Major U.S. gaming firm Blizzard Entertainment has reduced its punishment for a professional gamer who shouted a slogan in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. But the company doubled down on its verdict about the inappropriateness of his conduct.
In a Chinese language-only message on its official social media, Blizzard stated that it would “resolutely safeguard [China’s] national dignity.”
Last week, “Hearthstone” pro gamer Ng Wai Chung, better known by his handle “Blitzchung,” shouted the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” during an official live-streamed post-match interview. Blizzard retaliated by rescinding thousands of dollars in prize money from his Asia-Pacific Grandmasters tournament win and banning him from the game’s pro league for a year.
It cited a rule saying that players should not engage in acts that “offend a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damage Blizzard’s image.”
Following intense criticism from both gamers and U.S. politicians that the company had caved in to Chinese censorship demands — particularly in the midst of a similar free speech controversy that has engulfed the NBA — Blizzard on Friday softened its verdict.
“In the tournament itself Blitzchung *played* fair. We now believe he should receive his prizing,” the company’s president J. Allen Brack wrote in a statement. He added: “But playing fair also includes appropriate pre- and post-match conduct, especially when a player accepts recognition for winning in a broadcast. There is a consequence for taking the conversation away from the purpose of the event and disrupting or derailing the broadcast.”
Blizzard will reinstate Blitzchung’s winnings and will reduce his ban by six months, Brack said.
The statement was posted late Friday evening in U.S. time zones but dated Saturday, in what critics say was an attempt to game the news cycle and avoid excessive coverage, as well as a sign that it may have been posted from a Chinese time zone.
Blizzard is the company behind major games like “Diablo,” “World of Warcraft,” “Overwatch,” “StarCraft” and others. Chinese tech giant Tencent owns a 5% stake in the company. China is one of the world’s largest gaming markets, but foreign firms are not allowed to operate there without a local Chinese partner taking on a significant stake. Since 2008, Blizzard has partnered with China’s NetEase to publish its games in the critical market, and in January extended its publishing agreement on all the U.S. firm’s titles through to 2023.
“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,” Brack said.
The statement has not rung true to nor appeased many U.S. gamers, who have called for boycotts of the company and its popular games. Some are now planning protests to disrupt BlizzCon, the company’s upcoming annual conference in Anaheim, Calif., which begins Nov. 1.
“This wasn’t for us, the gamers. There was no apology, no remorse, no sense that Blizzard did anything wrong. Just that maybe Blitzchung was a little bit less guilty. BUT STILL VERY GUILTY,” prominent game designer and former “World of Warcraft” team lead Mark Kern tweeted, slamming as hypocritical Brack’s promise to ensure a “safe” and “welcoming” environment for all players regardless of political views in a statement about punishing a player for his political views.
“This was written to keep U.S. senators off their backs and to keep China happy. It’s a mewling justification to governments of both countries,” Kern said. “The only thing Blizzard was trying to keep ‘safe’ was itself.”
In Chinese, the statement was put out with much stronger pro-China wording on both Blizzard’s own official Weibo social media page and its official “Hearthstone” page, where the firm expressed its “intense, righteous indignation and condemnation” of the Blitzchung incident.
The American firm added: “We will, as always, resolutely safeguard national dignity” — referring to the protection of China’s dignity and interests.
The move appears to have satisfied Chinese gamers. “This works,” said one of the top Chinese Weibo comments in response. “American ideologues are also watching Blizzard, so for them to be able to put out such a statement already wasn’t so easy.”
Hong Kong protesters have now taken up Mei, a Chinese character from Blizzard’s popular “Overwatch” game, as a mascot, creating scores of posters and memes with her image. Part of the idea is that if their work goes viral enough, Chinese authorities may ban the game on the mainland.
So far, only U.S. firm Epic Games (which is 40% owned by Tencent) and Australia-based startup Immutable have stepped out to affirm their commitment to free speech in the face of Beijing’s wrath. Immutable last Tuesday tweeted an offer to pay for Chung’s lost tournament winnings and give him a free ticket to its own upcoming $500,000 tournament before Blizzard reinstated the prize. Hours later, however, Immutable was hit by a concerted cyber attack that prevented players from logging into its major game “Gods Unchained” for hours. The firm is much less reliant on the Chinese market because it is based on cryptocurrency technology, seeking to involve gamers in ownership of the game itself and its assets.