Blizzard faces backlash after Ng Wai “Blitzchung” Chung stands with Hong Kong.
For the record, I’m not a Blizzard fanboy. Sure, I’ve dabbled with WoW, Hearthstone, and Heroes of the Storm over the years, but it could never keep my attention for long. I bring this up because I know my place when it comes to having an opinion as to whether or not I #BoycottBlizzard and I know they won’t give a damn if someone like me stops playing their games – seeing as I haven’t given them money for the better part of 5-7 years at this point. So let’s just jump into what’s been happening in the world of Blizzard and Activision lately.
At a recent eSports Grandmasters Tournament, Hearthstone player Ng Wai “Blitzchung” Chung voiced his support of the Hong Kong Liberation Movement with his exact words being “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our Age!” in Mandarin.
To add some context for those blissfully unaware of International politics or news at the moment, Hong Kong is a former British colony that was handed back to China in 1997. It has its own judiciary and a separate legal system from mainland China. Those rights include freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. But those freedoms – the Basic Law – expire in 2047 and it is not clear what Hong Kong’s status will then be.
To bring the unrest in Hong Kong to present times, it’s worth noting that in April 2019, an extradition bill triggered the first of the protests. This bill would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China under certain circumstances. It’s worth noting that this bill explicitly states “suspects” and not anyone charged or convicted of crimes, or even found guilty at this point. Mainland China has a long history of unfair trials and violent treatments of many who “threaten their way of life” and many of the opponents of this bill saw the risk and how this could be abused to give China greater influence over Hong Kong, and target activists and journalists.
Why does this matter?
According to Blizzard, this is a violation of a competition rule:
2019 HEARTHSTONE® GRANDMASTERS OFFICIAL COMPETITION RULES v1.4 p.12, Section 6.1 (o)
“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.”
And since Blitzchug allegedly violated this rule with his “politically charged” comment, Blizzard decided to punish the player by removing him from the Grandmaster Tourney, withholding his winnings, and adding a 1-year ban from competitive Hearthstone as the cherry on top (Oct 5th, 2019 to Oct 5th, 2020).
The contract gives Blizzard a lot of power with the fact that it states “Blizzard’s Sole Discretion”. Verbiage like this can often be abused in ways where big brands and corporations can choose to terminate contracts over basically anything that they want. It’s a slippery slope, and to keep things simple here – I hope they change that moving forward to be clear and concise, and better aligned with their own company values.
“Every voice matters”
Blizzard has worked hard over the years to showcase its diverse and inclusive company culture. One of the core mission statements Blizzard highlights on their site is “Every voice matters” – which is pretty powerful when you think about it. This 3-word statement would lead many to believe that Blizzard encourages others to stand up for what they believe in and to speak out when things are wrong and others are being mistreated. Seems like that mission statement is purely for show at this point, and maybe Blizzard should consider altering it to “Every voice matters, as long as it doesn’t affect our profits”.
China and Blizzard have always seemed to have a “turn a blind eye” sort of relationship. In 2011, Forbes did an exposé on how prisons in China were using inmates as gold farmers within World of Warcraft, making upwards of $1,000 a day. There have also been countless other scandals with account hacking, account selling, boosting, and more that have stemmed from these operations and within the region in general.
Blizzard has had its fair share of financial troubles over the past few years, including laying off 8% of its staff, or nearly 800 people in early 2019. It’s understandable when they want their business to be profitable, however, choosing profits over human rights may not be the best move here. Allegedly the China market only makes up 10% of Blizzard’s profits, at the time of publication. That being said, it’s possible there could be other financial incentives from China, as many others have reported that outside of Blizzard they have been approached with bribes for licensing AAA titles in China.
Blizzard isn’t the only one…
By this point in the article, it should come as no surprise that the power China has over the world economy is quite insane. We’ve seen brands like the NBA and even Apple side with China, which furthers the notion that brands are placing profits over human rights and freedom. To add a little extra context there without derailing the whole article, the NBA has recently started a massive expansion in China, which when Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” sparked controversy that lead China to reconsider the expansion. The threat alone was enough for the NBA to issue a statement that Morey’s tweet had “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China” and that it was “regrettable”.
