its deal and looked for a new partner.
This week’s shutdown has been emotional, even for senior executives at NetEase.
In a LinkedIn post Monday, Simon Zhu, president of global investments and partnerships at NetEase Games, described how he grew up playing Blizzard games in China, including older “Warcraft” and “Diablo” titles.
“Just (a) few hours before Blizzard Games servers shut down in China and it’s a very very big deal for players in China,” he wrote.
“Today is such a sad moment to witness the server shutdown and we don’t know how things will play out in the future. The biggest casualty would be players in China who live and breathe these worlds.”
Activision Blizzard, which previously had another Chinese partner before teaming up with NetEase, said it is continuing its search for a new distribution partner.
“Our commitment to players in mainland China remains strong as we continue to work with Tencent to distribute ‘Call of Duty: Mobile’, as well as continue active discussions with potential partners to resume gameplay for Blizzard’s iconic franchise, an Activision Blizzard spokesperson told CNN.