The Video Game Company That Banned a Pro–Hong Kong Player Is Handling Its China Controversy About As Well As the NBA Did

A general view of the atmosphere at BlizzCon 2019 at the Anaheim Convention Center in California on Friday.
BlizzCon 2019 at the Anaheim Convention Center in California on Friday. Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Blizzard Entertainment.

Last month, video game publisher Blizzard Entertainment joined the ranks of the NBA and Apple, showing how swiftly it would contort itself to avoid offending the Chinese market with which it is financially intertwined. During a professional tournament for its game Hearthstone, it banned a player for making a statement in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. After weeks of criticism, on Friday, the company’s president took the stage of Blizzard’s annual convention to apologize—but not directly for the ban. Instead, J. Allen Brack apologized for being both too fast and too slow to respond to the fans.

“Blizzard had the opportunity to bring the world together in a tough Hearthstone esports moment about a month ago, and we did not,” Brack said during the opening ceremony of BlizzCon in Anaheim, California. “We moved too quickly in our decision-making, and then, to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you.”

On Oct. 8, Blizzard banned Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai, a Hong Konger who said “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time,” a slogan connected to the escalating protests there, in a postgame interview on the company’s official Taiwanese livestream. The company barred Chung from professional play for a year and rescinded his title and prize money, citing an obscure tournament rule against player behavior that “brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages” Blizzard’s image. It also fired the two shoutcasters who were interviewing Chung when he made the comments.

After a week of public outcry, though, including a slew of calls to #BoycottBlizzard in the run-up to its annual convention, Blizzard reduced the ban to a six-month suspension and returned Chung’s winnings. In an Oct. 12 statement, Brack said, “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.” (Tencent, the largest Chinese games publisher, owns a 5 percent stake in Activision Blizzard, Blizzard’s parent company.) In the same statement, Brack said that the company would still make sure that official broadcasts of its tournaments “remain focused on the game and are not a platform for divisive social or political views.”

So if statements like Chung’s still aren’t welcome, what was Brack apologizing for at BlizzCon? “When I think about what I’m most unhappy about, it’s two things,” Brack said. “First: We didn’t live up to the high standards that we really set for ourselves. And second: We failed in our purpose. And for that, I am sorry, and I accept accountability.” From there, Brack issued a call to connect via the “positive power of video games,” which are “a common ground where the community comes together to compete, connect, and play—irrespective of the things that divide us.”

It’s not often you see video game companies say the words “I’m sorry.” But this wasn’t an apology for the censorship—just for the way the company doled out its punishment and how it explained that to upset fans. (Confusing matters further over the past month was how the company appeared to handle the controversy behind the Great Firewall. As IGN reported and translated, an official Blizzard account run by a Chinese partner company issued a statement in October saying that Blizzard condemned “the events that occurred in the Hearthstone Asia Pacific competition last weekend and absolutely oppose the dissemination of personal political ideas during any events,” although Brack later disavowed that statement.)

Apologizing for not anticipating the wishes of the fans dodges the actual issue at hand. In this case, the fans were initially upset about the censorship—protests outside of BlizzCon focused on the blanket ban against political speech, not Blizzard’s lack of communication. Neither of Brack’s statements detailed ways in which the company will deal with future situations where players make statements against an authoritarian government (or anything else). As far as anyone knows, Blizzard’s policy on banning “divisive social or political views” means that censorship is still on the table. And as I wrote last month, Blizzard—and the rest of the entertainment industry—is heavily betting on the Chinese market. With hundreds of millions of players and billions in profits at stake, companies like Blizzard may be willing to do some virtue signaling to fans who believe a Hearthstone tournament can be a platform to protest authoritarianism, but likely not more than that.

Brack’s latest statement was supposed to cork the movement, put out the fires, stop people from posting endless numbers of Hong Kong Mei or Communist Blizzard flag memes on social media—and perhaps fans are as eager as Brack hopes to just focus on the games. “Everyone’s right to express themselves in all kinds of ways and all kinds of places,” Brack said on Friday, with a laugh. “I’ve actually seen and heard many of you expressing yourselves this morning.” Soon after, Blizzard revealed the gruesome cinematic trailer for Diablo IV, and Brack came back out—all smiles this time, sporting a new Diablo IV jacket with a rainbow Blizzard pin on the lapel.

Maybe this will be enough for some Blizzard fans. But they should also recognize what the incident revealed: Esports, like sports, will be hostile to players expressing any political beliefs that conflict with a professional organization’s bottom line. Nothing that Blizzard has said, or done, should make them feel otherwise.