Players, pros, and politicians join in protest over Blizzard’s censorship of Hong Kong Hearthstone pro

You think you want an 'international incident', but you don't

Hello, I am still the villain.

The furor over Blizzard’s ban of a Hong Kong Hearthstone pro player and apparent firing of two Taiwanese commentators has only increased since its widespread coverage yesterday.

As we’ve covered at length, Ng “blitzchung” Wai Chung wore a gas mask to a post-match interview on Blizzard’s official Taiwanese stream. He then 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, announcing that it’d be banning him for a year under a vague competition rule that allows Blizzard to ban pretty much anyone for anything. It also clawed back his competition winnings and booted him from the tournament, while apparently then firing the two Taiwanese commentators, one of whom told journalists he was completely blindsided by both the segment on which Ng appeared and the dismissal.

As Vice put it, Blizzard’s move quickly became an “international incident” as first gaming websites and then major US and EU news organizations like CNN, The Washington PostNPR, and the BBC picked it up. Even politicians weighed in; US Senators Marco Rubio (R) and Ron Wyden (D) both denounced Blizzard’s decision as caving to censors.

And players made their voices heard. The #boycottblizzard hashtag is still a flurry even this morning. The Hearthstone subreddit has been on fire; scroll on through and every post is about the incident, and a prominent moderator left in disgust over Blizzard’s actions too. The WoW sub has shunted all commentary on the topic into a single massive thread full of people declaring they’re canceling their WoW subs. A solidarity thread on the official Hearthstone forums has been allowed to stand so far. (The equivalent World News thread on Reddit, note, was bizarrely removed from the sub once it began trending under the “Misleading Title / Not Appropriate Subreddit” rationale. Yeah.)

Overwatch fans have expressed their own anger at Blizzard by transforming the cutesy scientist character Mei, who is depicted as Chinese in the game, into a “symbol of the resistance” in an effort to get the game outright banned in China. A massively upvoted Overwatch play-of-the-game spoof gif on the HighQualityGifs subreddit mocks Blizzard as “China’s Lil Bitch.”

I for one welcome our new Chinese Overwatch… from HighQualityGifs

Blitzchung’s even gotten support from fellow Hearthstone pros: The American University Hearthstone team held up a “Free Hong Kong, boycott Blizzard” sign during a championship yesterday. Apparently, Blizzard cut the feed on their broadcast, and it’s not clear whether they’ll be similarly punished, though they’re surely aware of the risks. Esports journalist Rod Breslau, who helped break the original story in the west, tweeted that Blizzard had “notified Collegiate Hearthstone teams that there will be no more interviews” in the evening following this protest.

Blitzchung himself, and to a lesser extent the commentators, are being hailed as heroes, as Blitzchung told multiple publications that he knew he’d suffer harm and threats to his personal safety but considered his protest the right thing to do to bring attention to the plight of Hong Kong, whose citizens have been in full-fledged protest this year (among other years) over what they characterize as Chinese encroachment on their rights. “I spent 4 years on Hearthstone so I only lost 4 years of my life, but if HK loses it will be forever,” he said on a stream.

Blizzard has still not actually issued any additional responses, nor have we seen any sort of organized walkout of employees; in fact, there doesn’t seem to have been much protest from inside Blizzard apart from someone (heroically) covering up the “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters” values symbols on the studio’s Irvine campus. RPS did report this morning on a Reddit thread purporting to show Blizzard staff holding an “umbrella” protest on campus.

Umbrella protest at Blizzard

Activision-Blizzard stock is down only slightly.

We’ll have an early WoW Factor later today with more of an editorial response to the situation. [Edit: That’s now live too.]

Our full coverage is here:

Update 11:30 AM EDT
Boing Boing reports that Hearthstone players have hatched a plan to essentially deluge Blizzard with GDPR requests, to flood their support system with irritating but totally legal requests for their data.

BlizzCon commentator and past Hearthstone champ Brian Kibler announced he’s withdrawing from BlizzCon this year, calling the punishment meted out by Blizzard “incredibly harsh” and heavy-handed. “That kind of appeasement is simply not something I can in good conscience be associated with. When I learned about the ruling, I reached out to Blizzard and informed them that I no longer feel comfortable casting the Grandmasters finals at BlizzCon. I will not be a smiling face on camera that tacitly endorses this decision. Unless something changes, I will have no involvement in Grandmasters moving forward.” He also encourages players not to direct their anger at the “rank-and-file” who are likely “just as angry as you are.” (via systemd)

Epic’s Tim Sweeney has rebuked Blizzard’s move, in spite of the fact that Tencent has a large amount of money invested into Epic. “That will never happen on my watch as the founder, CEO and controlling shareholder.”

