Activision Blizzard (just Blizzard from here on out) finds itself mired in controversy after suspending Chung "Blitzchung" Ng Wai, a professional esports player, for one year and forcing him to forfeit a $10,000 prize he had one in the Hearthstone Asia-Pacific Grandmasters Tournament. His suspendable offense was voicing support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, during a livestream.
"Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times," Blitzchung said while donning a gas mask and goggles.
Playing remotely from Hong Kong, the 21-year old esports player had just won $10,000 and was being interviewed after the match when he made the comment. Blizzard stripped him of his Grandmaster prize earnings, claiming he had run afoul of the rules, and also ended its relationship with the casters who had conducted the interview.
Hong Kong Protests, The NBA, And Esports Gaming
The Hong Kong protests began in June as a rallying effort against proposals to allow extradition to mainland China. On the surface, it would appear the protests have nothing to do with esports. And they don't, at least not directly. Indirectly, however, the Chinese government is sensitive to this sort of thing, and in a position to retaliate by constricting the flow of money from China into American businesses.
We saw this play out recently when Daryl Morey, coach of the National Basketball Association's Houston Rockets, sent out a tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests. China's backlash came swift and hard—wholly owned Chinese sponsored severed ties with the NBA, and both state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) and livestreaming platform Tencent Sports announced they would not broadcast Rockets games. And that was just the beginning of the ongoing fallout.
China is a huge market for entertainment. It's also a highly censored territory, and what we are seeing is a clash between free speech ideals and China's heavy-handed reactions to things the government deems offensive. Whether they like it or not, the NBA, Blizzard, and other companies and organizations find themselves caught in the middle amid the Hong Kong protests.
Public Backlash To Activision Blizzard's Esports Ban
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he and the league are "apologetic" that Morey's tweet may have upset Chinese officials and fans, but made clear he would not apologize for Morey exercising his right to freedom of speech. He's attempting to the tow the line with what amounts to a diplomatic response, and it's not really working, in regards to appeasing China.
Blizzard, meanwhile, has made no such attempt and instead came down hard on a Hearthstone Grandmaster. In essence, it's choosing to face the fallout of its fan base rather than China—money over principles, some would say.
It's not just fans, either. Brian Kibler, a former Magic: The Gathering professional player, said he is stepping down from casting Grandmasters in reaction to Blizzard's "heavy-handed" punishment.
"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. The heavy-handedness of it feels like someone insisted that Blizzard make an example of Blitzchung, not only to discourage others from similar acts in the future but also to appease those upset by the outburst itself. That kind of appeasement is simply not something I can in good conscience be associated with," Kibler said in a lengthy statement.
Kibler admits Blizzard was correct in deciding to issue a penalty, but feels the punishment is too harsh. He is not the only one. On Reddit, numerous fans say they have cancelled their World of Warcraft subscriptions over Blizzard's recent actions, and the company is getting roasting in memes.
In a sense, a battle line has been drawn and this latest controversy is not likely to be the end of it. Epic Games, for example, tweeted it "supports the rights of Fortnite players and creators to speak about politics and human rights," and told The Verge it would no ban or punish players for speaking on such topics.
As this plays out, companies hoping to avoid the limelight may find they do not have the luxury of not picking a side.