Esports athlete banned by Blizzard after Hearthstone Hong Kong protest

How companies address issues surrounding the protests in Hong Kong that began in March are coming to the forefront for some of the United States’ most popular entertainment companies who do business in China.

The NBA’s preseason broadcasts have been cancelled in China after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support of Hong Kong protesters. The NBA’s conflicting responses along with a la carte responses from stars like LeBron James haven’t improved the situation. But, it’s not just the NBA that’s in trouble.

Earlier this month, Blizzard Entertainment, maker of esports games like World of Warcraft, Overwatch and Hearthstone, banned a player after the athlete voiced support for Hong Kong during a post-match interview.

Here’s a timeline of how the story unfolded:

Oct. 6, 2019 - Blitzchung supports Hong Kong after Hearthstone win

After winning his Hearthstone Grandmasters match against Jang “DawN” Hyun Jae, Hong Kong Hearthstone esports pro Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai wears a gas mask, which was banned one week earlier in Hong Kong, and expresses support for Hong Kong demonstrators in Mandarine. Blitzchung’s message translates to, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.”

In the days that followed, Blitzchung would say of his protest, “I sacrificed time hanging out with my friends and studying because of this competition. Even though it seemed that I had wasted four years of time, I have something more important in my heart – if we lose the movement, Hong Kong will end forever.”

Oct. 8, 2019 - Blizzard Entertainment responds to Blitzching’s comments
Blizzard responds to Blitzchung’s comments, stripping him of approximately $3,000 in tournament winnings and barring the Hearthstone player from competing in any Hearthstone competition for one year. Here is what they said:

During the Asia-Pacific Grandmasters broadcast over the weekend there was a competition rule violation during a post-match interview, involving Blitzchung and two casters, which resulted in the removal of the match VOD replay.

Upon further review we have found the action has violated the 2019 Hearthstone Grandmasters Official Competition Rules section 6.1 (o) and is individual behavior which does not represent Blizzard or Hearthstone Esports. 6.1 (o) is found below.

2019 HEARTHSTONE® GRANDMASTERS OFFICIAL COMPETITION RULES v1.4 p.12, Section 6.1 (o)

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, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and Blizzard’s Website Terms.

Blizzard also banned the two shoutcasters, who provided play-by-play commentary during Blitzchung’s match, and who interviewed the esports athlete during the incident. To many fans and esports athletes alike, banning the shoutcasters was even worse than simply banning Blitzchung because the fans viewed the shoutcasters involvement as tangential.

Here’s that statement:

Effective immediately, Blitzchung is removed from Grandmasters and will receive no prizing for Grandmasters Season 2. Additionally, Blitzchung is ineligible to participate in Hearthstone esports for 12 months beginning from Oct. 5th, 2019 and extending to Oct. 5th, 2020. We will also immediately cease working with both casters.

Oct. 8, 2019 - Fans, politicians attack Blizzard for suspending Blitzchung

It didn’t take long for fans, politicians and even other game developers to attack Blizzard and Activision, the parent company of Blizzard Entertainment, on social media.

Fans began posting on Reddit, Twitter and Twitch #BlizzardBoycott, writing about why and how they would boycott the game developer with screenshots showing players deleting their accounts.

Even Mark Kern, who led development of one of Blizzard’s most iconic games — World of Warcraft — tweeted a screenshot explaining why he cancelled his account.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, (R-FL) was the first to tweet about the incident that morning calling it a move by China to “crush free speech globally” by leveraging the country’s powerful economy.

“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.”

In a show of bipartisanship, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden also tweeted about Blizzard writing, “No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck.”

Oct. 8, 2019 - Collegiate Heartstone players banned over protest after loss

But as The Washington Post reported, the firestorm behind Blizzard’s ban was inspiring fans to form their own protests. Later that same day, American University student Casey Chambers met with his team who agreed to plan their own support for Hong Kong.

