On the day that Petr Wang, a 24-year-old university student living in southeast China, found out that US game developer Blizzard Entertainment was ending its 14-year licensing partnership with NetEase to bring its popular titles on the mainland, he decided it was time to abandon StarCraft . It was a hard decision for Wang, who became a fan of the military sci-fi franchise at age 11 and still has cherished memories of watching live streams of the game. “I was disappointed, angry and a bit numb, all at the same time, when I saw the news,” he said. From January 24, Wang and millions of other gamers across mainland China will have no other choice but to bid farewell to their beloved Blizzard titles. The Irvine, California-based company will suspend all online services in the country starting at midnight, after it failed to secure a six-month extension with Chinese video gaming giant NetEase. The break-up of Blizzard and NetEase, which has descended into a public spectacle of finger-pointing and accusations over the past months, stands in contrast to the amicable beginning of their relationship. William Ding Lei, founder and CEO of NetEase and a self-professed gamer himself, first approached Blizzard when he saw how well the American company’s flagship World of Warcraft series was being received by Chinese players. One of the world’s bestselling personal computer games at the time, the massively multiplayer online role-playing title launched in mainland China in 2005 through a partnership between Blizzard and Shanghai-based online gamer operator The9. In its first month of operation in China, the game attracted 1.5 million paid users, The9 said at the time. In 2008, the year before it ended its agreement with Blizzard, The9 raked in 1.8 billion yuan (US$265 million) in total revenue, over 90 per cent of which came from World of Warcraft . That amount was equivalent to around 10 per cent of total sales in China’s video gaming market that year. In contrast, NetEase at the time had just a few self-developed domestic titles, such as Fantasy Westward Journey Online , which earned far less than World of Warcraft. In 2008, NetEase and Blizzard reached their first deal , allowing the Chinese company to pay royalties in exchange for the rights to run StarCraft II , Warcraft III and Battle.net, the platform that provided online multiplayer gaming services for these titles. A year later, NetEase took over the rights to operate World of Warcraft from The9. In the following years, NetEase and Blizzard expanded their licensing partnership to include Overwatch , Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm , signalling a solid relationship. They announced extensions to their agreements in 2012, 2016 and 2019. “I started playing World of Warcraft in 2009, after NetEase took over,” said a 35-year-old gamer in Beijing, who gave his last name as Jia. He claims to have logged over 10,000 hours playing the blockbuster title under the username “Hebot”, calling the activity a daily habit like watching television. “I have met many friends and also became closer to some of my colleagues through the game. Playing the game was like a social currency for me,” he said. But signs of disagreement between NetEase and Blizzard started to emerge in the summer of 2022, when they cancelled a planned World of Warcraft mobile game that had been in the works for three years. That led NetEase to disband a team of more than 100 developers, according to a Bloomberg report in August. A NetEase employee, who declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak to media, disclosed that he “would not be surprised” if Blizzard and NetEase chose to part ways, according to a Post report last year. One reason he shared was that Diablo Immortal , a mobile game co-developed by the two parties, failed to impress global players despite being highly profitable. Some players, including those in China, also expressed disappointment over what they considered as a stagnated development of Blizzard titles. Since 2018, the US company has been grappling with a series of sexual harassment and racial discrimination lawsuits, as well as the departure of a few key figures, including co-founders Mike Morhaime and Frank Pearce, and Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan. Since 2020, Blizzard has announced that it would stop adding new content to StarCraft II, Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm . The three games that have the largest proportion of Chinese players in the world – World of Warcraft, Hearthstone and Overwatch – already reached their peak at launch, and their performances have only declined since, according to Zhang Shule, an analyst at CBJ Think Tank. “ StarCraft II has been a dead game in recent years,” said gamer Wang. “I think Blizzard could have done much better, but it didn’t.” Zhao Azhai, who became a fan of the Diablo franchise in 2001 and spent nearly 1,000 hours in Diablo III , said he has almost stopped playing the game. “Because of the internal struggles and personnel changes at Blizzard, the studio is no longer what it used to be,” he said. Despite the waning enthusiasm, many players still said they were shocked when Blizzard and NetEase said in November they were ending their licensing pact. As the clock ticked down and Blizzard was still without a new distribution partner, the two sides began blaming each other. On January 17, less than a week before their agreement was due to expire, Blizzard’s local office wrote on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo that NetEase rejected its proposal to extend their cooperation by six months while the US firm looked for a new partner. NetEase responded hours later, saying it turned down the offer because it was “unfair” that Blizzard was negotiating with other companies for a three-year term at the same time. The Chinese firm called Blizzard’s actions “outrageous, inappropriate and not in line with business logic”. The next day, one of NetEase’s in-house studios hosted a public live stream showing the destruction of a giant replica of the World of Warcraft weapon Gorehowl at the company’s headquarters in Hangzhou, capital of eastern Zhejiang province. With the future of Blizzard games in China now in limbo, some Chinese gamers said it no longer matters whether those titles will return one day. “Blizzard games represent my youth,” said Wang. “I have decided not to play any more. I’m saying goodbye to them.” “Hebot”, the World of Warcraft fan, also said he is not returning. “There aren’t many 14 years in one’s lifetime, so I’d better have some other fun,” he said.