Blizzard makes some of the most popular games in the world. The American company behind World of Warcraft, Overwatch and Starcraft has a huge global following, most notably in China, one of the biggest gaming markets in the world.

But now it finds itself caught in the middle of a controversy, under fire at home for appeasing one of its biggest markets abroad.

How popular are Blizzard’s games in China? When the company launched WoW Classic -- an old build of the game -- it saw 1 million Chinese gamers log in to relive the glory days of the original.

But there’s a better way to put its popularity into perspective. Remember the Warcraft film? It was a huge flop in the West… but it was a huge hit in China. At the time, it had the most successful opening for a foreign film. In all, it pulled in US$225 million at the box office in the country, four times more than it made in the US.

Hearthstone player Blitzchung wore a mask and chanted “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times!” on Twitch. (Picture: Blizzard)

That’s why the company now finds itself walking a tightrope, after it punished an esports player at a Hearthstone tournament this week for chanting a Hong Kong protest slogan in a post-game interview. Afterwards, Blizzard issued an apology on Weibo in Chinese that promised to “firmly safeguard national dignity.”

Predictably, while that apology was well-received in China, gamers in the West -- especially in the US -- have been calling for a boycott of the company. Some even said they’d be waving Hong Kong flags and chanting protest slogans at their upcoming annual event, Blizzcon.

A protest at Blizzcon would be especially notable because of what happened last year, when fans were furious after the company unveiled a mobile version of Diablo developed by China’s NetEase. Some saw it as Blizzard abandoning their existing players for more lucrative mobile gamers -- primarily those in China, the world’s biggest mobile gaming market.

Despite China’s mobile focus, Blizzard’s existing PC and console games remain hugely popular there.

Take the hero shooter Overwatch, for instance. It’s been a surprising breakout hit in China since its release in 2016 because premium games have not traditionally sold well in the country. By early 2017, China accounted for more than 5 million copies of the game out of 25 million Overwatch players worldwide.

Out of 20 teams in the Overwatch League, four of them are based in China. By comparison, there are 11 teams based in the US.

Warcraft is certainly the more popular franchise, though, and it’s made the jump not just from games to movies, but also to theme parks. 

There’s an unofficial Warcraft theme park called World Joyland in Changzhou, a few cities northwest of Shanghai. It’s not an official theme park from Blizzard, but it borrows liberally from a gaming franchise that’s so popular in China, among other pop culture franchises.

Joyland is a knock-off theme park that “borrows” a lot of elements from WoW. (Picture: SCMP)

But how popular is the game, exactly? Well, a 2011 report shows 3.2 million people from China residing in Azeroth. Yes, that was a long time ago. But notably, at the time, the number of players in China was higher than in the US and Canada combined. The following year, there were 1 million concurrent WoW players in China.

Hearthstone, the game that got Blizzard into trouble, is also big in China. A recent Sensor Tower report shows that Chinese players spent US$51 million in the game on iOS last year, making up 31% of total spending on the platform.

More importantly, Blizzard is seeing growth in the country. Hearthstone’s revenue on iOS soared 34% in China last year while growth declined in the US.

The developer’s parent company, Activision Blizzard, also has a substantial stake in China. In the second quarter this year, Activision Blizzard raked in US$173 million from the Asia Pacific region, a significant portion of which probably came from China. Still, Asia Pacific revenue accounted for just 12% of its US$1.4 billion in global revenue that quarter.

Another potentially important element to Blizzard’s ties to China is the fact that Tencent, China’s biggest gaming company, owns 4.9% of Activision Blizzard. We’ve reached out to Blizzard and Tencent for comment, but did not receive a response.

But is Blizzard’s bet on China worth provoking the rage of Western gamers? That remains to be seen, but the pressure is certainly mounting. Shares of Activision Blizzard fell by as much as 4% since Western gamers started calling for a boycott.