The Blizzard China Controversy Explained
Blizzard has found itself under international criticism after imposing a 12-month ban on professional Hearthstone player Ng Wai “blitzchung” Chung for vocalizing his support of Hong Kong’s liberation movement. #BoycottBlizzard is trending on Twitter, while countless community members, pro players, industry professionals, and lawmakers have voiced their displeasure — and disgust — with Blizzard’s decision. But how did it begin?
The Blizzard China Controversy Explained
The Hong Kong-China Conflict
Before diving into the controversy, it’s important to understand Chung’s motivation, which requires a brief explanation of the current Hong Kong protests. As written by IGN’s Matt Kim, “Hong Kong is currently in the midst of a public protest that began earlier this year when the [local government] announced plans to enact laws that would allow China to extradite citizens from Hong Kong for judiciary reasons. Hong Kong citizens protested the laws, and while the city government has backed down from plans to enact them, the movement has grown as calls for liberation intensify.”
It’s of course incredibly difficult to quickly and succinctly sum up the intricacies of the the conflict, but it’s important to have a broader understanding of it before diving into Blizzard’s place in it all.
The Blizzard-China Relationship
We should also have a rudimentary understanding of Blizzard’s interests in the Chinese market. According to Activision-Blizzard’s Q2 2019 financial results (via The New York Times), the Asia Pacific market accounted for 12% ($173 million USD) of its quarterly revenues, though this encompasses other large markets such as Japan.
While 12% is peanuts compared to the business it did during that same quarter in the American and EMEA regions (54% and 33%, respectively), it’s in the Chinese market’s potential that Activision Blizzard sees immeasurable value. As reported by Alpha Street (via Vox), after experiencing a steady decrease in monthly active users throughout 2018, the company is “taking the China route for regaining the lost strength,” a path the outlet says is “currently followed by many American tech companies.”
This information is the basis for much of the backlash, as some believe Blizzard’s decision to ban Chung shouldn’t be taken on its face as a mere rules violation, rather a placation to the censorship-heavy Chinese government in an effort to preserve its financial interests in the country’s market.
Chung’s Call for Liberation During Blizzard Broadcast
The inciting incident took place on October 6. Following his victory in a Hearthstone Grandmasters match, Chung was interviewed on the official Taiwanese Hearthstone stream by casters Virtual and Mr. Yee. During the interview, Chung wore a face mask, a reference to the anti-mask law recently enacted by China, and shouted, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!” The stream quickly cut to commercial, and on-demand footage has since been pulled from the internet.
After the interview, Chung told InvenGlobal, “My call on stream was just another form of participation of the protest that I wish to grab more attention… It could cause me a lot of trouble, even my personal safety in real life. But I think it’s my duty to say something about the issue.”
On October 8, Blizzard published an official statement, announcing Chung violated the 2019 Hearthstone Grandmasters Official Competition rules. As a result, Chung was removed from the Grandmasters and given a 12-month ban from participating in Hearthstone esports. Blizzard also rescinded the $10,000 USD in prize money Chung was set to receive.
The violation was of Rules section 6.1 (o), according to Blizzard, which reads:
“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 will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and BLizzard’s Website Terms.”
“While we stand by one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions, players and other participants that elect to participate in our esports competition must abide by the official competition rules,” the company wrote.
In that same statement, Bilzzard announced it’d also “immediately cease working” with the aforementioned casters.
Chung’s Statement About Blizzard’s Decision
In a statement issued to IGN following his ban, Chung said, “I expected the decision by Blizzard, I think it’s unfair, but I do respect their decision. I’m not [regretful] of what I said.
“I shouldn’t be afraid of these kinds of white terror,” which Chung describes as “anonymous acts that create a climate of fear.”
Following the ban, Blizzard has been on the receiving end of backlash from community members, other pro players, casters, game industry professionals, and even United States lawmakers.
Posts condemning Blizzard have filled the Reddit communities of r/Hearthstone and r/Blizzard for days — the latter was temporarily shut down by a rogue mod. On r/Blizzard, a post titled “Blizzard unveils new logo,” which places the Blizzard logo over the Chinese flag, has become the subreddit’s most-upvoted post of all time in less than a day.
Many players on the Hearthstone subreddit have declared they’re quitting the game due to Chung’s ban, a sentiment that’s shared by many across the internet, as #BoycottBlizzard continues to trend on social media, and searches for how to delete battle.net accounts have been climbing. The boycott extends beyond Hearthstone, with many taking to social media to share screenshots of their World of Warcraft subscription cancellations. Among those is Mark Kern, the team lead for the vanilla version of World of Warcraft. “I made this game with the team. I am opposed to Blizzard’s fear of China and the silencing of Blitzchung. I am calling on Blizzard to stand up for what is right,” he wrote.
On Tuesday, the American University Hearthstone team held up a sign showing their support for Chung and Hong Kong during a broadcast of the American Collegiate Hearthstone Championship. It read, “Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizz.” The broadcast cut away shortly after the sign was displayed.
On Wednesday, Prominent Hearthstone caster Brian Kibler announced he was stepping down from casting the Grandmasters finals at BlizzCon. He wrote Blizzard was “correct in issuing [Chung] a penalty for his actions,” though he called the punishment “incredibly harsh.”
“I won’t pretend to understand either the intricacies of the geopolitical situation in China and Hong Kong or the full extent of Blizzard’s business interests there, but to me this penalty feels like it is deeply rooted in both,” Kibler wrote.
Even two United States Senators have commented on the controversy: Both Ron Wyden of Oregon and Marco Rubio of Florida condemned Blizzard for its acquiescence to the Chinese government and its censorship laws.
And while Blizzard as an entity may be responsible for the outcry, not everyone within the company agrees with its decision. Former Blizzard employee Kevin Hovdestad posted the following picture from the company’s headquarters on Twitter, which shows two of its eight values, “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters,” covered by a sheet of paper.
The Daily Beast also reported a small walkout by Blizzard employees who carried with them umbrellas. Umbrellas have become a symbol of the Hong Kong protests as they were originally used to protect protestors from facial recognition cameras, as well as tear gas. The report says the number of Blizzard walkout participants fluctuated between a dozen to 30.
In response to the Blizzard backlash, Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney said his company would “never” cut ties with a player based on a political statement. An Epic Games spokesperson echoed that sentiment, telling The Verge, “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.”
This article will be updated as the story continues to develop.
Jordan is a freelance writer for IGN. Follow him on Twitter @jdsirani.
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The Blizzard China Controversy Explained