It all started with a gas mask worn during a live-streamed interview. Or perhaps the troubles began decades ago when the British handed Hong Kong back to China.
In an unexpected combo, the gaming world and Hong Kong's ongoing political turmoil came head to head this week.
Activision Blizzard, the company behind some of the world's most beloved games, has suddenly become the most hated entity by gamers from all around the world.
And it all stemmed from a single broadcast of an interview held after a Hearthstone match.
What is Blizzard?
Blizzard Entertainment is one of the biggest video game studios in the world that was once deemed unable to do any wrong. Since 1991, the American company has put out hit franchise after hit franchise, including the likes of the Diablo series, Warcraft and its online iteration World of Warcraft, Starcraft, as well as new classics such as Overwatch and Hearthstone.
In 2008, it merged with Activision, another massive game studio to form an even bigger entity called Activision Blizzard. They're now one of the top five biggest video game companies in the world.
In 2012, Activision Blizzard wanted to break free from their holding company Vivendi Games. Chinese multinational conglomerate Tencent Holdings swooped in to help them with an undisclosed amount of money to get a 5 per cent stake in Activision Blizzard.
Blizzard’s games and esports have been pretty synonymous since the early days of Starcraft, when South Korean players started making enough money from tournaments to be considered professionals. Starcraft is still pretty huge in the esports circuit these days, but Blizzard also has other championships that revolve around hero-shooter Overwatch (of which Singaporean esports athletes recently played in) and digital collectable card game Hearthstone.
What is Hearthstone?
Oh, Hearthstone is really fun.
Players have to form a deck of digital cards (consisting of various actions and characters based on Warcraft lore) to take on other players in a one-on-one board game online. Summon minions, cast spells, pull off tricks to deplete your opponent’s life force. It’s a legitimately addictive strategy game — and it’s free! Unless you want to drop some money to purchase extra collectable cards.
The highest level of competition in the game is called the Hearthstone Grandmasters tournament, which culminates every year-end in an epic finale that sees top players from around the world compete for a US$500,000 (S$688,000) prize pool.
So what happened?
Chung Ng Wai, a 21-year-old grandmaster-level Hearthstone player from Hong Kong, had been in the running for one of the top positions in the tournament. Known by his moniker Blitzchung, he had already earned a decent amount of winnings and it seemed likely that he would be earning a lot more in the playoff rounds of the Asia-Pacific competition.
But on Oct 5, fresh off a win, Chung appeared in a live post-match interview that was officially broadcast by Blizzard. He wore a gas mask and ski goggles, the getup worn by protesters in Hong Kong.
He ended the interview by stating the protest’s rallying cry: “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times!”
Whoa. What happened to him then?
In a surprising move, Blizzard immediately removed him from the tournament, slapped him with a one-year ban from competing in Hearthstone, and stripped him of his winnings. Chung claimed that he lost US$10,000 from Blizzard’s decision.
Speaking to Abacus, Chung mentioned that he has no regrets.
“I understand why Blizzard would do that as it’s partially owned by Tencent. But I think its treatment has been unfair to me.”
Blizzard explained in a blog post that Chung violated a competition rule during the interview and that his behaviour “does not represent Blizzard or Hearthstone Esports”.
“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.”
In other words, Blizzard believes that banning Chung was justified because he offended the mainland Chinese market — which actually forms a relatively small proportion of Hearthstone’s player base. Allowing Chung’s comments to air without some sort of penalty would invariably impact Blizzard’s plans to expand in the Chinese market.
The company also mentioned that they would no longer work with the two match commentators (called casters) who made supportive comments during the live-streamed interview.
“While we stand by one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions, players and other participants that elect to participate in our esports competitions must abide by the official competition rules,” Blizzard asserted.
Surely that’s the end of the issue?
Nope. Blizzard faced a colossal amount flak over the ban from various angles: non-Chinese Hearthstone players and casters, American politicians, and the global internet community.
#BoycottBlizzard has been trending on Twitter since the incident, with many accusing the company of trading off freedom of speech (and forcing a top-level player to forfeit the money he won) just to appease the Chinese market.
Amidst calls to quit playing Hearthstone and other Blizzard games, some players are actively revolting against the company in creative ways. American college students held up a sign “Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizzard” during a live stream of the American Collegiate Hearthstone Championship.
Gamers are also trying to turn Mei, a character in Blizzard game Overwatch, into a “pro-democracy symbol” of sorts in a wild bid to get the company’s games banned in China. In came the fan art.
Widely-respected Hearthstone influencer Brian Kibler announced that he’s quitting his job as an official Hearthstone Grandmasters caster. The man was supposed to commentate the Grandmasters finals at BlizzCon, Blizzard’s annual gaming convention that’ll be taking place in November.
“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 stated in a Medium post.
“That kind of appeasement is simply not something I can in good conscience be associated with.”
Did you say something about US politicians?
Oh yes, it’s come to the point that even US senators are chiming in. There’s also the issue that Blizzard — being an American company — is being seen as compromising its principles to protect its business relationships in China.
“Blizzard shows it is willing to humiliate itself to please the Chinese Communist Party,” tweeted Senator Ron Wyden. “No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck.”
“China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally. Implications of this will be felt long after everyone in US politics today is gone,” offered Senator Marco Rubio.
What do Blizzard employees think about it?
It’s clear that there's some internal unhappiness brewing. Daily Beast reported that a small group of Activision Blizzard employees walked out of work yesterday in protest.
“The action Blizzard took against the player was pretty appalling but not surprising,” a longtime Blizzard employee told The Daily Beast. “Blizzard makes a lot of money in China, but now the company is in this awkward position where we can’t abide by our values.”
On Reddit, a picture popped up depicting Blizzard employees standing outside their offices in California, near a giant statue of an Orc warrior. Umbrellas were held up in symbolic support for the protestors in Hong Kong, while Blizzard’s plaques that stated its values “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters” were papered over.
Blizzard has yet to comment on these developments, but the company better think fast — Blizzcon is just a couple of weeks away, after all. Things might really get out of hand this year, more so than last year’s Diablo Immortal controversy.