Blizzard bans Hearthstone esports player and fires casters over pro-Hong Kong protest

"It's my duty to say something about the issue." -blitzchung

    
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I suppose it was just a matter of time before the current Chinese political mess spilled over into gaming, but it’s done so now: A successful pro Hearthstone player has been booted from a tournament, had his prize money clawed back by Blizzard, and been banned for a year of pro play for his vocal and visual support of Hong Kong following tournament play.

As first reported by Inven Global, Hong Kong Hearthstone player Ng “blitzchung” Wai Chung wore a gas mask to a post-match interview with two casters on Blizzard’s official Taiwanese stream. He also shouted “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!” as the casters literally ducked behind their desks. Blizzard then cut the stream and wiped the videos as the story started to spread like wildfire and fury at Blizzard began raging. (A clip is still online and embedded through Twitter below; Polygon says the clips were never shown on the English broadcast.)

Lest you think this was Blizzard’s Chinese branch cracking down, know that in fact the decision was published on the official US website for Hearthstone, so this is on the current Blizzard leadership in California. The company cited p. 12 section 6.1 (o) of the official rules for the Grandmasters competition that forbids “[e]ngaging 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.” Which is basically broad enough to allow it to do anything or nothing for any reason whatsoever. Apparently, not only did Blizz action Blitzchung, but it also fired the two commentators on the Taiwanese stream too (“We will also immediately cease working with both casters”).

“As you know there are serious protests in my country now,” Blitzchung told Inven Global in a statement. “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.”

In his statement to Polygon, Blitzchung said he understood himself to be contributing to the protests during his stunt: “Not only to grab more attention, but also telling some of the protesters who were watching the stream that I’m on their side. I have got a lot of supportive messages from my local community, so I’m glad that my statements became a kind of energy for them. There will definitely be negative consequences. For example, some netizen from China has been requesting Blizzard to punish me for my speech. But this is what I expected to happen. There are always people who disagree with your view.”

Some backstory for folks who don’t follow the news: Hong Kong is a former British colony that the UK transferred back to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” promise. Earlier this year the HK parliament considered an extradition bill that would allow China significantly more authority over extraditing suspects out of Hong Kong, which sparked the latest round of mass protests in the region this year over what opponents characterized as “legalized kidnapping” by China. The demonstrations soon turned into a broader push for democracy against the not-directly-elected pro-Chinese Hong Kong government; the bill has since been suspended but not withdrawn as the international spotlight has focused on police abuses and bans on things like face masks during the extended protests. Just this week, a professional basketball manager in the US tweeted support for the people of Hong Kong and was broadly criticized by the NBA and NBA owners with a clear stake in Chinese business and finance, though of course not everyone has bent the knee.

Source: Inven Global, Blizzard, Polygon, Twitter, Reddit. Thanks, Pepperzine and Tracey.
Update
The Blizzard subreddit has now been placed on lockdown.
Update
Beta cryptocurrency TCG Gods Unchained just tweeted that it’d gladly replace all of BlitzchungHS’s lost Hearthstone winnings and invite him into its tournament to boot, in a clear rebuke to Blizzard. Self-serving, yes, but they put their money where their mouth is. “@Blizzard_Ent just banned @blitzchungHS and stripped his Hearthstone winnings because they care about money more than freedom. We will pay for ALL his lost winnings and a ticket to our $500k tournament: no player should be punished for their beliefs,” the studio tweeted. “Today, Blizzard proved that centralized games companies will censor and exploit their players if it is in their immediate financial interest.” (Cheers, Pepperzine again!)
Update
Support has continued flowing in to Blitzchung’s Twitter, where this morning he surfaced to say thank you to his fans.

Update
The WoW subreddit mods have issued a warning to people started new threads about the fiasco, asking everyone to pile into a single thread instead.
Update
Blizzard China’s statement was posted on Weibo and is apparently identical to the one issued by Blizzard US, but it was also accompanied by a followup post that was significantly more disturbing: “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. The involved players will be banned and the relevant explanations will be immediately terminated by any official work. At the same time, we will, as always, resolutely safeguard national dignity.” (Thanks, Tess and Scott!)
Update
There’s currently a massive solidarity thread on the official Hearthstone forums, where gamers are at least claiming to unsub and uninstall Blizzard games en masse. It remains unclear how long Blizzard will allow it to continue.
Update
The #boycottblizzard hashtag on Twitter is now picking up steam; according to Polygon, it’s “currently generating a tweet every few seconds on Twitter.”
Update
GD pointed us to a journalist’s tweet showing how Blizzard employees have responded negatively to the company’s actions.

Update
The Blizzard subreddit is back up now. According to mods, it was done in what seems like some form of protest by a now-former mod.

“For some reason, one of our recent mods set the subreddit to private then deleted his account. It was an odd event, but rest assured, us remaining mods have restored it to public. No, we were not contacted by Blizzard, nor are we employees to any extent. We are committed to supporting this community.”

