Video game developer Blizzard Entertainmenthas finally broken its silence overbanning a professional player of popular virtual card gameHearthstonefor voicing support for the Hong Kong protests.In a lengthy statement, the company says it will reduce the one-year suspension of player Ng “Blitzchung” Wai Chung to a six-month one, and it will restore the prize money it withheld from him.
Blizzard claims that its initial decision was not influenced by its relationship with China. “The specific views expressed by blitzchung were not a factor in the decision we made. I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision,” writes J. Allen Brack, the president of Blizzard Entertainment. “We have these rules to keep the focus on the game and on the tournament to the benefit of a global audience, and that was the only consideration in the actions we took. If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.”
Yet Brack also says that, after evaluating the situation and listening to the community, “six months for blitzchung is more appropriate, after which time he can compete in the Hearthstone pro circuit again if he so chooses.” He goes on to say, “There is a consequence for taking the conversation away from the purpose of the event and disrupting or derailing the broadcast. With regard to the casters, remember their purpose is to keep the event focused on the tournament. That didn’t happen here, and we are setting their suspension to six months as well.”
Brack says Blizzard will continue to enforce these rules in the future “to ensure our official broadcasts remain focused on the game and are not a platform for divisive social or political views.”
In the wake of the initial ban, Blizzard has faced immense pressure from players, politicians, and activists who criticized the developer for what’s seen as its capitulation to the Chinese government. In his post-game interview, Wai Chung said, “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!” Blizzard operates numerous e-sports events and operates a variety of live multiplayer games in the country. Therefore, Blizzard’s ban could be construed as an appeasement to the Chinese government, which is engaged in a lengthy months-long crackdown of the Hong Kong protests.
The company claimed at the time that Wai Chung simply violated its tournament rules. “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,” Blizzard said in its statement. The rule in question forbids players from doing anything that “brings [them] into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages [Blizzard’s] image.”
Despite Blizzard’s best efforts to claim otherwise, the ban did not paint it a positive light with regard to respect for free speech and political expression. It also occurred amidst a controversial standoff between the NBA and China, which took offense to Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of the Hong Kong protestors. The NBA eventually stood by Morey, resulting in a deterioration of the league and the Rockets’ relationship with the country, its biggest foreign market and a source of considerable broadcast, investor, and sponsorship support.
Blizzard, which had not spoken out about its move to appease the Chinese government beyond its initial statement, has instead faced a domestic backlash. Employees havestaged multiple walk outs, players have been boycotting the company and popular Blizzard games likeOverwatch, and lawmakers have condemned its actions as antithetical to American values and in support of an authoritarian regime’s stifling of free expression.