By Matt Gerardi
Welcome back to The Roundup, the New York Videogame Critics Circle’s weekly look at our members’ writing and news from around the world of videogames. This week, our critics report in from big events with looks ahead at potential futures for VR and esports. Plus, a Smash Bros. veteran finally gets his win, Ghost Recon Breakpoint disappoints, the PlayStation 5 becomes a teeny bit more of a reality, and Blizzard faces the heat after a craven censorship decision.
Facebook and Oculus recently announced their development of a new virtual reality social app called Horizon. It’ll let people (and probably lots and lots of corporations) create and share VR spaces and experiences for chatting and playing games, all wrapped together with a colorful look and legless cartoon avatars. Scott Stein attended a Facebook event where the company demonstrated how it’ll all work. In the end, Scott was impressed by what Facebook was showing off—“it was like living in a big, fun fantasy playset,” he wrote—but he had too many big, important questions to come away thinking Horizons was more than just an intriguing concept for the future of VR: How will Facebook protect people from offensive content or toxic interactions? How will Facebook maintain users’ privacy and security? Just how flexible are these creation tools?
Mike Andronico, meanwhile, reported in from New York Comic Con, where he had the opportunity to speak with Yoshinori Ono, Capcom’s delightful Street Fighter producer, and Mark Subotnick, Intel’s director of business development for esports and gaming, about the companies’ partnership with the 2020 Olympics and their plan to bring esports to the Olympic games. Ono’s Street Fighter V will be one of two games, alongside Rocket League, making up the Intel World Open. This unique event will see teams from around the world contending for a chance to represent their countries at the World Open finals, which will help kick off the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. From Subotnick, Mike got some interesting insights into why Street Fighter and Rocket League—games that are popular in their own right but don’t have the huge followings of bigger esports—were chosen.
While we’re on the subject of esports, Imad Khan recently published a conversation at ESPN with Super Smash Bros. great Eric “ESAM” Lew held just after his big victory in the Glitch 7 national tournament in September. It was the first first-place finish at a major tournament for the 14-year vet, and Imad got to catch up with him in the heat of the moment to capture what this win meant, how it’s felt to go that long without clinching a major title, and how he’s feeling as he moves on in the never-ending grind of Smash tournaments.
Last week, we checked in on Heather Alexandra’s attempts to push through Ghost Recon Breakpoint. This week, she’s back with a full review, and, well, it sounds like things didn’t get much better after those first five hours. There are flashes of brilliance, she writes, particularly when the exploration and stealth are really clicking. But perhaps the game’s biggest issue, one that trickles down into every facet, is its lack of identity. “It is a loot-shooter where loot doesn’t matter, a game about technology that constantly confuses its message, and a survival mechanic-laden exploration game where you never struggle to survive,” Heather argued. “A lot of things are thrown against the wall, rarely sticking.”
And finally, we got some big news out of Sony this week, as the company went ahead and confirmed what we all knew anyway: that it’s next console is coming out in the autumn of 2020 and it will be called the PlayStation 5. Patrick Lucas Austin covered all the pertinent details for Time, running down the recent confirmations that the system will once again employ Blu-Ray discs and a DualShock-style controller (albeit with some new functionality), as well as come packing that fancy ray-tracing graphical technology for more realistic lighting effects.
From Beyond The Circle
That PlayStation 5 news comes from an exclusive interview with Mark Cerny, Sony’s console architect, provided to Wired that’s well worth reading if you’re hungry for every last news tidbit about the new consoles on the horizon. Besides those previously mentioned nuggets, Cerny got super-technical about the console’s data storage solution, which has, surprisingly, been at the center of the next-gen conversation. The other big topic of conversation was the new controller and its various modes of haptic feedback, like triggers that change their resistance and a new method for rumble, replacing the big, clumsy motors we’re used to with actuators that can be programmed for more specific vibration depending on the situation.
Blizzard sparked a major backlash from all sides this week when, like the NBA before it, the company decided to side with the oppressive Chinese government in suspending a professional Hearthstone player who used a post-match interview to offer support the ongoing Hong Kong protests. Polygon published a comprehensive report of the initial suspension, which not only removed Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai, a Hong Kong-based player, from future competitions but also revoked his already-earned winnings. Blizzard also scrubbed the interview segment from its official video archive of the competition, but as with all things on the internet, clips of blitzchung saying “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time” remain online.
The response to Blizzard’s purely face-saving decision has been swift, angry, and global. In Hong Kong and around the world, Polygon reports, online supporters have begun using Mei, Overwatch’s Chinese scientist character, as a symbol of the protests, flooding the internet with freedom-fighting fanart in an attempt to goad the censor-happy Chinese government into banning Overwatch while getting in a good jab at Blizzard. In the US, according to The Washington Post, collegiate Hearthstone players at American University used a moment after their loss on an official Blizzard-operated stream to hold up a sign reading “Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizz,” prompting the stream’s producers to quickly cut away and shut the broadcast down.
The backlash has even grown inside Blizzard itself. The Daily Beast spoke with multiple Blizzard employees after “a small group” staged a walk-out in protest of the company’s decision and made it very clear that this move went against the values of “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters” the developer has espoused over the years. “The action Blizzard took against the player was pretty appalling but not surprising,” one source told The Daily Beast. “Blizzard makes a lot of money in China, but now the company is in this awkward position where we can’t abide by our values.”
And finally, speaking of The Washington Post’s games coverage, the newspaper, which also frequently hosts contributions from Circle members like Harold Goldberg and primary critic Christopher Byrd, has announced the, ahem, launch of a new games vertical called “Launcher.” Headed by Mike Hume, the section will focus on the games industry, gaming culture, and esports through reviews, competition coverage, and feature stories on notable people and trends. Circle founder Harold Goldberg also had a hand in consulting on the section’s development, and he will continue to contribute to “Launcher” as a writer.
That’ll do it for this week’s Roundup. Thank you for reading, and we’ll see you next week!
Matt Gerardi is a writer from New York, the former games editor at The A.V. Club, and a member of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.