Blizzard Entertainment
Blizzard Entertainment

Diplomats, politicians, activists and charities spend years, decades, lifetimes trying to earn the trust and support of intelligent global citizens committed to a bright future. Ironic as it may seem, perhaps all they need is a fantasy-based video game.

If you grab some darts and tack up a map of Irvine, Blizzard Entertainment will be your bull’s-eye. The 27-year-old company lauded as a pioneer of computer gaming launched out of a tiny Orange County office and has remained here by choice, an easy walk or bike ride from the residential, dining and entertainment options of nearby Irvine Spectrum®. A sprawling, indoor-outdoor campus buzzes with the creative energy of more than 3,000 t-shirted software and sound engineers, sketch artists, painters, animators, marketers, and several of the most elegant game designers on earth. Iconic Blizzard titles include StarCraft, Diablo and World of Warcraft, while new kids Overwatch, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm are charting their own courses.

Anticipating my visit, I worried about not being a gamer. I worried that I was too old, didn’t speak “coding” and wouldn’t be able to relate to the player experience. Ten minutes into a chat with Saralyn Smith, senior director of global community development, I realized I’d prepped for the wrong story. The Blizzard experience isn’t about esoteric software – it’s about human relations.

At the Blizzard Arena Los Angeles, eSports competitions draw hundreds while millions watch via livestreaming. Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Smith is in charge of “fandom,” which turns out to be the essence of the company’s business model. Unlike most forms of entertainment, game development relies as much on input from the customer – the gaming community – as it does on the technical and artistic abilities of the creator. “Our communities are global, increasingly diverse, and complex, and we need their perspective and feedback,” said Smith. “Five or 10 years ago, games were sold in a box, but now the model is ‘games as a service.’ ” Instead of leaving players to fend for themselves, Blizzard stays connected throughout the life cycle of a game by providing bug fixes, new content and downloadable achievement bonuses. And they don’t go it alone.

“We have large teams dedicated to listening to players, engaging in two-way communication and connecting them with game developers, artists and leaders,” she said. “Gamers are hungry, interactive repeat buyers. Collaboration is essential.”

From the beginning, collaboration was indeed the name of the game. Allen Adham, Mike Morhaime and Frank Pearce met as engineering geeks at UCLA. When Adham hatched the idea of starting a video game development business, they were all gainfully employed but, at some level, itching for more. Although Morhaime was leery of his programming skills (“I was only an electrical engineer”), Adham insisted that if they just put their heads together, they could solve any problem. “I think we all really believed that,” said Morhaime, Blizzard’s president and CEO. “We had no idea what we were doing, but we were confident that, whatever it was, we could do it.”

The Founding Fathers

Although the picture is clearer today, the founders haven’t wavered in their dedication to creating a “Blizzard-quality experience.” While they acknowledge that it’s tough to know precisely when that has been achieved, the trio has developed a sixth sense about it.

“Computer games are a form of artistic expression,” said Pearce, chief product officer for the company and an Orange County native. “But there’s a curve of diminishing returns that you put into a product in this industry, and we go farther along that curve than anyone else. It’s impossible to know when to stop; we just have to pick a point and put it in the hands of our community.”

Community Service

The Blizzard community now numbers in the tens of millions and hails from virtually every country. It ranges from kids to grandparents, sometimes playing side by side. In addition to actual, fingers-on-keyboard gamers, members host YouTube channels for vast audiences – another segment of the community. They post frequently on the social media discussion site Reddit. They manage websites devoted to a specific game or subcommunity, and they compete in live, arena-based eSports events that boast league commissioners, franchise teams, pro players and larger-than-life video screen projections.

The interactive power structure that lifts Blizzard ever higher is celebrated almost every year up the road in Anaheim. BlizzCon, a two-day event that sells out instantly, fills the convention center with more than 30,000 rabid gamers and fans. In addition to a dazzling opening ceremony and game-coaching panels, attendees flock to cosplay, a mind-blowing mass of elaborately costumed fans portraying game characters and vying for prizes. Millions of players around the world experience BlizzCon via Virtual Ticket, a livestreaming and videoon- demand service produced by Blizzard.

“BlizzCon is the biggest thank you we can give to the community,” said Smith. “Everyone who works in Irvine works the show, and every opening ceremony we cry. It’s why we make these games.”

But who actually makes these games?

“Gaming is an escape, like fairy tales and mythology,” says Roman Kenney (right). “We don’t want to play payrolls and paychecks.” Sam Didier (left)has art directed several blockbuster Blizzard games.

