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Blizzard Spends Big on Convention to Get ‘Amped’ Up, Reward Followers

“Embrace your inner geek.”

That’s one of the eight core values of the highly creative game developers at Irvine’s Blizzard Entertainment Inc., Orange County’s biggest software maker with more than $1 billion in yearly sales.

It’s fair to say that more than 27,000 fans of Blizzard’s massively popular online games let their inner geeks run wild at the company’s annual convention, BlizzCon, in Anaheim earlier this month.

On Aug. 21, the Anaheim Convention Center was transformed into an online game player’s paradise.

In the dark, the faces of hundreds of players were illuminated by the glow of widescreen PC monitors as they test drove Blizzard’s newest games.

Those who ventured away from the rows of computer portals were treated to a cave-like atmosphere complete with statues of game characters and attendees in costume.

“There is no one else that does this kind of event,” said Paul Sams, Blizzard’s chief operating officer. “This year was the biggest live attendance we’ve ever had.”

The success of Blizzard’s games hinges on its millions of dedicated fans. So the company throws this annual convention for them, eating the expense to reward the loyal.

While Blizzard itself benefits from media exposure and fan feedback, only licensed swag sellers turn a profit from the event itself.

This was the fourth BlizzCon put on by the company, and it had almost four times as many fans than its first show in 2006.

This year’s tickets went for $125 a pop and were sold out within minutes.

About 50,000 people watched the event streaming online or through a special deal with DirecTV Group Inc., according to spokesman Shon Damron.

The event costs in the “multimillions” to put on each year. Blizzard doesn’t break even on it, according to Sams.

“We are happy and fine that that’s the case,” he said. “This is a give-back event, and it works in both directions.”

Some 1,200 Blizzard workers from all around the world come to Anaheim to work at the convention and interact with fans.

There’s a special spotlight on the company’s game developers, who get ideas and feedback from fans in a series of panel discussions.

It also acts like a corporate retreat for Blizzard’s development and creative teams, who get juiced up by the fans’ zeal.

BlizzCon “recharges the geek battery,” Sams said. “The developers love this. They love to interact with the players. It gets them totally amped and they go back and all they want to do is hit it out of the park.”

Fans come for a number of reasons.

Some are there to hang out with like-minded folks, including those who don’t bat an eye at someone wearing elf ears.

“The players spend some amount of time of their lives playing these games,” Sams said. “They love the games and the characters and the stories. Coming here and being able to interact with people who are of like mind—who dig the same stuff that they do—is a great thing.”

Nearly 12 million people play “World of Warcraft,” Blizzard’s flagship online game. Even more log onto the company’s other popular franchises: “Diablo” and “StarCraft.”

“I don’t know of any company that has the type of passionate following that we do,” Sams said. “We have the best players in the world.”

First To Play

Other spectators come for the bragging rights. They’ll be the first to play Blizzard’s new games that aren’t set to come out until next year.

Blizzard previewed the latest version of the “StarCraft II” trilogy and an expansion of “World of Warcraft,” dubbed “Cataclysm.”

“You can only play the new stuff here,” said Chris Blue, 26, a Bay Area-native who comes to BlizzCon every year.

Blue said he’s been playing Blizzard games since he was a teen.

There’s plenty of Blizzard swag for fans to buy, too.

Blizzard gear comprises the typical collectors items: posters, lunch boxes, plush dolls, bumper stickers and coloring books.

The not-so-typical collectibles included medieval-inspired drinking steins and a “full size role playing sword” made out of latex.

The company works with a slew of vendors that had booths selling stuff to a captive audience.

Some of them include Intel Corp. and Nvidia Corp., which pushed its high-end processors and graphics cards.

DC Comics Inc., part of Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., was there taking orders for extremely detailed, collectible action figures that ranged in price from $18 to $60.

Carlsbad-based Upper Deck Co., best known for selling sports trading cards, had a sizable booth selling the official “World of Warcraft” trading card game and miniature figurines.

William Estela, who manages Upper Deck’s store in Huntington Beach, declined to say how much business he sees from BlizzCon.

“We do well here,” he said.

He said a lot of players are looking to buy items made exclusively for the event.

“The big thing at any convention is the exclusives,” Estela said. “We’ll have big rushes of people coming to buy them.”

Other highlights include costume and “sound-alike” contests hosted by comedian Jay Mohr and game tournaments with big prizes.

Ozzy Osbourne

BlizzCon wrapped up with a live concert by none other than the Prince of Darkness himself, Ozzy Osbourne.

The aging rocker has appeared in television commercials for Blizzard advertising the latest installment of “World of Warcraft,” called “Wrath of the Lich King.”

Blizzard’s Sams said there really isn’t a way to measure all the benefits the company sees from throwing what amounts to a massive two-day party for its most dedicated fans.

Giving players a chance to play new games “builds anticipation,” he said.

The show gets huge amounts of press in both mainstream newspapers and magazines as well as on more specialized Web sites for players.

“All of that translates, at least in theory, into enthusiasm and into sales at some point,” Sams said. “It may not be perfectly measurable, but we would do this just for the fans and for our employees. This is absolutely worth it.”

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