China loves World of Warcraft. Like, they really love it. More than you do. No matter how much time you’ve spent leveling up your avatar, you’ve got nothing on Chinese players, who in extreme cases have straight-up died during marathon playing sessions. As Chinese-owned Legendary Pictures prepares to unleash Warcraft directed by Moon and Source Code helmer Duncan Jones, fans in China are getting some extra special attention.
Not only will they get to see the movie two days before the rest of the world, they’ll also be treated to a knock-off movie, called My WoW, which will be released this month in Chinese theaters. It has a prominent director and cast, too, so it’s no low-budget fan fiction joint.
But what’s behind China’s obsession with a digital exaggeration of Tolkein-driven fantasy? Timing.
The country’s devotion to the multiplayer online game from Silicon Valley-based Blizzard Entertainment can be traced back to the game’s launch in 2005, which wasn’t smooth. As Engadget detailed in a 2014 retrospective, Blizzard knew the game would be a hit but spats with Chinese localizer The9 caused wrinkles in what should have been a smooth release. “By early 2006, players had grown increasingly dissatisfied with The9 and threatened a boycott,” Engadget writes. “The9 claimed that difficulty with communicating with Blizzard was behind poor realm performance.”
But the outrage wasn’t because they just wanted to play and couldn’t: They downright needed to. In the mid-2000s, online access and internet cafes boomed all throughout Asia thanks to a proliferating tech industry. The game’s generally addictive nature lends itself to being an attention vacuum, and Chinese players bought in — literally — with access that, at launch, was 6 cents USD per hour.
Restrictive timing and censored content hasn’t deterred China’s devotion to Azeroth. Besides the typical merchandising, branded McDonald’s, and cross promotions with pop stars, World of Warcraft has prompted giant knock-offs that go beyond street vendors and couldn’t happen anywhere else.
In 2008, a Beijing restaurant shamelessly modeled after the game with inspired dishes and decorations until it closed in 2011 due to a dwindling economy. It was unknown if the restaurant owners had actual permission from Blizzard in the first place.
In January 2013, a massive and massively illegal Warcraft theme park opened up, despite not having the license, meaning visitors were walking around a $48 million lawsuit waiting to happen. And not just from Blizzard: it also took pages from Disney wholesale with its own “It’s A Small World” boat ride.
But that’s just how much China loves its MMORPGs. In December Legendary opened an official exhibit in Chengdu.
And now, there’s a knock-off movie: My WoW, directed by Zhang Wei and starring actual Hong Kong actors Waise Lee and Wong Yat-fei. Plot details are scarce and I can’t even find a trailer, but it’s real and it’s cashing in on Legendary’s Warcraft hype in China. “I hope this film will recall your old memory of World of Warcraft”, Zhang said at a press conference earlier this year. It was a gutsy move, legally speaking, but it’s not as if filmmakers in America don’t rip off bigger productions at all.