- A vocal group of fans are boycotting Activision Blizzard after the company punished an esports competitor who spoke out in support of the protests in “Hong Kong.’
- Chung Ng Wai, the esports competitor better known as Blitzchung, shouted “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age” in Chinese amid a post-match interview at a Blizzard-sponsored “Hearthstone” tournament in Taiwan on October 5.
- Blizzard responded by stripping Blitzchung of his prize money and barring him from “Hearthstone” competitions for one year. Blizzard said Blitzchung’s comments had violated the competition rules by damaging the company’s image. It later walked back the punishment, reducing it down to 6 months.
- Critics have accused the California-based studio of prioritising its relationship with China instead of protecting free speech – something it denied in a statement issued on Friday night.
- The controversy has the potential to spill over into BlizzCon, Blizzard annual fan convention scheduled for November 1st. A group called Fight for the Future plans to organise a protest at the event, to be held in Anaheim, California.
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Activision Blizzard is dealing with a fan revolt and intense public scrutiny after punishing Blitzchung – a Hong Kong-based esports competitor who voiced support for Hong Kong’s protesters during a Blizzard-run event on October 5.
Blitzchung, whose real name is Chung Ng Wai, is a grandmaster-level player in “Hearthstone,” Blizzard’s very popular digital card game.
During Blizzard’s official broadcast of the Asia-Pacific Grandmasters competition, Blitzchung appeared in a post-match interview wearing a gas mask. As the broadcast ended, Blitzchung shouted “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age,” with the apparent support of the two tournament broadcasters.
Blizzard responded to Blitzchung’s comments on October 8 by stripping him of about $US3,000 in prize money he had already earned for the tournament, and barred him from “Hearthstone” competitions for one year. Blizzard also said it would no longer work with the two broadcasters who were interviewing Blitzchung during his comments. The company deleted the match and interview footage from its official channels as well.
In the blog post announcing Blitzchung’s ban, Blizzard said “we stand by one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions,” but Blitzchung’s comments were deemed to be harmful to the company.
In a follow-up statement issued on Friday night, Blizzard said that it was reducing his suspension (and that of the broadcasters) to six months, and restoring his prize money – though mostly otherwise stood by its earlier positions.
Here’s a timeline of Blizzard’s terrible week, as fans and politicians expressed their outrage over how the company handled the episode:
Critics accused Blizzard of prioritising its business interests in China instead of protecting free speech.
Blizzard’s decision has sparked outrage from Americans, who say Blitzchung’s comments should be protected as free speech – especially given that Blizzard is an American company. Supporters of the protests in Hong Kong accused Blizzard of compromising its principles to protect its business interests in China.
Hong Kong has been under a condition of civil unrest for more than four months. Millions of people have marched to demand sovereignty from mainland China and protest its socioeconomic conditions. The ongoing protests have already garnered international attention, with the territory’s increasingly complex relationship with China’s communist government as a core issue.
China spends more money on video games than any other country in the world, making the market a vital part of Blizzard’s business. Tencent, one of China’s biggest companies and the largest video-game publisher in the world, owns a 5% stake in Blizzard’s parent company, Activision Blizzard.
Blizzard is the latest American company to face criticism for its relationship to China. The NBA is also embroiled in its own controversy involving Hong Kong and China after Houston Rockets General Manager Darryl Morey shared a tweet in support of the protests. Morey later apologised and deleted the tweet, but the situation has strained the league’s relationship with China.
Blizzard’s decision drew criticism from US Senators and fellow video game makers.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon were among the many voices that came to Blitzchung’s defence, accusing Blizzard of censorship.
“Blizzard shows it is willing to humiliate itself to please the Chinese Communist Party,” Wyden tweeted. “No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck.”
Epic Games, the company behind “Fortnite,” issued a statement saying that no “Fortnite” players would be punished for sharing their opinion on politics and human rights. Though 40% of Epic is owned by Tencent, China’s largest video game publisher, CEO (and majority shareholder) Tim Sweeney said he would “never” allow this sort of punishment for a player.
Outraged fans have vowed to boycott Blizzard games until the company changes its stance on the Hong Kong protests.
Upset fans have flooded message boards for Blizzard’s most popular games with posts calling for boycotts of Blizzard. The main Reddit board dedicated to Blizzard titles, “r/Blizzard,” was temporarily set to private mode on October 8 by the moderators because of the intense backlash. A few posters who shared messages about Hong Kong on Blizzard’s own forums had their accounts banned from the site until the year 3019.
“#BlizzardBoycott” became a trending hashtag on Twitter as dozens of people shared screenshots of themselves deleting their Blizzard accounts or cancelling subscriptions to Blizzard’s “World of Warcraft.”
As the public backlash continued, Blizzard employees and esports contractors alike expressed frustration and concern with the company’s stance.
Hours after Blizzard announced Blitzchung’s ban, a former Blizzard employee tweeted that some backlash seemed to be brewing internally: Someone had covered up two of the company’s key values – “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters” – enshrined on a statue at the company’s headquarters.
On October 9, a group of some 30 Activision Blizzard employees staged a walkout to protest the company’s punishment of a Hong Kong-based esports competitor who made a political statement during a Blizzard event in Taiwan, according to a report from Blake Montgomery of The Daily Beast.
A photo shared with The Daily Beast and posted on Imgur showed several employees holding umbrellas – an object that has become symbolic of the protests in Hong Kong.
On October 10, Justin “Jayne” Conroy, an coach for a Dallas-based esports team in Activision Blizzard‘s Overwatch League, was reportedly ordered to delete a tweet that criticised Blizzard’s punishment of Blitzchung.
A few hours before Jayne’s tweet, “Hearthstone” commentator Brian Kibler announced that he would decline working with the company for the finals of its Grandmasters competition. Though Kibler agreed that Blitzchung had violated the company’s policies, he said the punishment seemed too harsh for the situation. Two days later, another “Hearthstone” commentator, Nathan “Admirable” Zamora said he was withdrawing from the event as well.
Some people have started using one of Blizzard’s characters as a mascot for the protest, in hopes of straining Blizzard’s relationship with China.
A group of gamers latched onto the idea of co-opting Mei, a Chinese character from Blizzard’s “Overwatch,” for pro-protest messages. The idea was an attempt to sour China’s relationship with Blizzard. China’s government has strict regulations on what games are released in the country, and games that promote deeply political messages or rebellion against the government are specifically prohibited.
While Mei isn’t normally much of a rebel in her game, fans have taken liberties with her design to make her an emblem of the protests in Hong Kong. This includes draping her in the design of Hong Kong’s flag and drawing pictures of her wearing symbols of the protests, like umbrellas and gas masks.
Blizzard’s annual fan convention is less than a month away, and a mass protest of the event could be on the horizon.
BlizzCon, Blizzard’s fan annual convention, is scheduled for the weekend of November 1. The company typically holds its biggest announcements of the year for the BlizzCon stage, but this year’s event could have a much different tone.
An organisation called Fight for the Future is organising a protest to coincide with BlizzCon in Anaheim, California, according to Vice, and protest signs have recently been spotted at official Blizzard esports events.
With less than a month until the company’s largest event, the world will be watching to see what Blizzard does next.
On Friday night, Blizzard President J. Allen Brack issued a statement saying that its ‘relationships in China had no influence on our decision’ to punish Blitzchung.
In the statement, Brack says that Blitzchung violated Blizzard’s rules around keeping its official channels focused on the game, but that it was walking back his suspension to only six months – and the same again for the on-air casters involved. Brack also indicated that “we now believe he should receive his prizing,” though he didn’t offer specifics.
You can read the full statement here.
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