The gaming world is predictable in that it’s never been too far from controversy. Last month, the community experienced yet more strife, in the form of some politically charged turbulence at the hands of Blizzard Entertainment. This company is quite the behemoth in terms of its longevity and popularity with its core fanbase; Blizzard Entertainment is a developer and publisher responsible for such cult classics as World of Warcraft, Diablo, and recently Overwatch. Although Blizzard sustains a predominantly Western fanbase, most notably in North America, the Eastern Esports market is expected to expand into a massively profitable area for video game companies in the coming five years. For this reason alone, it is exceptionally easy to understand that Blizzard would hold a vested interest in expanding its prominence across the Chinese market, who are pivotal to their plans of expansion. Evidently, this potential for immense financial gain became the single most powerful driving force behind the intense scandal that Blizzard Entertainment is currently embroiled within.
On October 6th, a Grandmasters tournament for Blizzard’s own popular card-collecting game, Hearthstone, in which a Hong Kong-based player, Ng Wai Chung, who games professionally under the alias of “Blitzchung”, emerged victoriously. It is worth noting that Blitzchung was already a familiar figure in the realm of Esports before this controversy took place; a highly regarded Hearthstone player, now competing in the Grandmaster tournament, the most difficult competitive category, with earnings standing at $20,000.
Following his victory, in a customary post-match interview, Blitzchung appeared on camera wearing a gas mask in a display of solidarity with the pro-democracy protests that have been raging through Hong Kong for the past several months. With the mask’s status as a symbol of the rebellion, Blitzchung’s intentions were made perfectly clear. He then proceeded to express further support in the form of a rallying statement, which is now often used by protestors on the streets, roughly translated as “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age”.
Two days later, on October 8th, Blitzchung was swiftly punished by Blizzard. Quoting from Section 6.1 of the Grandmasters official competition rules, “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 will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD”, Blizzard removed Blitzchung from the tournament, confiscated his earnings, banned him from participating in the competition again for another 12 months, and even fired the two commentators preparing to interview him. Before the ban was announced, however, Blitzchung stood by his non-violent protest and admitted in a statement that, “My call on [the] stream was just another form of participation of the protest that I wish to grab more attention … It could cause me [a] lot of trouble, even my personal safety in real life. But I think it’s my duty to say something about the issue”.
Inevitably, this has been met with severe backlash over the past month. Hearthstone players reacted with immense fervor upon the announcement of Blitzchung’s punishment, an act that many other players of Blizzard’s games followed suit, with many fans canceling their subscriptions to Blizzard’s services and vowing to no longer support their upcoming titles. Some were also quick to criticize how Blizzard would rather be complicit in the Chinese oppression of Hong Kong in the venture of expanding into a profitable market than permitting a player to express their right to free speech. Such backlash had a ripple effect outside of Blizzard’s community too, with the CEO of Epic Games, Tim Sweeney, taking to Twitter on October 9th to announce that, “Epic supports the rights of Fortnite players and creators to speak about politics and human rights”.
The entire fiasco has placed Blizzard in a highly uncomfortable position of their creation, and in a futile attempt to draw attention away from the Blitzchung incident, they announced a sequel to their incredibly popular online game, Overwatch, on November 1st. On the same day, the president of Blizzard Entertainment accepted accountability for the situation, however, he did not lift Blitzchung’s ban from Hearthstone tournaments, choosing to continue at a previously reduced suspension of 6 months.
With no clear end to the dispute in sight, only time will tell if Blizzard can maintain popularity within such a vocal community.