Microsoft brings World of Warcraft and other Blizzard titles back to China

Battle with NetEase ends, peace deal will see games cross the Great Firewall - in both directions

Microsoft's acquisition of Activision Blizzard has produced an unexpected dividend: the developer's signature games will once again be playable in China.

A statement released on Wednesday revealed that Blizzard titles – including World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, and other titles in the Warcraft, Overwatch, Diablo, and StarCraft universes – would return to mainland China beginning northern summer 2024.

Blizzard previously had a deal with Chinese internet and video game company NetEase that saw its games available within the Middle Kingdom.

That deal began in 2008, but expired in January 2023 when, according to Blizzard, the pair did not reach a deal to renew.

There is no indication that Blizzard's booting had anything to do with Beijing – despite its well-known disdain for the gaming industry.

Negotiations between Blizzard and NetEase went public and got ugly. Players were informed they could download files that recorded their progress, in hopes that one day a deal to bring the games – and character profiles that were painstakingly built up over years of play – back to China.

World of Warcraft had over three million registered users in China at that time.

By October 2023, Microsoft finalised its acquisition of Activision Blizzard, the parent company of Blizzard, in a heavily scrutinized record-breaking $69 billion deal.

Microsoft has a cordial business relationship with China – friendly enough even to face criticism in the US, as its search engine Bing reportedly bows to Beijing's censorship policies within the Middle Kingdom.

Microsoft Gaming, which controls Activision Blizzard and its various brands, has managed to strike a new deal with NetEase – one that reflects that friendlier rapport with Beijing. It will not only allow games like WoW to reach Chinese audiences but may also see games from within the Middle Kingdom exported to the world.

Wednesday's announcement broke the news: "Separately, Microsoft Gaming and NetEase have also entered into an agreement to explore bringing new NetEase titles to Xbox consoles and other platforms."

That’s a rate item of good news in the recent history of Sino/American tech collaboration. And also one that has the potential to produce profits for NetEase and expose the world’s gamers to Chinese tech -a soft power play of the sort that saw the likes of Nintendo become a flag-bearer for Japanese culture. Microsoft might one day help NetEase do the same. ®

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