Millions of players in China 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 long-time 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 travel through expeditions in the medieval world of Azeroth.
Many players around the world grew up with this hit, including in China. This has been underlined in recent days as Chinese fans have expressed their disbelief at the loss of their long-time 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 myself to sleep all night because the game went offline. I dreamed I was crying in the middle of class.”
Another player described “World of Warcraft” as “my first love.”
“I really can’t forget,” they wrote.
The suspension comes after a bitter dispute between Blizzard, a unit of Activision Blizzard ( ATVI ) and NetEase.
Foreign publishers must collaborate with local partners to offer video games in China. However, last November, Blizzard and NetEase announced that they would not be renewing their licensing agreements that were set to expire this month.
Those deals covered the publishing 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 could not reach a new agreement on key terms without providing further details.
Now, the talks seem to have gotten tougher.
In a statement last Tuesday, Blizzard said it had reached out to NetEase to seek its “assistance in exploring a six-month extension of the current agreement.”
The US company said it appealed to NetEase to let fans continue playing uninterrupted, “based on our personal feelings as players and the frustration expressed by Chinese players”.
“Unfortunately, after renewed discussions last week, NetEase did not accept our extension proposal,” Blizzard said.
NetEase responded with its own statement last week.
In unusually terse comments, the Chinese tech and gaming giant accused Blizzard of blindside with its “sudden statement” and called the US company’s proposal “outrageous, inappropriate and inconsistent 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 discussion marked an unexpected turn in the companies’ 14-year partnership.
Under a separate agreement, the companies are working together to jointly develop and publish “Diablo Immortal,” another widely followed multiplayer game that lets users slay demons in an ancient world. NetEase said in a statement in November that this collaboration will continue.
Blizzard said in December that “World of Warcraft” fans will be able to back up their game history and ensure that all progress has been saved as it withdraws its agreement and looks for a new partner.
This week’s closing was emotional, even for NetEase management.
In a LinkedIn post on Monday, Simon Zhu, NetEase Games’ president of global investments and partnerships, detailed how he grew up with Blizzard games in China, including older titles “Warcraft” and “Diablo.”
“No more [a] hours before Blizzard Games servers shut down in China, and that’s a really big deal for Chinese players,” he wrote.
“Today is such a sad time to witness the server shutdown and we don’t know how things will play out in the future. The biggest casualty would be the players in China who live and breathe 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 in mainland China remains strong as we continue to work with Tencent to distribute “Call of Duty: Mobile” as well as continue active discussions with potential partners to bring the game back to Blizzard’s flagship franchises,” an Activision Blizzard spokesperson told CNN.