Blizzard Entertainment via Polygon

So many of you may have seen Blizzard in the news over the last week, and that news was probably pretty confusing. This string of stories came from controversial actions and responses at their Asia-Pacific Grandmasters Hearthstone tournament that was held on October 5th – leading to bans, protests, and even politicians getting involved.

The controversy surrounded Hearthstone grandmaster player Blitzchung (real name Chung Ng Wai), during a post-match interview in an official Blizzard broadcast. Donning a gas mask as the broadcast was wrapping up, Blitzchung called out “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age.” That in itself might not seem like such a big deal to American gamers, but it was the catalyst for a whirlwind of international political backlash.

The Backdrop

Gaming aside, China and a free Hong Kong is a particularly hot-button issue in the current political atmosphere – frequent marches and increasingly violent protests by anti-government Hong Kong citizens have been taking place with force since about June of this year. The “One country, two systems” policy set in place by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980’s allows Hong Kong a semi-autonomous state, but recent proposals, including the allowance for extradition to mainland China, have fueled a movement for a full democracy for Hong Kong.

SO – there’s the backdrop for this series of events for those of you that are unfamiliar. That said, Blizzard’s response came three days later on the 8th,  stripping Blitzchung of his prize money from the tournament, complete with a one-year ban from Hearthstone events. Blizzard also put the hammer to the two broadcasters conducting the interview. In their opinion, Blitzchung violated their rules – specifically the following:

The Violation

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.

Which in this dude’s opinion, is pretty damn wide open for interpretation for enforcement, and more or less a farce. But we’ll get a little more into that at the end. They add, “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.”

Uh-huh. (said with the mental note that Chinese conglomerate Tencent owns 5% of Activision Blizzard)

This in tandem with the NBA’s garbage decision to reprimand Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey with a forced apology for similar sentiment spells out bad times for both American sports, physical as well as electronic.

The US Senate

What happened next was nothing short of hell freezing over, because it brought me onto the same page as Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). He along with Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), slammed Blizzard in a most bipartisan fashion, accusing them of bowing down to the Chinese Communist Party with complimentary tweets, as apparently Twitter is where politics gets done these days. “No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck” said Wyden, with Rubio’s thoughts echoing his as well: “Recognize what’s happening here. People who don’t live in China must either self censor or face dismissal & suspensions.”

I agree with both of the Senators – while there is something to be said about global markets and a global economy, the rules were hazy at best, and from the outside perspective it sure looks like Blitzchung was hit with a very restrictive interpretation of the rules, immediately defaulting to favor China over an actual ruleset and you know, freedom. I am all for handling your business but global companies have to understand that the consequences of their actions will be felt both at home and abroad. And at home, this seems like some fairly un-American behavior – An official tournament run by an American game company outside of mainland China, where none of the competitors were representing mainland China, have banned a player not from mainland China, seemingly being afraid of the backlash from mainland China.

And it’s not unfounded. Esports consultant and journalist Rob Breslau posted and translated a snippet from Blizzard China’s statement Weibo (a Twitter-esque platform in China).

The translation?

“We are very angered and disappointed at what happened at the event and do not condone it in any way. We also highly object the spreading of personal political beliefs in this manner. Effective immediately we’ve banned the contestant from events and terminated work with the broadcasters. We will always respect and defend the pride of our country.”

That’s some pretty weak tea, Blizz.

Epic Games’ Response

Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney also chimed in against Blizzard, which was especially important as Tencent owns 40% of Epic: “Epic supports everyone’s right to speak freely. China players of Fortnite are free to criticize the US or criticize Epic just as equally as all others.” Kudos to Sweeney for saying this openly and publicly, even with a Chinese company holding a large chunk of his pie. There’s a lot more on that twitter thread to the same effect, linked here for you to check out. For as much vitriol is thrown at Epic, they and Tim Sweeney are on the right side of this one.

 

Blizzard Themselves

Image Credit: Standingwhk (Reddit)

Following the United States Senate and game companies, it was Blizzard’s employees themselves who took issue with the ruling. A group of Blizzard employees staged a walkout on Tuesday afternoon to protest their actions against Blitzchung, gathering around the company’s iconic Orc statue on their campus in Irvine, CA complete with umbrellas – a reference to the Umbrella Movement coined during earlier Hong Kong protests back in 2014.

According to interviews by the Daily Beast, employees were disappointed to say the least. “The action Blizzard took against the player was pretty appalling but not surprising,” a longtime Blizzard employee told them. “Blizzard makes a lot of money in China, but now the company is in this awkward position where we can’t abide by our values.” All the while, the internet had their say, with the hashtag #BlizzardBoycott trending on Twitter, showing off both a number of memes made by denizens of the web, as well as screenshots and video of users canceling their memberships in protest.

The Walkback

All of the building ill will against Big Blizz resulted in a Friday night walkback from them and company president J. Allen Brack, announcing that the 1 year ban would be reduced to 6 months, and that they are looking at restoring his prize money. The post also included justification on the ban as well, saying that it was a simple rules violation and nothing more. He also made it a point to say that the specific views expressed by blitzchung were not a deciding factor, and that their relationships in China had no influence on the decision making process.

