Blizzard are used to making headlines. Ignoring that Diablo Immortal fiasco last year, the news is often some positive piece about an Overwatch character or World of Warcraft Classic. Though, as the days countdown to BlizzCon 2019, their most recent actions have sparked huge backlash online as well as igniting a debate on censorship and governmental control.
The government in question is China’s and whilst J. Allen Brack, President of Blizzard Entertainment, asserts relationships with the country had no sway over the decisions made; some fans are not having it. So, for anyone that is not a huge Hearthstone fan nor has been following China-Hong Kong relations here is what has happened.
On 6 October Blizzard issued a one year ban against Hearthstone player Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai following his most recent Grandmasters match. This was not for cheating nor other in-game actions but instead for comments made in a post match interview. Blizzard cited a rule that a competitor may not do something which “brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image” as stated in section 6.1 on page 12 of their rulebook.The company can decide at their sole discretion if an act violates this rule, and the player will be punished as Chung was; have their prize-winnings reduced to $0 USD and will be removed from Grandmasters.
The community responded ferociously to Chung’s ban
The action in question was Chung wearing a gasmask and calling for the liberation of Hong Kong before the broadcast was cut short. His comments were in reference to the ongoing Hong Kong protests, which have been raging for months. The protests began in April, responding to a proposed extradition bill which many feared could be abused by the Chinese government to target their critics. That bill may finally have been withdrawn in September but the protests persisted, with fears over the mainland’s control remaining too. Those involved are calling for better freedoms and democracy, amnesty for all arrested protestors and an inquiry into the actions of police.
The Chinese Government have described the behaviour of the protestors as “close to terrorism”, and have allegedly used their control to sway public perception. This includes cutting ties with companies that show support for Hong Kong.
Online Hearthstone fans and the gaming community at large strongly believe that Blizzard’s actions against Chung were, in some part, to mitigate negative repercussions that could stem from the Chinese Government.
The community responded ferociously to Chung’s ban, #boycottblizzard was trending on Twitter and fans cancelled subscriptions to their games. In a less typical move, following a suggestion on r/HongKong, a campaign began to turn Overwatch hero Mei into a symbol of Hong Kong support. The hope was to use Chinese censorship against Blizzard, by adding Mei to a list of banned images which includes lovable bear Winnie the Pooh. Having the character banned in the country would lead to Overwatch likely being banned too or would force Blizzard to create an entirely new character to replace one of the game’s core lineup.
As of 12 October, the ban has been reduced to only six months and Chung will be given his prize winnings but the company doubled down on the message that his political speech was inappropriate and not inline with Blizzard’s core values. This message is despite the fact that three American players were given no punishment for making a practically identical statement in a different Hearthstone stream the day after Chung.
Intentionally or not, Blizzard’s actions to maintain an apolitical stance have been perceived as anything but. The Chinese Government has never shown kindness to their critics, by stifling another Blizzard have supported the country’s ongoing suppression of thought.
Sports and esports can be a tool to bring us together
If Blizzard want to champion freedom and expression, to say that “Every Voice Matters”, they should stand by their belief. If they want to stick by one of their “eight core values” they must allow players the freedom to speak their mind. Whilst there can obviously be blurred lines with regard to this freedom, some messages that perhaps should be silenced do exist, surely speaking out against oppressive forces is a positive one?
However, I can see the arguments about making competition politics-free. When it can often be a driving force of division, sports and esports can be a tool to bring us together. Apolitical stances can also assist companies in a more capitalistic way. Roughly 20% of the entire global population lives in China. Losing access to this market would hit share prices hard and greatly limit the earning potential of corporations. From a monetary perspective it is therefore vital to be able to trade in China, but to what extent should profit come before freedom? When countries are allowed to play fast and loose with human rights laws, should we not hold them to account?
Regardless of your political stance, silencing the voice of others is never smart. Blizzard have said a lot with their most recent move. The Chinese Government has always imposed rules and restrictions on companies that want to do business in their country. They have in the past forced hotel chain Marriott to amend their site listing to “Taiwan, China”, as Taiwan is not recognised as a separate country by the state. More recently the NBA (America’s National Basketball Association) has found themselves in the midst of their own crisis, following a Hong Kong supporting tweet from just one team’s General Manager.
At the end of the day, Blizzard are free to make whatever decisions they wish, as is any organisation in a free world. However, if Blizzard are so concerned that players uphold their core values, maybe they should check that the countries they deal with do too.