It seems that every American company is getting into hot water with China these days. The NBA just recently had all of their broadcasts in China removed due to the manager of the Houston Rockets posting a pro-Hong Kong Tweet. Despite its search engine being banned in China, Google still works with them and has even gotten flack for allegedly assisting the Chinese government in spying. Now it seems that controversy is coming to the world of video games and esports.
On October 6, competitive ‘Hearthstones’ player Ng “Blitzchung” Wai Chung put on a gas mask and shouted “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!” during a Livestream of the ‘Hearthstones’ Grandmasters tournament. The stream immediately cut to commercials. Soon after the stream Blizzard release a statement, banning Blitzchung for competitive play for one year and taking away his $10,000 prize earnings. Along with him, the two commentators of the tournament were fired. Blizzard Entertainment came to this decision due to Blitzchung “ [violating] the 2019 Hearthstone Grandmasters Official Competition Rules section 6.1 (o).” The rule prevents you from “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.”
The decision by Blizzard causes near-universal backlash from social media and gave rise to #boycottblizzard. Many fans voiced their outrage and disappointment over the ruling. It caused even Mark Kern, a developer who worked at Blizzard, to speak out against the game company, saying “Enough is enough. I stand with Hong Kong, and I oppose Blizzard’s obvious and laughably transparent fear of China. It’s time for Blizzard to grow the spine it used to have, and to do what’s right for gamers once again.” The incident caused such widespread backlash that even US senators commented. A letter signed by Senators Marco Rubio, Ron Wyden, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mike Gallagher and Tom Malinowsk read “Your company claims to stand by ‘one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions,’ yet many of your own employees believe that Activision Blizzard’s to punish [Ng “blitzchung” Wai Chung] runs counter to those values,”.
Blizzard has repeatedly stated that the financial opportunity provided by siding with China had no influence on their ruling, however that may be hard to believe considering that Tencent, a company with strong relations to the Chinese government, owns at least 5% of the video game developer. In addition, China’s video game market is rapidly growing, and Blizzard would have much to lose if they were to lose good favor with China. While Activision Blizzard has softened their punishment of Blitzchung (reducing his one-year ban to six months and returning his prize money), they still stand by the claim that “The specific views expressed by blitzchung were NOT a factor in the decision we made. I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision,” (J. Allen Brack, President of Blizzard Entertainment).
Despite all of the negative reception and boycotts, Blizzard double downed and decided to punish anyone who supports Hong Kong or supported blitzchung. Just recently, 3 college students were banned from preparing a board calling for a boycott of Blizzard and supporting blitzchung. People are still calling for boycotts. Employees at the game company are walking out in protest. Blizzard is still banning people for talking about Hong Kong. At this rate, it seems like the gaming titan will simply delve further down into a pool of controversy and chaos. Only time will tell what will happen to Activision Blizzard, and time says it isn’t looking very good.