Update
In what’s now being deemed an “international incident,” major US papers – no less than The Washington Post, NPR, and the BBC – and politicians have picked up the story. Senators Marco Rubio (R) and Ron Wyden (D) have both denounced Blizzard’s move as caving to censors.

“Blizzard shows it is willing to humiliate itself to please the Chinese Communist Party. No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck,” Wyden tweeted, while Rubio said, “Recognize what’s happening here. People who don’t live in #China must either self censor or face dismissal & suspensions. China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally. Implications of this will be felt long after everyone in U.S. politics today is gone.”

Update
One half of the pair of Taiwanese commentators who ducked behind their desks while Blitzchung called for Hong Kong’s liberation has now spoken up. Going by the name Virtual, the 26-year-old is a former pro Hearthstone champ himself who worked as an independent contractor for Blizz Taiwan. He says the duo still haven’t been told exactly why (and whether) they were dismissed and weren’t going to be given confirmation about that dismissal for 24 hours – from the time of the firing, we presume, which itself was a day after the event, during which period they had no idea anything was amiss.

“The director only told me I have an interview,” he told PC Gamer. “He didn’t talk about how he’s wearing a mask, so when the interview started, I wasn’t sure what the situation was. So I thought that Chung could just say what he wanted to say.” Ducking behind the desk, he says, was the commentators’ way of indicating Blitzchung wasn’t speaking for them.

Update

Our full coverage:

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Adam Russell

If we allow censorship then the horde wins.

Pepperzine
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Pepperzine

Found this gem floating around Reddit

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shikarin
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shikarin

Many outlets make it sound like the interviewers were caught off-guard by Blitzchung’s actions and comments. But from what I’ve seen and as far as I can tell, they egged him on and were laughing about it. They told him to go ahead with his statement and ducked their heads before Blitzchung said his statement. Their dismissal was probably appropriate.

Blitzchung’s penalty is… regrettable? There actually is an argument to be made that Blizzard is right to try to discourage political statements on their official platforms. But specific context matters. And advocating for human rights shouldn’t result in you bring the hammer down on them. The heavy penalty imposed suggest that Blizzard was most likely thinking of appeasing Chinese authorities.

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Michram142

It’s all so sad…

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Aaron Weddle

i’m gonna be devil’s advocate here and just say i can’t be bothered they are supposed to give up a billion + people market by endorsing some rabble-rousers (read that with an English accent). hong kong will end the way anything with china does Violent and Bloody and nothing any American corporation or person can do will stop that.

camren_rooke
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camren_rooke

That certainly is the cynic’s view and I don’t necessarily disagree with it, BUT… I hope, I HOPE it’s wrong.

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Armsbend

It is a different era of rabble rousing with social media though – and if any one nation knows something about revolution – it is China.

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Chris

I canceled my sub and in the reason for canceling question, explained that I cannot support a business that sacrifices ethics to appease tyrants as a paying customer. I also uninstalled all my Blizzard games and the Battle.net client itself. Unless Blizzard makes this right, they have permanently lost a customer who has been with them since the days of their SNES games like Rock ‘n Roll Racing and Blackthorne.

PurpleCopper
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PurpleCopper

How does a company style itself as “progressive” and yet goes draconian on such political events?

Talk is cheap until it hits the bottom line, huh?

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Baemir

There’s no such thing as a “progressive” company. That’s the most naive thing I’ve ever heard, no offense.

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Utakata

…if you view capitalism as a system that is inherently regressive, you may have a point. Outside of that…it becomes pretty subjective, IMO.

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Baemir

Capitalism is not regressive, it’s simply the status quo. These companies compete within capitalism, “progress” is not something they’re concerned about. At most they will put on the facade of being progressive for PR points, which frankly, people tend to eat up.

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Utakata

So you are saying this from an apologist position then. Good to know!

And no, you are not really helping here…
as in, you really are arguing it’s regressive. Status quo, indeed.

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Arktouros

My question is why can’t a company be recognized for their progressive efforts while also recriminated for other policies they might adhere to? Can we not have complex things that we both respect and revile at the same time? Must everything be broken down to the simple level of all good or all bad?

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Ashfyn Ninegold

Yes. Unfortunately, for most people, it’s either foot on the gas or foot on the brake. Black or white. Grey areas make certain heads explode. So either Blizzard is the hero or the goat. When in reality, it is as you say. It is a progressive company in many ways, but has really screwed the pooch with this one.

When we’re quick to condemn, it leaves out the possibility of looking past the initial action and questioning what it’s about. And sometimes it’s more nuanced than people want to/can deal with. This is the down side of social media in solidifying popular perspective; it rarely gives time for the shades of grey to come out. It’s all about choosing sides and making snark.

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Utakata

Depends on what you mean by “progressive”…and to a degree, what they mean by “progressive”.

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Stormwaltz