BlizzCon 2016: Opening ceremony wrap-up

A rundown of the best news to come out of the BlizzCon 2016 opening ceremony (and, yeah, there was quite a bit).

BlizzCon 2016: Opening ceremony wrap-up

I’ve already watched a bunch of day-one BlizzCon videos, courtesy of a virtual ticket sent to me by local Blizzard PR, so I’ll skip my usual paragraph preamble and jump straight into it. There’s a lot of stuff that came out of the opening ceremony (let alone the other videos I’ve already caught up on), so here goes.

There are some impressive numbers being thrown around at BlizzCon 2016. Blizzard president and CEO Mike Morhaime was on stage to say that this year marks the 10th BlizzCon, the 20th anniversary for Diablo III arrives next month, and it’s been 25 years since Blizzard first opened shop. There’s expected to be 25,000 fans at BlizzCon this year, visiting from 50 US states and 60 countries, with millions more tuning in via 70 broadcast streams transmitted in 19 languages. Those are some mighty impressive numbers.

Morhaime recapped that it’s been a big year for Warcraft, with the Warcraft movie, the launch of the Legion expansion, and the recently released Return to Karazhan content. He made a commitment that Blizzard is planning to releasing “more content than ever before”, and teased that there’s new stuff already in the works. World of Warcraft fans can expect to see new content for both the Alliance and the Horde in 2017.

Blizzard is putting its popularity to good use, once again, supporting the Make-A-Wish foundation in a cute way. World of Warcraft players can buy a new charity pet called the Fel Kitty, with the Morhaime pledge that the full purchase price will be donated to the charity. To date, fans have helped to raise more than $4 million for the Make-A-Wish foundation. Well done.

Overwatch was the next Blizzard game on the agenda. Morhaime sneakily introduced a video that appeared to be a launch retrospective, but soon transformed into the new character reveal for the long-rumoured Sombra character. Sombra is pitched as a stealthy infiltrator who can hack enemy devices, and is apparently able to turn the tide of battle in both subtle and big ways. You can check out her character reveal video above, and her origin story below.

Back to Morhaime, and he said that more Overwatch maps and modes are incoming. One of them is called Oasis, and it’s a high-tech terraformed city in the Arabian desert. Blizzard is currently working on a new feature called The Arcade, which includes new modes, rule sets, and even exclusive maps. One of these exclusive maps is Echo Point Antarctica, and is apparently the backstory setting where Mei was cryogenically frozen for close to a decade. Echo Point has reportedly been custom built for the Arcade’s 1v1 and 3v3 arena-style modes. Morhaime said there will be new game modes coming to The Arcade, too.

Keen Overwatch players can take Sombra and The Arcade for a spin in the Public Test Realm next week, with Oasis following suit in December.

Moving on to StarCraft II news, and while Legacy of the Void may have marked the end of a 10-year story arc, Blizzard isn’t quite done with StarCraft II. The third and final set of Nova Missions are slated for release later this month on the 22nd of November. According to Morhaime, cooperative play in StarCraft II is just as popular as competitive play. Fans can look forward to a new co-op commander alongside the new missions, with Alexei Stukov, the infested Terran admiral, poised to join the ranks of other leaders.

Morhaime threw a bit of a curveball next, introducing Oriol Vinyals from DeepMind: a company developing AI software that’s enjoyed some recent success in the gaming space. Blizzard is set to work with DeepMind, as Vinyals and his team hope to create AI opponents in StarCraft II that can provide more of an interesting challenge for human players, and also coaching assistance to help players improve. The hope is AI application in games will lead to real-world applications in science, energy and other areas.

Morhaime came back on stage to talk about Blizzard’s continued commitment to eSports. There will be more than $2.7 million in prize money given away in competitive tournaments at BlizzCon this weekend, to help bring the 2016 total for Blizzard tournaments up to a whopping $8 million. This was essentially a platform for introducing the Overwatch League. The intent is to move eSports closer to real-world sports, with tryouts, regular schedules, professional contracts, free agency, baseline minimum salaries for players and, generally speaking, greater stability for teams. The video below gives an idea of the kind of intentions Blizzard has with the formation of the Overwatch League.

Heroes of the Storm was up next, with production director Kaéo Milker on stage to talk about what fans can look forward to in the coming months. Blackheart’s Revenge is the new Brawl Battleground that’s currently in development, which promises asymmetrical gameplay with one team defending a single core and the other attacking alongside ghost pirate Blackheart. It launches on the 15th of November and you can check out the trailer below for a taste of what to expect.

That’s not all for Heroes of the Storm, though. A couple of new playable heroes are slated for release over the coming weeks. Varian Wrynn will land first on the same week as the Blackheart’s Revenge content, and Ragnaros won’t be far behind him, with a December release. Varian is the first multi-class hero, who’s as apt at being a shield-bearing warrior as he is as a life-ending assassin. The talent choices between levels 4 and 10 will reportedly determine which of his six different play styles a player can access.

Ragnaros has some epic powers to match the reality that he’s a towering raid boss from World of Warcraft. He can hurl fire with his Sulfuras ability, release lava waves to incinerate an entire lane of minions, or take advantage of his Molten Core trait to use a fort to become gigantic. If it’s a friendly fort, it can be either standing or flattened, but if it’s an enemy fort, it must be destroyed. There’s also some upcoming Nexus Challenges that will let Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm players unlock skins in their respective games. Check out the cool video below for a cinematic look at the new Heroes of the Storm characters.

Executive producer Hamilton Chu was up next to talk about the upcoming Hearthstone expansion. It’s set in post-cataclysm Gadgetzan and explores the seedy underworld of the isolated city. There are three notorious crime families to pick cards from: enforcers-by-day The Grimy Goons; rooftop-dwelling The Jade Lotus; and morally defunct spellcasters The Kabal. They’re all showcased in this charming cinematic trailer below.

This expansion will also see the introduction of the new Tri-Class card type. Each of the crime families has their own Tri-Class set. For example, The Kabal has Mage, Priest and Warlock classes, and the Tri-Class cards can be played in any of these decks. Kazakus is a powerful Tri-Class card, and playing him means you can create a custom spell, which involves choosing from a few different mana costs (for early, mid-mid and late-game), then picking between primary and secondary effects. You can see what this custom spell system looks like in the short video below. The new Hearthstone content will be playable in December.

Diablo III was the final game showcased during the opening ceremony, courtesy of Blizzard chief development officer Frank Pearce. Fans of the original 1996 game should be excited: Blizzard is recreating the original Diablo experience inside Diablo III, complete with original music and so-called Glorious Retrovision graphics filters to recreate that iconic pixelated look with grainy visuals. Character movement will reportedly be locked to eight directions, too, just like the original.

If you own Reaper of Souls and are hanging out for additional Diablo III content, there are two new free zones coming in 2017: Shrouded Moors, and Temple of the First Born. Both will be accessible through Diablo III’s Adventure Mode. Blizzard has also finally responded to fan demand for the return of a Diablo II class: the Necromancer—or, at least, the Diablo III take on the Diablo II class—is set to be unleashed in 2017. The Necromancer will be on sale next year as part of a character pack that’s reportedly comes with “other great features”. Check out the video below for the Necromancer reveal.

Phew. That’s it for the opening ceremony! Blizzard clearly has a lot to talk about this year, with a tonne of content across its range of games. Stay tuned for more BlizzCon 2016 content.

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