The Politics of Esports and Blizzard’s Blitzchung Debacle

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There tends to be very little politics involved in video game culture, but after Blizzard harshly punished an esports player for supporting Hong Kong protestors, it shook the entire gaming industry to its core. 

Ng Wai Chung, a competitive Hearthstone player from Hong Kong, who goes by the name “Blitzchung,” called for the liberation of his home city during a post-game segment of the Grandmaster live stream match. “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our time,” Chung said while wearing a gas mask over his face.

Blizzard, the developer, and publisher of Hearthstone, a free-to-play online card game, responded by harshly punishing Chung, banning him from all future tournaments, and not letting him receive the prize money associated with winning the tournament.  The commentators, who attempted to hide their faces during Chung’s remarks were also punished, being fired from their jobs immediately. 

The outrage exploded almost immediately over Blizzard’s actions from other Hearthstone players.  Just a week later, during another Hearthstone championship match, three American University esports players raised a sign that read, “Free Hong Kong.  Boycott Blizz.” Those three players were then banned for six months from tournament play for “knowingly breaking the rules,” according to a statement put out by Blizzard. 

Source: The Nation

Hong Kong protests started in March of 2019, against plans to allow extradition to mainland China.  The people of Hong Kong feared this could undermine judicial independence.  The bill was withdrawn in September, but demonstrations continue now in demand for democracy and complete freedom from China.

While many were upset with Blizzard over their decision, others were confused as to why an American game company would enact such harsh punishments on players advocating for free speech.  The most obvious reason would be Blizzard’s involvement with the Chinese market, with the largest gaming investment company in the world, Tencent, owning a 5% stake in Blizzard Entertainment.  Tencent also has a stake in Activision Blizzard, Blizzard’s parent company, which is responsible for games such as the extremely popular Call of Duty franchise and Destiny. 

Blizzard is also heavily involved in the business of Esports, with almost all of their games being played competitively in some capacity around the world.  In turn, Esports is also a massive business in China, with the sport having a net worth of over $3 billion in the country and the government of China recently recognizing Esports as a legitimate profession. 

It’s no surprise that western gamers have harshly criticized Blizzard’s decision.  A notable esports commentator, Brian Kibler, wrote a lengthy post on social media, trying to break down the situation from an objective perspective, but ultimately ended up stating that he would no longer be commentating on the Hearthstone Grandmaster finals. 

“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,” Kibler wrote.  “That kind appeasement is simply not something I can in good conscience be associated with.”

Other fans of the team-based, multiplayer, first-person shooter, have responded by turning the character, Mei, a Chinese scientist who uses an ice-gun, into a protest symbol against Blizzard and China.  This idea has taken hold, with several individuals on the internet creating fan art and even editing Blizzard’s animated short of Mei to reflect her as a protestor. 

Blizzard’s decision has caused several of the biggest company’s in gaming as well as several American politicians to oppose its decision. 

Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney, the company behind the popular game Fortnite, objected on Twitter, “Epic supports the rights of Fortnite players and creators to speak about politics and human rights,” he wrote in a tweet on Oct. 9, 2019.

Blizzard has also received backlash from Nintendo, which has partnered with the company to port popular games to the Nintendo Switch like Diablo III and Overwatch.  The Blitzchung incident occurred shortly before Overwatch was supposed to release for the Nintendo Switch on Oct. 14.  The twitter account for the Nintendo store in New York City tweeted out the cancellation of an event that was planned on Oct. 16.  The tweet blamed Blizzard entirely for the cancellation. 

On top of that, retired Nintendo of America CEO Reggie Fils-Aime took jabs at Blizzard during a speech at Cornell University on Oct. 22.  Fils-Aime spoke about integrity and the difficulties of trying to grow a business in China while maintaining core values. “I think, unfortunately, the situation that Blizzard found itself in, it’s a very difficult situation when you are trying to grow a business in China and yet China at least when you compare it to other countries and other approaches is very different.  I think the consumer reaction to their decision is very plausible.  To me, it’s not an integrity issue. It is an issue of being clear about how you make decisions, what’s right for the business, and following through with that.”

American lawmakers have also condemned Blizzard, with a bipartisan group, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) sending a letter to Activision Blizzard condemning its decision.  In the letter, they expressed “deep concern” about the censorship of players who spoke out in favor of Hong Kong.  The letter also encouraged Blizzard to “reconsider” its punishments but did not make any specific demands on what Blizzard should do. 

“We write to express our deep concern over Activision Blizzard’s decision to make player Ng Wai Chung forfeit prize money and ban him from participating in tournaments for life after he voiced support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong,” the letter said. 

Since the decision and harsh backlash throughout October, Blizzard responded to the criticism in early November that the company would be reducing Blitzchung’s punishment and giving him the prize money from the tournament he had competed in.  Additionally, the company stated that Blitzchung’s views had nothing to do with the company’s relationship with China, nor did it affect their decision.  Blizzard has refused to further comment on the situation. 

Recently, Hong Kong protestors delivered another message of freedom, much differently than criticizing Blizzard or marching in the streets.  On Sunday, record-breaking voter turnout allowed pro-democracy politicians to sweep Hong Kong’s local elections, seizing control of more than 80% of the contested seats.