Jiang Haoqing still remembers when he first started playing the multiplayer role-playing game World of Warcraft (WoW) as a high school student in 2011. Spellbound by an online world of mythical creatures and epic battles, he named his avatar “Waterage” — combining his last name Jiang, which means “river” in Chinese, and the character Stormrage from the Warcraft Universe. Since then, Waterage turned into a fixture of Jiang’s daily life. Once an after-school activity, WoW became a relaxing way to unwind at night, after Jiang had put his young daughters to bed.

At midnight, on January 23, Jiang’s Warcraft journey came to an abrupt end. American gaming company Activision Blizzard, the title owner of World of Warcraft, suspended services and shut down its servers in China, because of a licensing disagreement with their partner, the Chinese gaming giant NetEase. Given the difficulty of acquiring game-publishing permits in China, foreign gaming companies usually partner with a Chinese company to enter the local market. A dissolved partnership meant that all of Blizzard’s games in China — including World of Warcraft, Overwatch, and Hearthstone — were shut down. 

Jiang grieved his loss. He had spent over a decade in the Warcraft universe, leveling up his avatar Waterage, purchasing in-game skins and products, and making new friends in the Azeroth continent. Overnight, years’ worth of his efforts were brought to naught — all because of a business squabble. 

Blizzard’s departure from China’s gaming market marked a momentous farewell for an entire generation of Chinese gamers who had come of age playing Blizzard games such as World of Warcraft. After the shutdown, WoW’s estimated 3 million players in China found themselves barred from a game that many had played since childhood, and over 1 million players across the Activision Blizzard universe asked for a refund. Blizzard’s closure not only affected the gamers, but also struck a blow to an entire underground industry of gaming livestreamers, who broadcast themselves playing games to a live audience; substitute players (known as dailians) hired to play for clients; and small gaming businesses that take over players’ accounts — all of whom now find themselves jobless. 

“It [felt] like a precious piece of antique was stolen overnight,” Xingxian, an avid Chinese World of Warcraft player for more than 13 years, told Rest of World. For Xingxian, who preferred to be identified by his game ID, WoW was more than just a pastime — it was a community. Like so many others, he had been a dedicated member of a “guild,” an in-game association for players to socialize and collaborate. Xingxian’s guild, Chang Sheng Tian, had over 300 members. 

Liu Jun, the former owner of a dailian business from Shandong province, became a professional substitute game player after graduating high school in 2008 — it was one of the few job options available to him at the time. As a for-hire player, his role was to take over clients’ accounts, helping them unlock achievements, level up their avatars, and accelerate their progress. The job was grueling, and sucked all the fun out of playing online games. He often worked ten hours a day for less than 20 yuan ($3) per hour. He sometimes had three windows open on his computer at a time, as he played on multiple clients’ accounts. “My eyes would be in pain from staring at the screen all day,” Liu told Rest of World. 

Dailians tend to be young men without college degrees, ranging from the working to lower-middle class, and have little bargaining power, Zoe Mengyang Zhao, a PhD candidate researching the Chinese gaming industry at the University of Pennsylvania, told Rest of World. “The relationship between dailians and their employers is usually highly exploitative.” 

Liu eventually made enough money to start his own business in 2013, hiring four dailians as employees. They received commissions on e-commerce sites, such as Taobao, where clients would send over their login details. Then, the dailians would work as quickly as possible to unlock game rewards, sometimes turning around results within a day. Although WoW’s user base was declining, Liu’s loyal customers remained. “It’s a business of nostalgia,” he said. Once, a middle-aged gamer paid him to play for all the members of his guild, who were too busy to keep playing. “World of Warcraft was the game that introduced millennial Chinese gamers to the world of gaming,” said Zhao. “It still has a retro allure to that generation.” 

When Liu heard rumors of Blizzard’s dispute with NetEase in late 2022, he didn’t think much of it. Blizzard would not give up a market as large as China, he believed. The country’s gaming market accounted for at least 3% of Activision’s net revenue in 2021, roughly $264 million in sales. But when the company shut down its Chinese servers in January, Liu decided to close his gaming studio and quit the dailian industry for good. “[Blizzard’s shutdown] was like an inevitable meteor falling from the sky,” he said. “It was time to look [for opportunities] elsewhere.” 

Some of his friends working at other studios have shifted their focus away from Chinese servers. On global servers, the game is still accessible to Chinese players who are willing to jump through extra hoops: using a VPN to bypass China’s firewall, a virtual phone number to register for a non-Chinese account, and special software to reduce connection lag. 

But Jiang did not want to move to a global server. Like many other gamers, he believed that Blizzard handled its deal with NetEase poorly, snubbing its Chinese users. “Nothing will replace WoW for me. It was the most important place for me, where I once hung out with all my friends,” Jiang told Rest of World. “But I will not join another server because I don’t want Blizzard to get their way.” They needed to show Blizzard that Chinese gamers “have backbones, and cannot be disrespected,” Xinyuan Chen, another gamer from the Chang Sheng Tian guild, told Rest of World.

Many gamers, devastated by the loss of an avatar to which they had dedicated their entire lives, did not want to simply start from scratch all over again. “I have put in a lot of money and time into the games, and find the loss of my progress very unacceptable,” Nathan Xu, another WoW player, told Rest of World. Xu estimated that he had spent at least 10,000 hours playing the game. After announcing the shutdown, Blizzard and NetEase did not offer to store user data, providing only a service called the “electronic urn,” which allowed WoW players to download their characters, gear, and progress onto their personal devices.

The day before Blizzard’s China servers were shut down in January, Xu snuck out of his family’s Chinese New Year gathering to play WoW for the last time. He headed straight for the Icecrown Citadel, his favorite spot in the Warcraft universe. Close to midnight, as “server shutting down soon” notifications started popping up on his screen, Xu watched as his fellow gamers began to throw away all the hard-won valuables they had accumulated over the years for others to pick up, as a last gesture of farewell and goodwill. 

Xu was more nostalgic. He downloaded his player data into an “electronic urn” — seventeen years of his Warcraft journey condensed into several kilobytes of data. If China’s servers were ever reopened one day, perhaps he could bring those ashes back to life. But that remains unlikely. “I can only hope that the connections that I made along the way don’t vanish with the game itself,” Xu said.