Blizzard Entertainment, the California-based video game company behind World of Warcraft and Overwatch, has banned a professional player from one of its esports leagues for expressing support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong after winning a tournament match over the weekend.
Hearthstone player Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai, who is from Hong Kong, removed a gas mask and goggles to say “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!” in a postgame interview Saturday with two shoutcasters (esports play and color commentators) on the official Taiwanese Hearthstone livestream, according to esports news outlet Inven Global. Blitzchung had just overtaken South Korean player Hyun “DawN” Jae Jang in a 2–0 shutout, netting $500 for the win alone.
The interview was cut from international streams, and the original VOD is unavailable as of Tuesday afternoon. The company issued a league ruling on Tuesday that said it found Blitzchung’s conduct to be “a competition rule violation,” prompting Blizzard to immediately remove him from the professional league, zero out his winnings for the season (Bloomberg reports that it cost him $10,000 in prize money), and ban him from competitive Hearthstone play until Oct. 5, 2020. It has also cut ties with the casters from the interview—who reportedly encouraged Blitzchung to speak his piece and then tried to hide on-camera.
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.
Outrage over a U.S. company flexing its “sole discretion” to crack down on pro-democracy remarks quickly bloomed online. Notably, Chinese conglomerate Tencent Holdings owns a 5 percent stake in Blizzard Entertainment’s parent company.
It’s no secret that multiple corners of the entertainment industry have come to increasingly rely on the Chinese for revenue. Video games are no exception: VentureBeat reported in May that China’s market for video games is projected to hit $41.5 billion and 767 million players on its own by 2023. For comparison, the Entertainment Software Association reported sales of video games in the U.S. reached $43.8 billion in 2018; Variety reported in May that the global market revenue for video games in 2018 was $131 billion.
But the decision to greatly profit from Chinese players comes with obvious trade-offs, especially when taking the country’s human rights and political record into account. Blizzard, which oversees many professional leagues for its games, especially in Asia, feels particularly susceptible to backlash because of its storied catalog and history. The response from Blizzard’s player base has been mixed, though at least one of the company’s subreddits has locked up in the wake of this news. Over on r/Hearthstone, players are pouring one out for the company as they vow never to support it again.
Blizzard’s actions come on the heels of several notable reactions from the Chinese government to perceived slights in media and culture, including the country’s complete and retroactive censorship of South Park over the recent episode “Band in China,” the NBA kerfuffle following a pro-Hong Kong tweet by the Houston Rockets’ general manager over the weekend, and news that a pulled Taiwanese horror game—which appeared to include a well-known insult against Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping—may be permanently delisted.
For his part, Blitzchung issued a prescient statement to Inven Global prior to his ban:
As you know there are serious protests in my country now. My call on stream was just another form of participation of the protest that I wish to grab more attention. I put so much effort in that social movement in the past few months, that I sometimes couldn’t focus on preparing my Grandmaster match. I know what my action on stream means. It could cause me lot of trouble, even my personal safety in real life. But I think it’s my duty to say something about the issue.
The Hong Kong protests, which began in March, initially broke out in June due to opposition of an extradition bill that would’ve permitted extradition to countries the special administrative region does not have extradition agreements with, including mainland China. At the beginning of October, as the People’s Republic of China celebrated its 70th anniversary, Hong Kong police turned to using live ammunition against protesters. Thousands have been arrested and injured.