That seems a pretty tough sell looking at that statement above from Blizz China. How do you have both statements out there simultaneously?

Brack went on to say that every voice matters, and that they strongly encourage everyone to share their viewpoints… but more or less in the areas where they should be restrained to.  Check out the full statement on Blizzard here.

The only opinion that really should matter – ours

It is fair for a private organization to take punitive measures against competitors that have agreed to certain conditions and break them. If I enter a tournament under the agreement that I lose my winnings should I cluck like a chicken, well then I fully understand that my victory rooster calls would see my ducats taken away from me. But this wasn’t quite the case here.

The rules state that should a competitor do anything to bring them into public disrepute, offend a portion of the group of public, or otherwise damage Blizzard’s image, they will have their prize total dropped to $0, in addition to other remedies which may be provided under the Handbook and Blizzard’s website terms. Also, that this would be at Blizzard’s sole discretion. And that sole discretion had nothing to do with China.

OK. Let’s take a closer look then.

Did Blitzchung bring himself into public disrepute? Nah. At least not to me. Seven words took him from grandmaster competitor to corporate pariah, but it seemed that none of the public had any issue at all with what he did. His actions garnered great support from the gaming public, and the only folks that seemed to take issue was Blizzard leadership themselves, as well as presumably Tencent and the Chinese market. We wouldn’t know much about the opinions of actual mainland Chinese gamers, as they wouldn’t have the rights to publicly speak on their opinions of the matter. So on this criteria, in our opinion he’s good.

Did Blitzchung offend a portion of the group of public? I guess. This is literally one of the vaguest rules I’ve ever seen, and had I the required skills I wouldn’t even have entered this tournament without my lawyer’s involvement to make sure I wouldn’t be screwed on the back end by this. Anything anyone does will offend a portion of the group of public. I offend a small portion of the group of public just by existing and being of Indian descent alone – trust me on this one. On this Blizzard should have banned my account years ago. The people offended were again, Blizzard as a corporate entity (on which I would argue they do not classify as “public”) and mainland China. I haven’t heard much from Macau but I’d bet on one of their Pai Gow tables that they’re cool with it as much as Hong Kong is. “One country, two systems,” remember?

Did Blitzchung otherwise damage Blizzard’s image? Nah dude, Blizzard did that on their own. At this point in this article I’m not sure I need to provide additional evidence.

Much like the American litigation system, punishment in any arena in most occasions is doled out in two parts – actual and punitive damages. Actual damages are just that – “You said you wouldn’t do X. You did X. Contract says your money’s gone.” OK, that’s easily understandable and no one through all of the protests and opposition to Blizzard’s decision is arguing this. It’s that second part which is a little nuts.

Punitive damages are what’s doled out at “Blizzard’s sole discretion” as additional punishment, to not only curb this action by the perpetrator but to ensure that it doesn’t happen again with others. This is where most people take issues with Blizzard’s decision. An immediate 1 year ban without any consideration to context and scope is absolute madness. We see Blizzard dialing back the ban to 6 months and saying the initial decision had nothing to do with China. But this lack of a solid message further points to the issue at hand –

By all means punish rulebreakers to the letter of your agreements and EULA’s. But your “sole discretion?” If it indeed wasn’t influenced by Chinese relationships, then on its own it needs some work to say the least, my friends.

Business is business, but it has to be about more than that – especially in gaming. Blizzard’s vision is to “bring the world together through epic entertainment,” and they list “Think Globally, Lead Responsibly” as well as “Every Voice Matters” among their list of values. I’m not just a game nerd or tech pro or engineer, but I’m a businessman myself. Corporate culture and vision comes from the top down, and those visions and missions need to serve as a corporate compass – whether it points to valuing profit over all things or creating a community to global benefit. Lose these and you lose yourselves, as they’re a prime reason so many fans flock to Blizzard as a source of entertainment through their titles in addition to quality and availability of play.

Image Credit: denuGeometry (Reddit)

So what’s the real story here? More than anything else, given the evidence it looks like Blizzard’s speed in punishment was fueled by Chinese entities, regardless of claims otherwise by Blizzard HQ. And the image of loveable Xi here as depicted by Reddit user denuGeometry is pretty representative of how players are feeling about it.

In this case they acted against themselves, and it’s a little disconcerting that a game company of this magnitude was so quick to put the hammer to someone for advocating freedom – seemingly to bow to a foreign master – and without any context enacting the letter of the law with at best flawed reasoning for punitive damages.

I sincerely hope the flood of opposition will make not only Blizzard, but other companies that exist on a global scale, think for just a bit before doling out what they feel is just.

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Author and creator of Technical Fowl. IT/Tech hero. Jiu Jitsu purple belt. Enjoying the venn diagram intersection of tech, gaming, business, and politics.

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About Tushar

Author and creator of Technical Fowl. IT/Tech hero. Jiu Jitsu purple belt. Enjoying the venn diagram intersection of tech, gaming, business, and politics.

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