Blizzard faces backlash for punishing player supporting Hong Kong protests

Blizzard is facing backlash for punishing a pro Hong Kong player.
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

On Sunday, Blizzard staged a “Hearthstone” tournament in Taiwan that is becoming the subject of international controversy.

In a post-match interview, Ng “Blitzchung” Wai Chung voiced his support for the ongoing civil unrest in Hong Kong. Consequently, Blizzard stripped Blitzchung of his prize and banned the gamer from participating in “Hearthstone” tournaments for one year. In response, several players, video game industry heavyweights, and U.S. politicians have sharply criticized the corporation.

Blitzchung’s Comments and Blizzard’s Response

During the tournament’s Asian-Pacific Grandmasters Competition, a pair of streamers interviewed Blitzchung on Blizzard’s official Taiwanese stream. Mid-segment, the gasmask-wearing competitive gamer yelled, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age.” Directly afterward, the stream cut to an ad break.

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Following the broadcast, Blizzard removed Blitzchung’s comments from its video-on-demand library. The video game corporation also took swift action to punish the esports player.

On Monday, Blizzard issued a statement noting that he had been removed from the tournament. His $3,000 in prize money was also forfeit and he has been banned from future “Hearthstone” esports contests until October 2020. The firm also indicated that it ended its relationships with the casters who interviewed the gamer.

Blizzard explained that it took action against Blitzchung because he violated tournament policy. Specifically, the corporation claims that he broke the rule prohibiting offending the public or damaging the firm’s reputation. Paradoxically, the company also affirmed its support for players’ right to express their thoughts and opinions.

It’s worth noting that Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent owns a 4.9 percent stake in Blizzard’s parent company, Activision Blizzard.

Following Blitzchung’s ban, the gamer sent a comment to esports site Inven Global. In it, he says that he made his controversial declaration to support a cause he believes in. “I know what my action on stream means,” wrote the player. “It could cause me lot of trouble, even my personal safety in real life. But I think it’s my duty to say something about the issue.”

Immense Backlash

Soon after Blizzard’s treatment of Blitzchung went public, the corporation became the subject of widespread condemnation.

Reddit users filled pages dedicated to Blizzard and “Hearthstone” with comments slamming the company’s actions. The deluge of negative comments got so intense that moderators of r/Blizzard briefly set the page to private. Similarly, Twitter users have utilized the #BoycottBlizzard hashtag to attack the corporation’s seemingly preemptive move to protect its business relationships in China.

Notably, “World of Warcraft” developer Mark Kern tweeted that the incident prompted him to cancel his subscription to the game he helped create.

Furthermore, on Tuesday, a group of Activision Blizzard employees reportedly staged a walkout at the firm’s Santa Monica, California headquarters to protest the incident. One of Blizzard’s employees told The Daily Beast that the company’s actions are “appalling but not surprising.”

On Wednesday, an Epic Games spokesperson told The Verge that the studio would not penalize its users for speaking about the Hong Kong protests. “Epic supports everyone’s right to express their views on politics and human rights. We wouldn’t ban or punish a ‘Fortnite’ player or content creator for speaking on these topics.”

In 2017, Tencent purchased 40 percent of the “Fortnite” publisher for $330 million. Nevertheless, Epic’s founder and CEO Tim Sweeney affirmed that he would not kowtow to shareholder pressure to cut ties with a politically outspoken player.

Politicians Speak Out

Blizzard’s handling of Blitzchung’s political statement has also garnered a rebuke from two U.S. Congressmen.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) tweeted, “Recognize what’s happening here. People who don’t live in #China must either self censor or face dismissal & suspensions. China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally.”

Similarly, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) chastised Blizzard for debasing itself to please the Chinese government. He also tweeted, “No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck.”

The World is Watching

Blizzard’s decision to ban an outspoken esports player comes at a moment when Corporate America’s relationship with the Chinese government is increasingly scrutinized.

Last Friday, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protesters. While neither the Rockets nor the National Basketball Association (NBA) has sanctioned the executive, both organizations have apologized for his comments. Consequently, the league has faced criticism for valuing its billion-dollar contracts with Chinese corporations over individual liberty.

Along similar lines, last Sunday, “South Park” released a new episode slamming Disney for bowing to Chinese censors. Subsequently, the Sino government scrubbed all references to the show from its regional internet. In response, “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone posted a mock apology that included a dig at the NBA’s actions.

If public outrage against Beijing’s influence reaches a boiling point, U.S. companies will have to make a decision. They will be forced to try and ride out the storm, assert their allegiance to American principles à la Epic Games, or face potential economically devastating boycotts.