Millions of Chinese gamers are unable to access World of Warcraft following a bitter dispute between US game Activision Blizzard and NetEase, its longtime local partner in the world’s largest gaming market. Advocates of the popular game mourned the loss on social media networks, with one posting an image of a failed connection message accompanied by a crying emoji.

“This really breaks my heart,” wrote one netizen. “It hurts, it hurts so much” another.

The 14-year cooperation has brought great benefits to both parties, helping NetEase become the second largest game publisher in China after Tencent Holdings, and also opened the door for Blizzard to enter the huge Asian market. But the two companies broke off talks late last year on a new licensing agreement to offer Blizzard franchises such as Diablo, Warcraft and Overwatch in China.

The row escalated this month when NetEase accused its longtime partner of being “rude and inappropriate”. Blizzard offered to extend their license agreement for another months while new terms were drawn up, but NetEase described the idea as “filing for divorce while maintaining ties to the same partners.”

In addition to financial terms, sticking points in the dispute include ownership of intellectual property and control over the data of millions of players in China, Bloomberg previously reported. NetEase said in its January statement that it never attempted to control intellectual property in its partnership with Blizzard, and that it only used Blizzard’s game assets by mutual agreement.

Servers hosting Blizzard games shut down in China at midnight on January 23. The company has promised to let World of Warcraft players save their progress through a new service. NetEase warned that it could not guarantee the security of the service, saying it could pose security risks.

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For the ex-player, the dominant sentiment expressed on social media was disappointment rather than taking in the corporate dispute.

“This is a really sad day for World of Warcraft players and Blizzard Entertainment around the world,” one person wrote online. “The sudden shutdown is a stark reminder of the impermanence that displaces millions of players.”

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By Rebecca French

Rebecca French writes books about Technology and smartwatches. Her books have received starred reviews in Technology Shout, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist. She is a New York Times and a USA Today Bestseller...