When the AU students lost, they saw their moment: They held up a sign that read, “Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizz.” The Twitch stream, which was operated by Blizzard, immediately cut away to the winners, and the casters ignored what happened. Winner interviews ended for the night. And the cameras showing the players were turned off, replaced by characters from the game.

Oct. 9, 2019 - Epic Games won’t ban players for political speech

Soon it was Epic Games’ turn to work some PR magic. A spokesperson for the company behind Fortnite tells The Verge, “Epic supports everyone’s right to express their views on politics and human rights. We wouldn’t ban or punish a Fortnite player or content creator for speaking on these topics”

Oct. 9, 2019 - Overwatch character Mei — a “pro-democracy symbol”

The next day, Overwatch players begin to call on other players to promote Mei, the Chinese Overwatch hero, as a symbol of Hong Kong’s resistance.

A post yesterday on the r/HongKong subreddit suggested people turn Mei, a Chinese Overwatch hero, into a “pro-democracy symbol” to get “Blizzard’s games banned in China.” (China already censors Winnie the Pooh after the internet began associating the character with president Xi Jinping.) The post has been upvoted more than 12,000 times, and has more than 300 comments, plenty of which are images of Mei supporting Hong Kong. The movement has spread outward into Twitter and elsewhere.

Oct. 11, 2019 – League of Legends global head warns players ”

On Oct. 11, another game developer steps into the fray to add their own two bytes. John Needham, global head of League of Legends Esports, which is a direct competitor of Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm and is owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent, warned players, “As a general rule, we want to keep our broadcasts focused on the game, the sport, and the players. We serve fans from many different countries and cultures, and we believe this opportunity comes with a responsibility to keep personal views on sensitives issues (political, religious, or otherwise) separate.”

Oct. 12, 2019 – Blizzard president writes letter about “last weekend’s Hearthstone Grandmasters Tournament”

Six days after Blitzchung removed his gas mask and claimed support for Hong Kong, Blizzard Entertainment President J. Allen Brack releases a letter “Regarding last weekend’s Hearthstone Grandmasters Tournament,” where Brack outlines the company’s decision to ban the Grandmasters winner writing:

“At Blizzard, our vision is “to bring the world together through epic entertainment.” And we have core values that apply here: Think Globally; Lead Responsibly; and importantly, Every Voice Matters, encouraging everybody to share their point of view. The actions that we took over the weekend are causing people to question if we are still committed to these values. We absolutely are and I will explain.”

“Moving forward, we will continue to apply tournament rules to ensure our official broadcasts remain focused on the game and are not a platform for divisive social or political views.

One of our goals at Blizzard is to make sure that every player, everywhere in the world, regardless of political views, religious beliefs, race, gender, or any other consideration always feels safe and welcome both competing in and playing our games.”

Also in Brack’s letter, the Blizzard Entertainment president announced that Blitzchung’s ban would be changed from one year to six months.

But playing fair also includes appropriate pre-and post-match conduct, especially when a player accepts recognition for winning in a broadcast. When we think about the suspension, six months for blitzchung is more appropriate, after which time he can compete in the Hearthstone pro circuit again if he so chooses. There is a consequence for taking the conversation away from the purpose of the event and disrupting or derailing the broadcast.

Oct. 18, 2019 – U.S. Congress gets involved

By October 18, a growing bipartisan group of U.S. Senators and Congress members called on Activision Blizzard to reconsider its decision to punish Blitzchung.

“Because your company is such a pillar of the gaming industry, your disappointing decision could have a chilling effect on gamers who seek to use their platform to promote human rights and basic freedoms.”

So, what’s a company to do in this situation?  This situation reminds us of the early days of social media and the need for companies to develop social media policies about clearly delineating when an employee is posting a personal opinion and when he or she is posting an opinion endorsed by the company.  These distinctions are important not just for the company’s legal team but also for the reputation of the brand.

As both traditional (earned) and social (owned) media coverage of Blizzard’s reaction to Blitzchung and other players’ protests continue, we’ll update this story.