Portrait of the Artists

It’s collaborative, naturally. But the rock stars, the fan faves, are the artists. You can practically pick them out of the crowd: Berkeley-in-the-’70s wardrobes, happygo- lucky temperament, an undercurrent of impishness. Whether they sketch, paint, animate or illustrate, these largely self-taught wizards bring games to life by adding their personal signature to every frame.

“I was about 5 when my Uncle Dave brought over an Atari 2600 and loaded up Pong,” said Roman Kenney, a senior concept artist who has been instrumental in creating the “worlds” for Blizzard’s most enduring games. “I couldn’t stop staring.” Thus began a lifelong love affair with drawing. “My grandmother gave me coloring books, but I’d just go to the blank page at the back, so she started buying copy paper.” Kenney’s obsession would pay off handsomely when he joined the nascent Blizzard team. Nearly 25 years later, it’s still all he wants to do.

Will Murai grew up in Brazil, where skateboarding, soccer and other outdoor activities consumed most of his playtime hours. Though he majored in graphic design, drawing and painting were calling his name. Work in comic books, advertising and card games led him to game development and Blizzard, where as a senior illustrator in creative development, he expands the company’s “universe” by creating artwork for cinematic projects, toys, collectibles and clothing.

“Blizzard has always produced top-notch illustrations, paintings, concept art, statues and short films that push the industry standards,” said Murai. “And, as a player, the welcoming and accessible design of the games is key. They are easy to learn and hard to master, which I find supercool. This leaves my brain to focus on the strategy rather than on learning tons of commands and buttons.”

The seamlessness of a game’s environment can be chalked up to the cumulative efforts of a diverse team of creatives, explained Sam Didier, who joined Blizzard at 19 as its first art director. Didier now oversees incubation and development teams that include an art director, an animator, a character modeler and a lead environmental artist. “My job is to make sure that the art looks like the game, and that the game keeps its integrity. At the same time, the teams create their own culture and tribes. It’s all under the black-and-blue banner of Blizzard.”

Blizzard Entertainment, Pelican Hill Magazine
Blizzard employees gather for special events at the Irvine campus’s real-life version of The Hearthstone Tavern. Below, Warcraft’s Illidan Stormrage towers over the sleek lobby of one of the company’s buildings.
Blizzard Entertainment, Pelican Hill Magazine

Gaming for Good

While philanthropy plays a part in most successful businesses, Blizzard has upped the ante by engaging employees and the player community in charitable giving. In 2009, the company launched the WoW (World of Warcraft) Charity Pet Campaign. Every December, WoW releases a for-purchase in-game pet, the proceeds of which go entirely to that year’s charity of choice. To date, over $15 million has been donated.

Closer to home, the employees are giving back in ways that resonate personally. This summer marks the start of a partnership with the non-profit Girls Who Code. During a summer immersion program at Blizzard’s Irvine campus, 11th- and 12th-graders will follow a curriculum and enjoy field trips and speaker events centered on game development and coding. The company also collaborates with OC GRIP, a program that rewards at-risk youth for a positive attitude and staying in school. Forty Blizzard employees serve as mentors during the school year; each summer, up to 80 deserving students converge on the campus for Blizzard Day.

Perhaps most meaningful to the Irvine-based employee community are the 30 wishes the company has fulfilled through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “To think that visiting us, or attending BlizzCon, is the one wish a child has, fills everyone here with awe,” said philanthropy manager Brittany Tompkins. “Everyone just puts down what they’re doing.”

“Everyone” would include Frank Pearce, whose infant son was treated at CHOC Children’s, another recipient of Blizzard’s largesse. “You get to see firsthand the impact that our games are having on their lives,” he said, his voice shaky with emotion. “For someone confined to a wheelchair … We give them an experience that they can’t get in their day-to-day lives. It’s very powerful.”

Future Forward

Online gaming has come a long way in 27 years, and with the arrival of artificial intelligence across multiple platforms, it appears that we’ve only just begun. Blizzard’s Saralyn Smith thinks that a tipping point has already been reached.

“Gaming, and geeks, are more mainstream and cool now. People are forming real-life relationships in these spaces. Couples meet; a father deployed overseas connects with his son at home by joining him in a game. The more exposure you get to different people, the more barriers break down. They could look like a wizard or an animal, but all of a sudden you realize that you have a common foundation. It helps bridge a lot of differences.”

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