Following a week of outcry and protests over its punishment of a Hearthstone player who expressed pro-Hong Kong views in a post-match interview, Blizzard has finally issued a statement that amounts to a partial backtrack – but it insisted its relationships in China had no influence on its decision.
The statement, issued late on Friday, is attributed to Blizzard president J. Allen Brack. In it he insisted the Hearthstone player in question, Hong Kong player Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai, violated tournament rules by commenting on the current situation in his home country.
Earlier this week, Blitzchung appeared in a Grandmasters Asia Pacific post-match interview, where he signed off with a bold statement. Wearing a gas mask similar to those worn by protestors (and recently banned in Hong Kong), Blitzchung said: “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!” The stream quickly cut to an ad break.
— ? Inven Global ? (@InvenGlobal) October 6, 2019
All three of the streamers were punished by Blizzard, including the two casters. Blitzchung was removed from Grandmasters, lost all of his prize money and was banned for a year.
This punishment was seen as heavy-handed by Blizzard and an attack on free speech. It sparked an outcry both inside and outside of the company, with the BoycottBlizzard hashtag trendign on Twitter and employees staging protests next to an orc statue that’s surrounded by company slogans. One of these slogans, “Every Voice Matters,” was covered up by staff.
Not everyone at Blizzard agrees with what happened.
Both the “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters” values have been covered up by incensed employees this morning. pic.twitter.com/I7nAYUes6Q
— Kevin Hovdestad (@lackofrealism) October 8, 2019
“Every Voice Matters, and we strongly encourage everyone in our community to share their viewpoints in the many places available to express themselves,” reads Blizzard’s statement.
“However, the official broadcast needs to be about the tournament and to be a place where all are welcome. In support of that, we want to keep the official channels focused on the game.”
Blizzard’s initial decision was seen by many to be an attempt to appease the Chinese market, which is crucial to the company’s success. But Blizzard insisted it had nothing to do with its relationships in China. “The specific views expressed by blitzchung were NOT a factor in the decision we made,” J. Allen Brack said.
“I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision.
“We have these rules to keep the focus on the game and on the tournament to the benefit of a global audience, and that was the only consideration in the actions we took.
“If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.”
Blizzard has now reduced Blitzchung’s punishment, with J. Allen Brack admitting the company reacted too quickly. Blitzchung will now receive his prize money, and his year-long ban is down to six months.
“We understand that for some this is not about the prize, and perhaps for others it is disrespectful to even discuss it,” J. Allen Brack continued. “That is not our intention.
“There is a consequence for taking the conversation away from the purpose of the event and disrupting or derailing the broadcast.”
The casters have also seen their ban reduced to six months. “With regard to the casters, remember their purpose is to keep the event focused on the tournament,” J. Allen Brack said. “That didn’t happen here, and we are setting their suspension to six months as well.”
While Blizzard has reduced the punishments it had issued, its statement amounts to a doubling down of the company position on professional players’ ability to make political statements during tournaments. J. Allen Brack was unequivocal on this point:
“Moving forward, we will continue to apply tournament rules to ensure our official broadcasts remain focused on the game and are not a platform for divisive social or political views.”
A statement issued by Netease, the China-based company Blizzard has partnered with to publish games in the country, contained stronger language (thanks for the translation, IGN):
“We express our strong indignation [or resentment] and condemnation of the events that occurred in the Hearthstone Asia Pacific competition last weekend and absolutely oppose the dissemination of personal political ideas during any events [or games]. The players involved will be banned, and the commentators involved will be immediately terminated from any official business. Also, we will protect [or safeguard] our national dignity [or honor].”
It’s worth noting this statement, issued to the Chinese social media platform Weibo, is run by Netease, not Blizzard. But it highlights a growing tension among western video game companies who do business in China, which has strict rules publishers must adhere to in order to do business there.
As for Blizzard, it’s fighting fires at home and abroad. Its statement has been roundly criticised on social media, and it faces the prospect of protests at a politically charged BlizzCon in November.