Millions of players in China have lost access to the iconic “World of Warcraft” franchise and other popular video games, as 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 journey through expeditions in the medieval world of Azeroth.
Many gamers around the world have grown up with the smash hit, including in China. That was underscored in recent days, as Chinese fans expressed their disbelief over the loss of their longtime pastime in social media posts.
“When I woke up, I still didn’t want to accept [it],” one user said on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, on Tuesday. “I cried all night in my sleep because the game went offline. I dreamed that I was crying in the middle of the 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 they would not renew licensing agreements that were set to expire this month.
Those deals had covered the publication 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 unable to reach a new agreement on key terms, without giving further details.
Now, the discussions appear to have gotten more acrimonious.
In a statement last Tuesday, Blizzard said it had reached out to NetEase to seek “their help in exploring a six-month extension to the current agreement.”
The US company said it had appealed to NetEase to let fans continue playing uninterrupted, “based on our personal feelings as gamers, 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 blindsiding it with its “sudden statement” and called the US company’s proposal “outrageous, inappropriate, and not in line with business logic.”
NetEase also pointed out that Blizzard had already “started the work of finding new partners” in China, putting the Hangzhou-based company in an “unfair” position.
The public spat marked an unexpected twist in the companies’ 14-year partnership.
Under a separate agreement, the companies are working together on the joint development and publishing of “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 playing history and ensure all progress was saved as it wound down its agreement and looked for a new partner.
This week’s shutdown has been emotional, even for senior leadership at NetEase.
In a LinkedIn post Monday, Simon Zhu, president of global investments and partnerships of NetEase Games, detailed how he grew up with Blizzard games in China, including older “Warcraft” and “Diablo” titles.
“Only [a] few hours before Blizzard Games servers shut down in China, and that is 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 victim would be players in China who live and breathe in those 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 on mainland China remains strong as we continue to work with Tencent to distribute ‘Call of Duty: Mobile,’ as well as continue active talks with potential partners to resume gameplay for Blizzard’s iconic franchises,” an Activision Blizzard spokesperson told CNN.