Blizzard has arguably been a justified victim of a flurry of negative press after the company decided in early October to punish a player who voiced support for recent Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.
After winning a tournament of Blizzard’s card battle game Hearthstone, player Blitzchung openly criticised the Chinese government in Mandarin on a live broadcast, saying “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”. Blizzard consequently removed Blitzchung’s $10,000 winnings and banned him from competitions for 12 months.
Responding to the backlash, the company reduced Blitzchung's ban to six months, but announced that it would continue to enforce limits on non-gaming speech in official company broadcasts.
This decision faced backlash from fans and employees alike, who argued that this directly opposed Blizzard’s principles of “every voice matters” and “think globally”, and many players uploaded images of themselves uninstalling or cancelling subscriptions to Blizzard games. Responding to the backlash, the company reduced his ban to six months, but announced that it would continue to enforce limits on non-gaming speech in official company broadcasts.
Defending the decision, Brack wrote: “Every Voice Matters, and we strongly encourage everyone in our community to share their viewpoints in the many places available to express themselves.
However, the official broadcast needs to be about the tournament and to be a place where all are welcome. We want to keep the official channels focused on the game.” Despite this, Blizzard later banned three American university Esports players for holding up a poster that said "free Hong Kong, boycott Blizz” during their Hearthstone championship match.
“Blizzard had the opportunity to bring the world together. We did not. We moved too quickly in our decision-making, and then, to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you.”J. Allen Brack, Blizzcon 2019
Speaking at this year’s Blizzcon in early November, Brack described how “Blizzard had the opportunity to bring the world together. We did not. We moved too quickly in our decision-making, and then, to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you.”
“When I think about what I’m most unhappy about, there’s really two things. The first one is, we didn’t live up to the high standards that we really set for ourselves, and the second is, we failed in our purpose, and for that, I am sorry and I accept accountability.”
This direct public apology was seemingly received warmly by those present, who cheered at the announcement. Others, however, have dismissed the apology as merely a PR stunt, especially as he did not directly address Blitzchung or suggest further reducing his punishment.
This included a man dressed as Winnie the Pooh with a photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping taped to his face and a yellow can labelled “HUNNY” filled with fake money in his hand.
Despite attendees generally showing appreciation for the apology and forgiveness, a crowd had gathered outside the Blizzcon venue to protest against the company’s actions. This included a man dressed as Winnie the Pooh with a photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping taped to his face and a yellow can labelled “HUNNY” filled with fake money in his hand.
Interestingly, this man was actually one of multiple who chose to protest outside the venue dressed as Pooh, who is censored in China because of his alleged resemblance to the Chinese President. Other protestors handed out stickers labelled with “Boycott Blizzard” under a black umbrella, which has become a symbol of Hong Kong resistance, and chants of "Blitzchung did nothing wrong - free Hong Kong" were heard.
Whether Blitzchung’s punishment will be fully revoked is unknown, but the company faces making major losses if it shows further inaction.
Words may (or, indeed, may not) be well-meaning, but ultimately the eyes of the gaming word are on Blizzard, and its current lack of positive action is taken by many as a sign of the company’s indifference towards its fans, and its focus on profits rather than democracy.