How on Earth is 'Warcraft' stomping all over 'Star Wars' box office in China?
It’s been a summer of fizzle at the box office. Other than a few highlights (Captain America: Civil War, The Conjuring 2), Hollywood can’t seem to get a blockbuster toe-hold with American audiences. The latest addition to the heap of box office disappointments was Universal and Blizzard Entertainment’s ambitious Warcraft effort. On a production budget of $160 million, the film only received a domestic box office of $24 million opening weekend.
But that’s okay because China is here to make up the difference. After only five days in theaters, Warcraft has brought in $156 million in China, which means the humans vs. orcs fantasy has already surpassed the $124 million box office total of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in China. To a lot of people, that’s a bit of a head scratcher. How could STAR WARS fall to the likes of a video game adaptation? The short answer is because China has more affinity and nostalgia for Warcraft. The long answer is below.
Before World of Warcraft, there were Warcraft RTS (real-time strategy games) I, II, and III. Warcraft III was released in 2002. The game did extremely well, selling over a million copies in a month. In China, the game became exceedingly popular, in part due to a perfect storm of the country’s recent ban on gaming consoles, and the rise of the Internet cafe. It didn’t take long for the culture to coalesce and eSports, such as the World eSports Games, took off.
eSports are exactly what they sound like. Long before Twitch brought professional gaming to the mainstream, people from all over the world were still pitting their video game skills against each other for considerable prize money. Warcraft III was among the most prevalent games used in competition. Talented players were (and still are) treated like rock stars. Li “Sky” Xioafeng — one of the most prominent Warcraft III players — still has nearly 1 million followers on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter). One of the 4 Chinese “Kings of Warcraft III,” he and his fellow players racked up tens of thousands of dollars in winnings.
Then along came World of Warcraft in 2004. The MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) quickly became an international phenomenon. At its height in 2010, more than 12 million people were subscribed to the game. Numbers show that in 2011, 3.2 million players resided in China, more than any other country. But WoW was more than entertainment in China; it was big business.
One of the many aspects of an MMO is the in-game economy. Players need better gear and items. Other players have the skills to make these items. In a pristine game, it’s a microcosm of a real economy. But then along come the gold farmers. People who spend hours a day killing creatures for the money they drop upon death, or “farming” them. After a hard’s days toil, the gold farmer then turns around and sells his haul to other players for real money. It was “Pay to Win” before it was a thing. You want that shiny shield, but you don’t have enough in-game money? Just pay cold, hard cash and it can be yours! Gold farmers came from everywhere, but China was the only country that monetized their prison system by having inmates become gold farmers.
Then in 2013, World of Joyland theme park opened in Changzhou, Jiangsu province of China. Spitting in the face of things like “copyright law,” the park is a direct rip-off of Blizzard’s properties, including Warcraft and Starcraft. You can see the towering spires of Blood Elf architecture, the mushrooms of Zangarmarsh, and the statues to the many races of the Warcraft universe, and more. There is even a drone flyover video to show off the final product.
All of this adds up to a population primed and ready for a Warcraft film in a way American audiences weren’t. On top of that, Chinese audiences love spectacle. The jaded cynicism and world-weariness haven't sucked the joy out of their movie-going experience (yet). Just look at the top three top box office performers in China. There’s The Mermaid, Furious 7, and Monster Hunt. All high on spectacle. I mean, just look at these trailers! Warcraft fits right in.
Will Warcraft outperform The Mermaid’s box office return of $526 million? It’s hard to say. But even if the video game adaptation doesn’t make another dime in China after today, it’s still the 6th biggest American film ever in China and the 15th largest overall for the country. And that’s nothing to snub your nose at. At this rate, Warcraft II: THRALL'S AWAKENING is in the bag.