WoW Factor: The shabby ethics of Blizzard’s ‘Hong Kong liberation’ ban

Binding, binding.

Hooo boy, this was not an article I really expected to write this week.

So, by now everyone’s surely seen the news that Blizzard banned a professional Hearthstone player for stating support for Hong Kong’s protests against the Chinese government in his victory interview, something that… well, it’s not so much “bad optics” as it is a terrible decision that includes bad optics, but let’s just go with bad optics. Major news organizations are now calling it an “international incident” and it’s on every site from the BBC to WAPO, with politicians left and right taking Blizzard’s measure and finding it wanting.

It also doesn’t help one bit that this comes right on the heels of Blizzard’s big World of Warcraft 8.3 infodump and interview tour, which seemed like a pretty clear play to start winning back the crowd based on current reception.

I don’t really want to go into the historical details of the conflict going on right now in China, both because our original post outlines the situation pretty well and because I am not actually confident in my ability to summarize this without missing or misrepresenting a crucial detail. No, I want to talk about the ethics going into this particular decision as well as player responses because while I don’t usually cover Hearthstone in this column, you can’t really separate the two.

Let’s start by answering a question that’s pretty clear-cut but also completely misses the point. Is Blizzard allowed to do this? The answer, very simply, is obviously Blizzard can do whatever it wants with its games and esports, including not have them at all.

Seriously, if you’re pointing to specific rules that players or competitors agreed to, you’re just ignoring the fact that Blizzard has phrased those rules such that if it so decides, it can ban you for wearing a band shirt the people in charge don’t like. That’s just the way it is. Blizzard is allowed to ban you if the company thinks you’re making it look bad, and while it’s generally been accepted that this clause is in place to prevent people from being allowed to throw up Nazi salutes after winning a tournament, it can also extend to their deciding that no Grateful Dead fan is going to be the face of Overwatch esports.

And no, “free speech” isn’t relevant here either. Blizzard gets to decide what it is that makes Blizzard look bad.

In this particular case, the real question to ask isn’t whether the company can but whether it should, and what would actually make it look bad. The world is full of things you can do but probably shouldn’t, like chewing thumbtacks or wearing a hornet nest as a hat or… well, this.

This was not really the sort of moral ambiguity anyone signed up for.

China is a pretty huge market for games, especially Blizzard’s games, and the last thing Blizzard wants is to lose that market. The Chinese government takes a very strong interest in controlling what is and is not for sale over there, and you can already tell where Blizzard runs into the woods here.

Here’s the funny thing: It’s entirely possible – maybe even plausible – that the government had no direct influence on this particular decision. I’d be completely willing to believe that Blizzard’s community team saw this happening, someone raised the idea that it might cause a problem, and then some bright spark on the team had the idea of getting out ahead of any government complaint. So now he’s banned, and the commentators who hid behind their desks are axed, all because he was making Blizzard look bad to the Chinese government. Problem solved, right?

Well… no, that actually makes Blizzard’s problem notably worse. See, at this point, Blizzard’s stuck between a rock and a hard place of its own creation because now the government no doubt is going to notice (this is kind of big news) and so has the rest of the world. Walking back on the existing actions means acknowledging that previous actions were too pro-government, which is definitely going to attract ire. Keeping things where they are attracts domestic ire.

Again, this part is speculation. It’s entirely possible that Luo Shugang of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism called Blizzard within five minutes of a video game tournament interview broadcast and said “either he’s banned or you are,” although he probably would have said it in Chinese. Or even something less dramatic than that. The point is mostly that even if this was a problem for Blizzard before, it has most definitely now become an intractable problem, and what has been done doesn’t actually solve anything but rather exacerbates the issue.

Similarly, the question over whether or not the company can do something is irrelevant. Should is relevant. Regardless of how you feel about the situation in Hong Kong, this sends a clear message about the bar that Blizzard has established for when player and competitor opinions and public statements become actionable on its end, and this is not a case of “we don’t permit actual hate speech” but “we don’t permit speech that is potentially counter to our financial interests.”

If that makes you uncomfortable? Then yes, cancelling pre-orders and deactivating subscriptions is a good reaction. It’s pretty clear that this was an action motivated by financial interests rather than ideological ones, so ensuring that Blizzard incurs an associated financial cost, however reasonable, is an entirely reasonable way to respond to it.

Going under.