Apple has extensive manufacturing and production throughout China, so there is a lot at stake which can disrupt their business. In addition to recently removing an app from the App Store that allowed users to submit data on police activity and violence throughout areas of Hong Kong, they also have been sending the IP addresses from some of their users of its Safari browser on iOS to Chinese conglomerate Tencent—a company with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party. While they claim it is for “safe browsing” and they run the IP addresses to check for malicious traffic or phishing attempts from the region, it’s a very real threat that this could lead to individuals being targeted by their IP Address in the future, based on browsing history and perceived threats to mainland China.
So, what can we do about it?
Distance-wise, it feels like we may be worlds away – but the beauty of the Internet is the way it allows us to freely share thoughts, opinions and join causes and rally together to help our fellow men and women. Many came together under the hashtag #BoycottBlizzard to share their experiences with the brand, their thoughts on the controversy, and ways they were going to participate in the boycott.
Many of the employees at Activision Blizzard staged walkouts and protests on the clock to voice their concerns about the company’s stance on this issue.
When news broke of Blitzchung’s 1-year ban from competitive Hearthstone and his winnings withdrawn, the Internet rallied together to trend #BoycottBlizzard. Many individuals under the hashtag have canceled their WoW subscriptions, got their preorders of upcoming games refunded, and have even gone as far as uninstalling Overwatch. They’ve refused to spend another penny with Blizzard until they reverse their stance.
Voting with your wallet works. Let’s be clear about that.
Blizzard has not reversed their stance, but under the pressure, they have re-instated Blitzchung’s winnings and reduced the ban to 6-months instead of a year. It certainly isn’t good enough, and Blizzard admits that he only deserves to keep his winnings because he “played fair” but is still taking him out of the game competitively for quite some time with that 6-month ban. Their mission statement says, “Every voice matters, encouraging everybody to share their point of view”, yet they punish those for do under the guise of “Appropriate pre- and post-match conduct”.
Blizzard also canceled the Overwatch on Switch release that was supposed to be held in the Nintendo Times Square store. While Nintendo’s official stance is that Blizzard canceled the event, it seems likely that Nintendo may have had a say in how things went down. Doesn’t seem like Nintendo would want to openly invite bad press or even protests to their family-friendly event.
Turn Mei (and other Blizzard characters) into #FreeHongKong artwork!
Yes, you heard us right. r/Blizzard wasted no time with finding unique and clever ways to use Blizzard properties to support the cause. In the past, China has banned Winnie the Pooh due to many people using the character in comparison to Xi Jinping. Many on the Internet figured out that if they started to turn Blizzard characters like Mei from Overwatch into symbols of freedom for Hong Kong, China may be inclined to ban Blizzard games from the country as well. r/Blizzard has also done other creative things with characters from Blizzard games, like stage their own version of Tiananmen Square with Mei and Bastions, and additionally Starcraft characters and vehicles, and create actual protest posters.
Blizzcon just weeks away – What does the future hold for Blizzard?
Right now, Blizzard is standing on shaky ground. This incident alone won’t topple the gaming company, but if they continue to reset the news cycle by adding fuel to the fire, or making other poor choices, it could do some damage that may not be able to be undone in the near future.
Blizzcon is only a few weeks away (November 1-3, 2019), so they may be looking to the con to reset the conversation around the brand. That being said, there are talks of Liberate Hong Kong protests at Blizzcon, along with Mei inspired ‘Free Hong Kong’ cosplays. So plan accordingly.
To close out, let’s also remember that while we are all rightfully upset with Blizzard, that many of the people working at Blizzcon had nothing to do with this. They’re either individuals who work in entry-level positions or other roles that are extremely separated from this decision and the departments involved, or they could even be third party contractors that are hired for the weekend to help staff booths and assist with crowd control and other guest needs during the convention. Please do not harass, assault, insult or hurt them in any way, shape or form. They’re human beings, and deserve to be treated as such. Funnel that anger by hitting Blizzard where it really hurts – the wallet. And if you’re really that upset, you can always share your frustrations over at #BoycottBlizzard as well.