Blizzard Entertainment, a major gaming firm and the developer of Overwatch and World of Warcraft, is facing fierce backlash after banning professional Hearthstone player Ng Wai Chung, also known as “blitzchung,” for voicing support for the Hong Kong protests during a live post-match interview. This incident follows China’s recent state suspension on the NBA preseason broadcast due to Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey announcing his support for Hong Kong.
In a broadcast following the Hearthstone Asia-Pacific Grandmasters tournament on Oct. 6, Chung appeared dressed in ballistic eyewear and a gas mask, resembling protective gear often worn by Hong Kong protestors. He chanted in Mandarin a slogan popularized by supporters of the movement, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times!”
In their official statement posted Oct. 8, Blizzard stated that Chung’s actions “violated the 2019 Hearthstone Grandmasters Official Competition Rules Section 6.1 (o).”
Section 6.1 (o) reads as follows:
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.
Chung’s punishment, effective immediately, was his removal from Hearthstone Grandmasters and the revokement of his prize money from Grandmasters Season 2. He was also made “ineligible to participate in Hearthstone esports for 12 months beginning from Oct. 5, 2019 and extending to Oct. 5, 2020.” Blizzard further announced that they would “immediately cease working with both casters” who oversaw the interview.
Fans expressed outrage by uninstalling and deleting the game as well as other Blizzard related applications, with #BoycottBlizzard trending worldwide on Twitter. On Oct. 8, the American University Hearthstone team held up a sign that read “Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizzard” during the Collegiate Hearthstone Championship.
“We knew from the moment we saw the news that the Hearthstone community, as well as the gaming community in general, would not accept Blizzard’s decision to support authoritarianism. We acted not only due to our own beliefs, but [also] to represent the dissatisfaction felt by everyone,” the team told Polygon.
All three players involved have since been “disqualified from the ongoing tournament and will be ineligible to participate in Hearthstone esports for 6 months, beginning from October 8th, 2019 and extending to April 8th, 2020” for “violation of section 7.1.B of the Hearthstone Collegiate Championship rules for engaging in behavior disruptive to the official esports broadcast.”
Section 7.1B reads as follows:
Participants shall treat all individuals watching or participating in a Tespa event with respect. Participants may not take any action or perform any gesture directed at another Participant, Tespa Admin, or any other party or incite others to do the same which is abusive, insulting, mocking, or disruptive. Players may not use obscene gestures or profanity in their account names, player handles, team names, game chat, lobby chat or live interviews. This includes abbreviations and/or obscure references.
Two U.S. senators have condemned Blizzard for their decision in Chung’s ban.
“Blizzard shows it is willing to humiliate itself to please the Chinese Communist Party,” Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said. “No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck.”
“Recognize what’s happening here,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said. “China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally.”
In a Twitch stream following the news of his ban, Chung expressed no regret for his actions on broadcast. “Today, what I have lost in Hearthstone is four years of time,” he said. “But if Hong Kong loses, it would be the matter of a lifetime.”
On Oct. 8, Blizzard employees at the Irvine headquarters staged a walkout and gathered around the monumental Orc statue outside the office while holding umbrellas, a symbol of the Hong Kong movement. One employee had covered up the “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters” core values inscribed around the statue.
“We want people all over the world to play our games, but no action like this can be made with political neutrality,” an anonymous Blizzard employee in an interview with The Daily Beast said.
Protestors are now attempting to incite a ban on Overwatch, a popular Blizzard game, in China by turning Mei, an in-game Chinese character, into a pro-democracy symbol.
“It would be such a shame if Mei from Overwatch became a pro-democracy symbol and got Blizzard’s games banned in China,” titled a post in the r/HongKong subreddit. This movement has since spread to Twitter and other platforms, as posters depict Mei in images supporting the Hong Kong resistance.
On Oct. 11, Access Now, a global organization that defends the digital rights of users at risk, released an open letter urging Blizzard CEO Robert A. Kotick to reverse the penalties given to the banned player and streamcasters.
“As a major online gaming and user communications platform, Blizzard has a duty to respect human rights in its operations,” Peter Micek, a lawyer for Access Now said. “By penalizing a player for speaking up in support of protestors exercising their right to freedom of expression as well as assembly and association, Blizzard demonstrates a lack of respect for the human rights of its users.”
On Oct. 12, Blizzard Entertainment President J. Allen Brack released a follow up statement reinstating Chung’s prize money and reducing his ban to six months, “after which time he can compete in the Hearthstone pro circuit again if he so chooses.”
“There is a consequence for taking the conversation away from the purpose of the event and disrupting or derailing the broadcast,” Brack stated. “Our relationships in China had no influence on our decision… If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.”
Chung himself released a statement regarding his reduced ban.
“I’m grateful for Blizzard reconsidering their position about my ban,” he said in a translated post. “Earlier this week, I told [the] media that I knew I might have penalty or consequence for my act, because I understand that my act could take the conversation away from the purpose of the event. In the future, I will be more careful on that and express my opinions or show my support to Hong Kong on my personal platforms.”
As BlizzCon is taking place during the weekend of Nov. 1, fans are rallying for protests. Gamers for Freedom is organizing an umbrella protest to take place at the Anaheim Convention Center during the event.
“Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and it’s outrageous to think that an American company would take away your money and your job simply because you want to be free from oppression,” the organization states on their website.