Hong Kong protests spill into esports, Hearthstone

Courtesy of Kotaku

The California-based video game company Activision-Blizzard has waded into the same political thicket as the NBA by deciding to punish an esports player for speaking out in favor of the protests currently taking place in Hong Kong. Chung Ng Wai, known by his in-game name of Blitzchung, was forced to forfeit his winnings, around $10,000, and banned from playing Hearthstone competitively for one year. All of this because in his post-match interview on Sunday, Oct. 6, Blitzchung declared, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time!” (Vox, “One of America’s biggest gaming companies is acting as China’s censor,” 10.08.2019)

Blizzard immediately went into damage control mode to protect its business interests in the large Chinese video game market by quickly deleting the video of the interview from its own social media pages and anywhere else the company could find a copy of the video. These efforts have, for the most part, backfired. Blitzchung was punished for, according to Blizzard’s own statement, “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.” (Hearthstone Blog, “Hearthstone Grandmasters Asia-Pacific Ruling,” 10.08.2019) However, it was Blizzard’s own action of suppressing Blitzchung’s message that damaged its image and prompted the hashtag “boycottBlizzard” to pick up steam.

The video game community, which has a mixed history when it comes to large social movements, has banded around the Hong Kong protesters and taken a two-pronged approach to push back against Blizzard. The first is the aforementioned hashtag, encouraging players of Hearthstone, Overwatch and World of Warcraft to delete their accounts on Blizzard’s website battle.net and to stop playing any games produced or made by Blizzard. At some point during the wave of civil disobedience, either due to maleficence or incompetence, it became impossible to delete one’s Blizzard account because all four of Blizzard’s functions that verify and confirm account deletion were unusable, leaving some remaining users trapped with accounts they no longer want (The Daily Dot, “Blizzard accused of blocking gamers from deleting accounts,” 10.09.2019).

The second prong is a concerted effort to damage Blizzard’s business prospects in China. President of The People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping is notorious for his inability to withstand ridicule or criticism and has previously banned all images of Winnie the Pooh in China after a pejorative comparison was made between him and the honey-loving bear (BBC News, “Why China censors banned Winnie the Pooh,” 07.17.2017). With this in mind, gamers and meme producers have been editing pro-Hong Kong slogans onto images of the popular Overwatch character Mei with the hope that Mei will become so associated with the Hong Kong liberation movement that Blizzard will be forced to remove the character or game from the Chinese market.

More than just esports fans and regular gamers are voicing support for Blitzchung and the Hong Kong protestors: Other esports professionals are also lending their voices to the shout against Blizzard. In another Hearthstone tournament, players from an American University team held up a sign that read “FREE HONG KONG, BOYCOTT BLIZZ.” (Kotaku, “College Hearthstone Players Who Held Up ‘Free Hong Kong’ Sign Drop Out Of Tournament,” 10.10.2019) Blizzard attempted damage control on the spot, killing the camera that was showing the team, but has been much more hesitant to act as China’s cat’s-paw in punishing American players in the way it did Blitzchung, who is from Taiwan. Brian Kibler, a well-regarded Hearthstone commentator, has also refused to associate himself with Blizzard. He released a nuanced and compelling statement, which accepted that Blitzchung should have been punished for making political statements, but also added that Blizzard had overshot the mark with its punishment: “I could understand a fine, or even a short suspension from competitive play, but removal from Grandmasters, clawing back the prizes he already earned, and banning him for a full year seems completely overboard to an extent that feels completely unwarranted and unfair … The heavy-handedness of it feels like someone insisted that Blizzard make an example of Blitzchung” (BMKGaming, “Statement on Blitzchung,” 10.09.2019).

Some of Blizzard’s employees have also expressed displeasure with their company’s support for the authoritarian Chinese government. Around 30 Blizzard employees organized a walk-out in which they carried umbrellas, a symbol of the Hong Kong protests. Right outside its office, Blizzard has a statue of an Orc (yes, seriously) surrounded by inscriptions of the company’s beliefs. In order to display how betrayed they felt, Blizzard’s employees covered up the inscriptions that read “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters” (Twitter, @[lackofrealism], 10.08.2019).

Blizzard has not been deaf to all of these actions, and has determined that the best course of action is not to double down on enforcing an authoritarian government’s proclamations. Interestingly, Blizzard was not willing to fully support the Hong Kong protests, and instead opted to split the baby: Blitzchung’s earned prize-money has been returned to him and his suspension has been cut in half, but Blizzard issued no apology nor gave any clear guidance on what would or would not count as a violation of its rules (Metro, “Blizzard gives back Blitzchung prize money, reduces ban to six months,” 10.14.2019).

Whether this will be enough to appease the mob of gamers who have gotten a glimpse of Blizzard’s true colors is an open question, but taken altogether Blizzard’s actions have certainly brought the company into public disrepute, offended a large portion of the public and otherwise damaged Blizzard’s image.

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