Update 12:25 PM EDT
MOP reader CapnLan has pointed out to us that there are a pair of threads (the second one is massive) where players are reporting that while previously account deletions – yes, people are straight-up deleting their entire Blizzard accounts in protest – have been easily handled with authenticator verification, apparently Blizzard has intervened in the last few days to instead require an image of the requester’s ID, which of course is slowing the process way down and concerning people who are not inclined to give a company such an image under the political circumstances.
Update 1:30 PM EDT
Update 3:10 PM EDT
MOP reader Jack points out a story in Aussie publication The Age that reports Gods Unchained, the game that offered a tourney spot and replacement winnings to Ng yesterday, was slammed with a DDOS attack yesterday afternoon. It also confirms the prize winnings Blizzard clawed back from Ng amounted to $10,000 US.

“About seven hours after Immutable announced its offer, it was hit with the cyber attack that blocked players from logging into Gods Unchained. Mr Ferguson said the attack was continuing but Immutable had managed to ward off the damage after about four hours with the help of external security experts. While Mr Ferguson said he had not analysed the attack in detail, he believed it most likely originated in China.”

Update 4:00 PM EDT
Wondering where Blizzard’s statement is? “Blizzard is assessing the situation for now, a spokesperson told Engadget.” That’s all there is right now.
Update 4:30 PM EDT
Remember the Reddit thread purporting to show Blizzard staff holding an “umbrella” protest on campus? Turns out that was real, and it was indeed Blizzard staff. The Daily Beast reports that it was an intentional walkout on the Irvine campus on Tuesday. There’s some good reporting in this one and quotes from staff who wanted to stay anonymous for obvious reasons. Here are two:

“The action Blizzard took against the player was pretty appalling but not surprising […] Blizzard makes a lot of money in China, but now the company is in this awkward position where we can’t abide by our values.”

“I’m disappointed. […] We want people all over the world to play our games, but no action like this can be made with political neutrality.”

Blizzard has reportedly not taken any action against those who walked out. Employees are also apparently circulating a petition against Blizzard’s actions that’ll be handed to execs.

Update 7:00 PM EDT
A Liberal member of the Norwegian Parliament, Grunde Almeland, has sent a letter to Activision-Blizzard’s Bobby Kotick and J Allen Brack, expressing “distress” over the incident and asserting that the “punishment clearly does not fit the crime.” “As a democratically elected official, I would also question the very fact that you consider making use of the fundamental right of free speech at all,” he writes. “If players cannot be certain that their rights will be protected, and that your company does not deal with them in a just manner, I do not see how it would be possible for cities or national organizations to support any further tournaments to be held within the games you own the rights for.” [Thanks TJ!]

Fox News (I know, sorry) ran a segment on the fiasco as well, bringing in esports consultant Rod Breslau to recap the whole mess.

Update 9:30 PM EDT
We’ve had a number of tips today referring to unverified claims that Blizzard has completely disabled the account deletion system, which would expose Blizzard to a whole new mess. We stress that we cannot yet confirm that this is true, and in fact Redditors are still saying they’re being asked for ID as of this evening, as are family members of our own staff. It is worth noting that Blizzard apparently updated its account deletion help page yesterday.

Also, yes, former Blizz Team Lead Mark Kern (aka Firefall esports bus guy, aka WoW vanilla petition guy) apparently made a big public show of canceling his WoW Classic account.

Update 10:50 PM EDT
MOP reader Sorenthaz pointed out to us that a related drama has been simmering in the League of Legends community as players accused Riot Games of censoring the term Hong Kong during a stream. However, it turns out to be a miscommunication. Here’s Riot Comms Lead Ryan Rigney: “To make this as explicit as possible, we aren’t telling anyone to avoid saying ‘hong kong.’ We’d just rather the team [he means Hong Kong Attitude aka HKA] be referred to by its full name. There’s been some confusion internally about this as well and we’re working to correct it.” He then added, “We should have better prepped our casters and we’re reiterating this policy to them today.”
Update 10/10/2019 11:25 AM
Polygon has now confirmed our take on the claims being made last night that Blizzard had completely disabled account deletion. As we noted, it didn’t seem to be true, contrary to the claims on Twitter. You can still delete your Blizzard account; however, Blizzard has made it tricky since many players are being asked for scanned ID. As always, please remain skeptical of what you read, especially when the sourcing is dodgy.
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