Activision Blizzard became the latest American company to find itself caught between its business interests in China and the values of its core customers. Blizzard banned Blitzchung. Shocking, isn’t it? Blitzchung is a professional Hearthstone Esports player who voiced support for the Hong Kong protests during a live broadcast.
Why Blizzard Banned Blitzchung
The decision to suspend Blitzchung Ng Wai was swift and, according to the public, unjustified. Blizzard banned Blitzchung for 12 months. They also forced him to forfeit a reported $10,000 in prize money. Lastly, this prompted backlash in the United States similar to the public relations debate the NBA faced this week. Gamers posted angrily on social media and in forums, while politicians saw it as another troubling sign of China’s chilling clampdown on speech worldwide.
Blizzard also fired two casters for political rhetoric in a post-game interview regarding the Hong Kong protests at the Asia-Pacific Hearthstone Grandmasters Tournament.
— 🎃 Inven Global 🎃 (@InvenGlobal) October 6, 2019
In a post-match interview with the Taiwanese Hearthstone stream, Blitzchung appeared with ballistic goggles and a gas mask. This type of protective gear is often worn by protesters during demonstrations in Hong Kong. Blitzchung shouted in Mandarin: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” a popular slogan of the protesters. Blitzchung did not respond to an interview request on Wednesday. But in a chat with fans on Tuesday on Twitch, he expressed no regret.
“Today, what I have lost in Hearthstone is four years of time,” he said, referring to the years he spent playing the game. “But if Hong Kong loses, it would be the matter of a lifetime.” The post-game interview comes at the highest form of professional Hearthstone—Hearthstone Grandmasters. Blizzard Entertainment’s suspension against Wai will last through October 5, 2020. The company also completely revoked Wai’s earnings from Hearthstone Grandmasters Season 2.
The company also ceased work with the two casters immediately.
What did Blizzard Say?
A statement from Blizzard came out October 8 in response to the incident: “Engaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and Blizzard’s Website Terms.”
— Blizzard Entertainment
The company adds that they stand by an individual’s right to express their opinions, but says participants that compete in official esports competitions “must abide by the official competition rules.” Wai went to Polygon to discuss his political position in support of protesters.
“I wanted to contribute to the protest [Hong Kong] is having right now,” says Wai. “Not only to grab more attention, but also telling some of the protesters were who watching the stream that I’m on their side. I have got a lot of supportive messages from my local community, so I’m glad that my statements became a kind of energy for them.”
What will Happen Now after Blizzard Banned Blitzchung?
Tencent—the largest videogame company in the world based in China— currently owns a five percent stake in Blizzard’s parent company Activision Blizzard. It’s unknown how much of Activision Blizzard’s income comes from China specifically. However, the company states that 12 percent of their net revenue comes from the Asia Pacific region. Blizzard’s ban on HK’s freedom was controversial still. It is not yet clear what commercial impact the backlash to Blizzard would have, but many of its users reacted strongly.
Threads on Reddit forums dedicated to Blizzard games lit up with criticism, while calls to boycott the company or cancel subscriptions spread throughout Twitter.
One person to cancel his World of Warcraft subscription was Mark Kern, who led the team that created the game. Such a bold statement really is eye-awakening.
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The Casters’ Perspective
But two of the unexpected victims of Blitzchung’s controversial statement are Virtual and Mr. Yee, the Taiwanese commentators who were hosting the tournament. They were on camera when Blitzchung made his remarks. Both were fired, and after speaking with Virtual, they still don’t know why. “I just want to know all the details of this judgement, and they say will tell me in 24 hours,” Virtual, who requested I not use his real name, told me. “Right now I still have 13 hours to go.”
To make it evident that Blitzchung was speaking only for himself and not for Virtual, Mr. Yee or the tournament organizers, both ducked under their desks to hide their faces while Blitzchung spoke.
The gaming community responded to Blizzard’s actions on Twitter using hashtags like #boycottblizzard and #freegaming. Some Twitter users deemed the company “evil” and “shameful.”