That’s not to say that I think it’s the only possible way to respond to it, even if you think “yes, this was a bad decision by Blizzard and I disagree with the banning, the implicit ideological establishment, or both.” Once the decision was made, a certain amount of hunkering down was inevitable simply by the nature of corporate inertia. There was never going to be a scenario in which players were upset and this was reversed immediately; even the tragically foolish RealID plan took a few drubbings in the public square before it was deemed untenable and truly shut down.

In light of the sheer volume of backlash, of course, I don’t really think this one is going to stand without challenge. My guess (again, speculation) is that Blizzard really thought this was something that could be handled out of sight and no one would even notice. That window has long since passed, and it definitely did not pass without notice, nor should it have. The studio will need to find a much more delicate balance than before.

At the same time, the bad takes I’ve seen floating around that it’s somehow out of Blizzard’s hands and the decision-makers at the company are innocent victims are also pretty terrible. You’re welcome to think that China is the majority of the company’s market share, but facts are not on your side. This wasn’t motivated by “losing this market hypothetically kills the studio” but by a desire not to lose about 10% of revenue by allowing someone to speak. Sure, that’s not pocket change, but it’s pretty normal quarter-to-quarter loss if the company in question cares about making a stand.

Well, except that it wouldn’t be the company making a stand. It’s someone else making a stand and the company in question just not censoring that.

The bottom line is that it’s really hard to sell a narrative of players being heroes when a player puts himself at great personal risk to show support human rights currently being trampled… and the company responds with a ban and a financial penalty. If you want to argue that this was something Blizzard “had” to do, you can’t then ignore the fact that some of the backlash would be lessened if that excuse were being communicated in some way to players and fans, even without taking an official stance on the issue.

I can make recommendations about what to do with your personal gaming time, but I can’t tell you what to do. I can’t say that the right thing to do is to refuse giving Blizzard any more of your money, especially when this is something that happened less than 24 hours ago and we have yet to see how it’ll play out. But I can say that if Blizzard is the victim here, it’s only a victim of itself, not of its circumstances.

Blizzard chose to take the actions it’s taken. And I think it’s entirely fitting to choose to give it no more time accordingly.

MassivelyOP’s full coverage of the issue can be found here:

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.

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My real problem is why do people think that blizzard even needs to take an ideological stand here?

They’re a company…. The only people they need to answer to are their shareholders. In fact damaging their business for taking a political stand is not only NOT a good thing. It’s downright reckless.

You don’t see the US or other countries slapping China with sanctions or cutting off trade over the deal do you? Then why does blizzard need to feel bad for putting their business first?

This whole thing was probably just an over-reaction by someone from blizzard on the spot when it happened and was blown out of proportion by social media. 10 years ago this would have been a non-issue. Not because it wasn’t a bone-head move by whoever did it, but because it wouldn’t have reached the world stage.

If this had been over any other issue Blizzard would have just made an official statement that they stand with Hong-Kong and that whoever did the banning was an idiot.

However, they can’t here. China is a big part of their business and Blizzard is trying to make MORE inroads with China. So Blizzard can’t really come out with a strong stance against them without undermining years of work and completely blowing up their future business strategies. Especially when China’s been so heavy handed with game censorship lately.

Whoever did the banning put Blizzard in a really shitty spot. They forgot the fundamental rule of being a peon to big business. Which is don’t make any decisions without sending it up the chain.

So no. I’m not mad at Blizzard and I’m not canceling my sub.

1. that sort of boycotting is mostly pointless anyway

2. This is a political issue. It’s not up a video game company to slap China on the wrist about Hong Kong.

Hell, its not really even the governments. Trying to interfere with the way other countries run themselves if how you end up with messes like the war in the middle east or Vietnam.

The only people who can do anything about the Chinese government are the Chinese.

drew who

I have unsubscribed today to WoW but its more for the reason that I am hearing lots of people are doing the same and I don’t want to be stuck on dead server . I will probably wait and see where the dust all settles in a few months time and take another look .

Trouble is these new descriptions of layered really makes it hard to pick a server with a decent population so unless that changes back to the old descriptions the chances are I might not return at all .

Trust Blizzard to feck it up .

Oh well my subs up on the 15th the same day AA Unchained launches so looks like I will try that instead .


This whole mess is discussed with maximum naivety tbh. As it has been said in the article China is a huge market for Blizzard, also the Chinese enterprise Tencent is a huge stockholder of Activision shares. So in what universe a board of directors of any company listed on the stock exchange would put that at risk for some e-sport player, be it for a good cause or not. This simply does not happen.

