‘I think it’s my duty to say something’
Blizzard has imposed harsh sanctions against a professional Hearthstone player after he expressed support for Hong Kong protesters in their ongoing fight for liberation from the Chinese government. During a live interview over the weekend, Ng Wai Chung (who plays as Blitzchung) concluded by removing his protester-style goggles and facemask and exclaiming “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our age!”
For his actions, Blizzard has levied a one-year ban that prohibits Blitzchung from competing in Hearthstone esports tournaments. Blizzard has also removed Blitzchung from the Hearthstone Grandmasters circuit and stripped him of all earnings from Grandmasters Season 2. Additionally, the two casters who conducted the interview have both had their contracts terminated.
To justify its ruling, Blizzard is falling back on Grandmasters competition rules which state “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.”
Of course, Blizzard isn’t actually concerned about following the letter of the law to a tee. Blizzard is worried about its good standing with the Chinese government. China is an unfathomably lucrative market from a business perspective. If the Chinese government outlaws anything related to Hearthstone — essentially scrubbing it from existence throughout the entire country — Blizzard stands to lose untold profits.
This isn’t the only recent example (or even the most high-profile example) of a huge organization kowtowing to the demands of the Chinese government. The National Basketball Association is in the same sticky situation after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Basketball is a constantly growing market in China, and the Rockets are one of the most popular teams ever since Chinese center Yao Ming became an international superstar in the early 2000s.
Everyone involved — the NBA, the Rockets, Morey himself, and even Rockets players — have had to apologize and distance themselves from that seven-word tweet. It might not matter. It seems as though the Chinese government has invoked a blackout of anything Rockets-related. Tencent, who is the “official digital partner of the NBA in China” (and an unexpected way to draw this back to video games), has suspended all reporting and streaming of Rockets content. Tencent also owns a five percent stake in Activision-Blizzard.
Blizzard’s ruling is taking heat from everywhere outside of China. The Hearthstone subreddit is flooded with people who are vowing to quit the game for good. The Blizzard subreddit was made private because of the beating it was taking. The hashtag #BoycottBlizzard is trending on Twitter. At Blizzard headquarters, anonymous employees have covered up decor that reads “think globally” and “every voice matters.”
Despite the repercussions, Blitzchung stands by his actions. In a statement to InvenGlobal, he said “As you know there are serious protests in my country now. I put so much effort in that social movement in the past few months, that I sometimes couldn’t focus on preparing my Grandmasters match. I know what my action on stream means. 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.”
At the end of the day, Blizzard is just another company that’s hellbent on expanding into the fruitful Chinese market regardless of political blowback. As Vox points out, these sanctions signify that “Blizzard is not merely trying to operate within the confines of Chinese censorship but acting as its agent.” Oregon senator Ron Wyden chimed in by saying “Blizzard shows it is willing to humiliate itself to please the Chinese Communist Party. No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck.” Worried that inaction would come off as implicit support for Blitzchung, Blizzard made its allegiances explicitly known by banning a man who voiced his support for individual freedoms and human rights.
As for Blitzchung, some people are looking out for him. Gods Unchained, a Hearthstone competitor in the collectible card game genre, has vowed to restore all of Blitzchung’s lost earnings and to give him entry into their upcoming $500,000 tournament. Their rationale is simple and effective: “No player should be punished for their beliefs.”
Hearthstone Grandmasters Asia-Pacific Ruling [Hearthstone]