Hollywood film Warcraft will have its global premiere in China next month, in what is the culmination of a decade-long love affair between the world’s most populous country and one of the most popular online games of all time, writes the BBC’s Tessa Wong.

The film, based on the fantasy game World of Warcraft (WoW), will open in China on 8 June, two days before it begins screening in the US.

Why China?

The game sees players exploring a vast landscape, complete quests and interact with other gamers, and is known for its colourful array of monsters and landscapes, giving rise to its Chinese name “World of Magic Beasts”.

Opening the movie first in China makes financial sense as it is one of the biggest markets for WoW. The Chinese are estimated to make up about half of its five million players.

One of the studios behind the movie, Legendary Entertainment, is majority owned by Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda, which acquired a controlling stake in January.

But the decision is also part of an accelerating trend where Hollywood has been wooing China by staging elaborate premieres and tie-ups.

The last Transformers movie was partly funded by Chinese backers and shot in China – though that ran into controversy – and the latest Star Wars movie was heavily promoted in China with publicity stunts and the appointment of pop star Luhan as an ambassador.

Censorship and addiction

The love story between China and WoW is one of perseverance, as the game’s popularity has soared despite deep government suspicion prompting heavy controls, according to tech blog Engadget.

Chinese players had to make do with a special version of the game with its violence, gore and even character design toned down. Skeletons were “covered up” with flesh, and even the colour of spilt blood was changed to a darker, less shocking hue.

The government also insisted that a timer mechanism be built into the game to prevent people from playing it for too long, following widespread fears of internet addiction.

Last year one WoW player reportedly collapsed and died after playing it for 19 hours without a break.

Operation of the game in China was originally in foreign hands, but it eventually was bought over by Chinese company NetEase.

China expansion

But such obstacles could not stop its runaway success – part of the reason was the timing, as the game was first introduced China in 2005, at a time where online access and internet cafes were fast proliferating amid a booming tech scene.

In a nod to its popularity, creator Blizzard Entertainment made a Chinese-inspired expansion to the game called Mists of Pandaria in 2012, featuring panda warriors and monk characters.

In recent years the number of players of WoW globally has dropped, but it has made a lasting mark in China as a cultural touchstone.

Entrepreneurial Chinese have cashed in on the craze – sometimes without official permission. There is WoW merchandise, a WoW-themed restaurant, and even a massive knock-off theme park in Changzhou.

Perhaps unsurprisingly there is also a knock-off Warcraft movie – this month, a Chinese-produced movie called MyWoW will open in cinemas ahead of the official film.

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