I have nothing but respect for this Chinese guy who did it, he is risking his personal safety for his beliefs. But all the people who are complaining, put your money where your mouth is, stop buying Blizzard games and cancel your WoW subscription. That would make a lot more of a statement than spamming reddit and twitter.

drew who

The trouble is people do seem to be unsubscribing in huge numbers . A lot of my guild mates are giving up and the server I am on is down to two layers in a matter of a couple of days .

I don’t really care about what is going on in Hong Kong or that Blizzard disqualified a player from a Heartstone tournament .What I do care about is playing on a busy server and quite frankly its hard to tell if the server I am on will remain that busy because of this .

As I have pointed out above I have unsubbed but I will be back in a few months to see how badly classic has been damaged by this . Hopefully my server will still be OK or I will be able to create a new character on a high pop server .


Wow if that is the case, Respect to anybody who took consequences.

Anton Mochalin

I support Hong Kong protests but this is blown out of proportion. Blizzard has the right to keep its game being just a game and a business having nothing to do with politics and it has the right to ban players. This seems to be a PR mistake on Blizzard’s side but we don’t know all the details. I can even understand people deleting Hearthstone accounts after that (and could do something similar in proper circumstances) but still consider such a reaction stupid. Stupid things produce stupid things. Stupid victory interview -> stupid Blizzard’s reaction -> stupid players’ reaction. We see such chains of events very often so are they really worth our attention?

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It is all so sad. Just when Blizzard was starting to get back some credibility after the BlizzCon 2018 desaster they misshandled this situation in the worst manner possible. And not releasing additional statements after several days just makes things worse. I just cancelled all my pre-purchases and I wait and see what happens before I decide whether Blizzard ever gets more money from me.

ichi sakari

“one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s financial liability”

a harsh light should shine on anyone cuddling up to repressive regimes


Can’t wait to see if BlizzCon peeps get searched for posters etc to get in to BlizzCon itself. That, IMO, would be the turning point for Blizz, the final eff you and your opinion too from them.

Roger Melly

The way I see it China has every right to do with Hong Kong what they wish in the same way we the British did when it was a British colony . That is not to say I approve of China’s human rights record or its system of government but I can’t say I approve of what is happening in the USA at the moment either . I tend to have opinions about it but I am not going to criticize the internal politics of those countries , considering I am British and the mess we are in at the moment I think given I live in glass house I am not going to throw stones .

I don’t think Blizzard did itself any favors acting in such a manner but I doubt they will lose many subscriptions over it because I imagine most people are indifferent whats happening in Hong Kong .

Apparently this player made a comment at a Blizzard organized Hearthstone event so he was using their event as a soapbox to air his views . Its not really an appropriate platform . He could easily have used a vpn and did it in his own time on youtube . I know this because a friend of mines son works in China for a gaming peripherals manufacturer and he uses one all the time to play WoW with us and use state banned social media (apparently its common practice out there and pretty much overlooked by the government most of the time ) . He loves it out there .

I always remember talking to a friend from Brunei who used to play the secret world with us (she was studying at Liverpool uni at the time) . We got into a conversation about democracy and she saw it as a chaotic and adversarial system where in an absolute monarchy there was order and stable government . I personally would hate to live in such an anti-democratic society but it just goes to show not everyone feels the same way .

I do think Blizzard probably overreacted and have created a bit of a problem for themselves but I also equally don’t have much sympathy for a gamer who puts himself in such a position .

Ultimately if you don’t like what is happened stop playing Blizzard games but I bet there will be a lot of people who will say how terrible this all is and still be playing them next month .

Anthony Clark

This is nothing more than “Don’t you guys have phones” again.

Trying to get that China money Blizz is just tripping all over its spinless self.

Everyone should just stop playing Hearthstone all together.

And NO one should go to BlizzCon.

The only way to make a difference is to effect their bottom line. Stop buying their goods.

Anton Mochalin

I don’t play Blizzard games (only played Hearthstone a long time ago for a short while) so I’m not a fanboy but can I ask: what’s the connection between “you guys have phones” or this episode with China and us stopping playing Blizzard’s games? How does this episode diminish the fun I can potentially have with a Blizzard’s game? I would understand if you said “let’s sign a petition demanding to un-ban that guy” or maybe wrote a public letter to Blizzard employees asking them to pressure their bosses to un-ban that guy. But how does this relate to Hearthstone?

Anthony Clark

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Techno Wizard
Techno Wizard

Free Hong Kong! You should too, Activision Blizzard.