As people around the world watched the post-match interview Sunday for Asia-Pacific Grandmasters, a major competitive e-sports event featuring Blizzard Entertainment’s card-based game Hearthstone, Ng Wai Chung, a player who goes by the gamer tag Blitzchung, used the moment to speak out in support of the protests in Hong Kong. Then, suddenly, the streaming video feed was cut.
Now Chung has been banned from competing in Hearthstone and ordered by Blizzard to give back his $10,000 in prize money, and the controversial move has landed the video game publisher in hot water with everyone from gamers and its own employees to U.S. politicians.
Blizzard Entertainment did not respond to Fortune’s request for comment.
Why did Blizzard ban the Hearthstone player?
Chung, a native of Hong Kong, is a professional e-sports player. During a post-match interview for the Hearthstone tournament, Chung said, “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age.” Chung also wore googles and a gas mask, similar to those worn by protestors in Hong Kong.
Some have pointed out that wearing those items violates Blizzard’s rules of conduct. However, Blizzard made no mention of those rules in a release detailing Chung’s ban. Instead, the gaming company said Chung violated a rule prohibiting “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.”
As a result, the video game publisher rescinded Chung’s prize money and banned him from Hearthstone competitions for 12 months, through Oct. 5, 2020. The company also severed its relationship with two broadcasters who were involved in the interview.
“We’d like to re-emphasize tournament and player conduct within the Hearthstone esports community from both players and talent,” Blizzard said in its statement. “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.”
Why was the Hearthstone player speaking out about the Hong Kong protests?
Several months ago, protests ignited throughout Hong Kong, where Chung is originally from, after a controversial bill was proposed that would have allowed extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China. Since then, Hong Kong’s protest movement has taken on a larger life, resisting the overall control that mainland China has exercised in the semi-autonomous region.
Since the protests began, the Hong Kong International Airport has been temporarily closed, a teenage protestor was shot and killed by authorities, government offices have been stormed, and public transportation has been temporarily halted. There was also an emergency call to ban protestors from wearing gas masks, similar to the one Chung wore during his interview.
How is Activision-Blizzard involved with China?
In 2013, Tencent, a Chinese multinational holding company, purchased a 5% stake in parent company Blizzard Entertainment’s parent company Activision-Blizzard for an undisclosed amount.
Since that time, Tencent has increasingly moved into the international video game space. In addition to Activision-Blizzard, Tencent also has a 5% stake in Ubisoft (which publishes the Assassin’s Creed franchise), a 40% stake in Epic Games (which makes Fortnite), and it completely owns Riot Games (which publishes League of Legends).
Outside of gaming, Tencent is one of the world’s most influential companies—especially in China. It has its hands in gaming, social media, e-commerce, entertainment, and advertising. Tencent currently sits at 237 on the Fortune Global 500.
The official Hearthstone account on Chinese blogging site Weibo made a pointed remark in relation to the incident, writing (in Chinese), “We express our strong indignation and condemnation of the events in the Hearthstone Asia-Pacific competition last weekend and resolutely oppose the dissemination of personal political ideas in any event.”
“At the same time, we will, as always, resolutely safeguard national dignity,” the post continued.
How are Blizzard employees and Hearthstone fans reacting to the player’s ban?
Activision-Blizzard is catching heat from both fans and its own employees after banning Chung. After the news surfaced, #BoycottBlizzard and #BlizzardBoycott started trending on Twitter on Tuesday. Fans also accused the company of letting its involvement with Chinese businesses cloud its judgement regarding the incident.
As for employees, the Blizzard campus saw a quiet but incisive response. A statue on the premises includes the company’s values. On Tuesday the words “Every Voice Matters” and “Think Globally” were covered up.
Not everyone at Blizzard agrees with what happened.— Kevin Hovdestad (@lackofrealism) October 8, 2019
Both the “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters” values have been covered up by incensed employees this morning. pic.twitter.com/I7nAYUes6Q
Hey blizzard.— Boo!ghoul2988 (@Boogie2988) October 8, 2019
Human rights is more important than money.
Firing a chinese pro player for speaking out is bad enough.
But firing the two casters who even HID while it happened?
Lowest of the low.
The outcry has now extended beyond gaming and e-sports fans. Politicians Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have both criticized Blizzard’s decision and called for free speech.
“People who don’t live in #China must either self censor or face dismissal & suspensions,” Rubio wrote on Twitter.
“No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck,” tweeted Wyden.
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