Lessons from running a live event during COVID-19
Blizzard Entertainment’s gaming convention, BlizzCon, has been an industry staple since 2005. In addition to showcasing Blizzard’s upcoming game announcements, it primarily serves as a celebration of the company’s player communities, with over 40,000 people from around the world converging in Anaheim, California, to play demos, watch panels, cosplay, take part in their own community-coordinated social activities, and more.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America in early 2020, Blizzard was faced with a choice—the convention is traditionally held late in the year, and planning starts taking shape at the beginning of the year. With so many unknown variables, would Blizzard cancel BlizzCon, or would they pivot to something they’d never done before, a fully online experience? And if they chose the latter, could they still achieve the feeling of connection with their audience that makes the event stand apart?
Reflecting on the decision-making approach, Saralyn Smith, Executive Producer for BlizzCon, cited Blizzard’s desire to connect with the community and celebrate its milestone 30th anniversary together, as the driver for having an event in some form. “The last several years, we have had a large broadcast component to in-person BlizzCons that’s drawn millions of viewers around the world,” she said, “so we knew already that a large segment of the community would be likely to engage remotely.”
Saralyn Smith, BlizzCon Executive Producer
Thus, “BlizzConline,” an online-only event scheduled for February 2021, was born. An in-person BlizzCon is a massive event that requires year-round attention and planning. Pivoting to an online-only approach in a world steeped in uncertainty involved tremendous contingency planning and parallel pathing. “Plans changed throughout the months leading up to the show,” Smith said. “We had originally thought more [of the broadcast] would be live, but we kept entering periods of COVID restrictions or lockdowns, so pre-producing ended up being the safest path.”
Due to the fluidity and unpredictability of the circumstances early in 2020, operating amid enormous ambiguity and changing directives around COVID-19, the team had its task cut out.
J. Allen Brack, Blizzard’s President, often says that it requires all of Blizzard—the company as a whole, not unlike a force of nature—to make a Blizzard game or to pull off a BlizzCon event. BlizzConline was no exception, as it took many teams leaning in, being adaptable and pivoting their execution dramatically, to support the virtual event. Navigating through uncharted territory opened new perspectives and released fresh ideas, mixed with a bit of healthy trepidation. “There’s a level of pressure around living up to people’s expectations for a LIVE BlizzCon,” says Stella Kim, Program Manager for the BlizzCon team. “It was a nice smoothie blend of that [fear] but also joy and exhilaration at not having the constraints of ‘what we’ve always done.’”
Mike Norys, the broadcast lead for BlizzConline, also felt the call of new possibilities. “We spent the majority of the planning trying to figure out what an online show allowed us to do that we could never do at an in-person event.”
Mike Noys, BlizzConline Broadcast Lead
With a largely pre-produced event, the BlizzCon team was able to increase its focus on localization. One of Blizzard’s core values is “Think Globally,” and with a player base situated around the planet, pre-produced content allowed the non-English-speaking audience to engage in real-time like never before. “We could localize all segments in up to 12 different languages to be viewed at the same time globally, versus players having to wait for the localized versions,” Smith said.
This global thinking and opportunity for community members all over the world to participate was illustrated strongly in the always-popular Community Showcase segment, highlighting fan art, cosplay, music, and short films developed by players who, under regular circumstances, are unable to physically attend a traditional BlizzCon. “It was a wonderful surprise that we received over 500 submissions from 56 different countries, and the result was our most globally inclusive Community Showcase yet,” noted Smith. Not having to factor in travel also allowed for a more eclectic mix of musical acts who could record safely from home studios. This year featured Metallica, Lindsay Sterling, the DJ stylings of Kristian Nairn of Game of Thrones fame, and K-pop juggernauts MAMAMOO.
Stella Kim, Program Manager
It’s one thing to have big ideas, but it’s quite another to execute them. Add an ever-evolving global pandemic in-the-mix and the chasm to realizing the ideas becomes infinitely wider.
For Aileen Sevin, Producer of the opening ceremony for BlizzConline, striving to preserve the emotion and experience of the traditional opening ceremony meant heightened sensitivities to ensure that safety was paramount. “Very stringent protocols were in place to keep talent and crew safe, requiring weeks of planning and coordination,” she said, adding that a resurgence of COVID in Southern California during pre-production in December 2020 added more complexity. “There was growing concern that our shoot location could be shut down by the state,” she explained. “We were asked to plan in parallel contingencies for a potential on-campus shoot, and also identify talent understudies in case a presenter was suddenly unable to attend the shoot.”
Aileen Sevin, Producer
These safety protocols were top of mind for all teams involved in BlizzConline. “For the few segments we filmed on campus or at a local studio, there were multiple COVID tests required for anyone present—all talent and crew—and a robust zoning system that kept people from entering shared spaces, and we tried to account for every small detail to keep people safe,” added Smith.
These steps, though laborious, were appreciated by all participants. “Some of the best feedback we received was from internal and external talent commending us on our commitment to safety and ensuring we could deliver a great show without putting anyone at risk,” said Norys.
An online-only event did take some adjustment for the talent as well. Game directors, developers, artists, and other BlizzCon presenters are all accustomed to the energy of a convention center filled with thousands of people, using the adrenaline to drive their presentations or discussions. This in-person atmosphere allows them to adjust and respond to the energy of the room, in the moment. In a COVID world, though, they had to learn to draw that energy from themselves.
“We had to focus on getting the energy levels right without any of that real-time feedback or adrenaline, and we also needed people to be comfortable looking directly at the camera more often,” Smith said. “While it is quite different, in the end many of them appreciated that they could do multiple takes—one small advantage over a live show!”
Following a successful BlizzConline, the teams converged for retrospectives to determine what worked well and what could be done better in the future. For Kim, the big takeaway was that “earlier was better”. She adds, “It’s a simple concept, but the early planning, documenting, and prep in all areas before we started talking about execution or getting into the weeds, had huge downstream benefits, especially around communication and collaboration.”
In terms of producing a shoot in a pandemic, Sevin recommends allowing for more space in scheduling to provide flexibility as circumstances change. “Any sort of in-person filming should have a padded schedule and budget that will allow for all necessary safety-protocol planning,” she said.
Now that possibilities for online events are clearer for the team, Kim wants to dive deeper. “I love the theme ‘welcome home,’ when it comes to BlizzCon. I think whatever we end up doing next time around, whether a live show, another online show, or a hybrid, we’ll be able to highlight that aspect even better and take it even further,” she said.
Norys agreed, saying he believes they’re only just scratching the surface of what Blizzard can do. “The teams are ready to keep pushing the envelope on what [online events] can become. I’m very excited about what we can think up next.”
Despite the challenges, it was the strong culture at Blizzard that enabled BlizzConline to come together as it did. “I’m so lucky,” says Kim. “I am surrounded by subject-matter experts and people who are great at what they do; as a PM/producer, it makes my job so much easier. And everyone is so inherently nice. I feel that’s at the soul, the heart of the company.”
The world moves faster and is more connected than ever before and serving players and communities with an eye toward creating epic online experiences is vital not just during a pandemic, but beyond as well. The lessons learned from BlizzConline are just a stepping-stone into the future of how people will expect content to be delivered, and despite the challenges, Blizzard feels more prepared for that future than ever before.