Blizzard, the powerhouse behind games like World of Warcraft and Overwatch, once seemed unstoppable. But it looks like this gaming giant is now its own worst enemy.
Unless you’ve been gaming under a rock, you know that Blizzard has riled up a ton of fans and the gaming community at large. It all has to do with Hong Kong and some of the worst public relations the gaming community has ever seen.
Want to know more about this explosive controversy? Here’s our complete guide.
Troubles Around the Hearthstone
It all started with Ng Wai Chung, better known by his gaming handle “Blitzchung.” Among other things, Blitzchung is a champion Hearthstone player and eSports celebrity. In fact, he is one of the top Hearthstone players in the world.
On October 6, 2019, he appeared on Taiwan’s official Hearthstone stream. However, he had a message about something far more serious than online gaming. Blitzchung donned a ski mask as well as a gas mask and uttered a powerful phrase. In Chinese, he said “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age.”
If the words weren’t clear enough, Blitzchung’s outfit was meant to mimic protesters in Hong Kong. The player is originally from Hong Kong. This is why this issue is so important to him.
In response to his statement, Blizzard claimed Blitzchung was violating tournament rules. These rules prevent offending others and/or making Blizzard look bad. Blizzard stripped him of his prize money and initially banned him from playing Hearthstone for one year. Blizzard also decided to never again do business with the two casters who streamed Blitzchung’s statement.
The Deal With Hong Kong
Wondering what the deal is with Hong Kong? It has to do with a series of protests intended to protect Hong Kong from Chinese influence and control.
The initial citizen backlash happened when Hong Kong’s government introduced a Fugitive Offenders bill that would let the country extradite fugitives from areas where there is normally no jurisdiction. This includes Taiwan and China.
For protesters, this was a bridge too far. It meant they would be surrendering too much of their autonomy to China. This ultimately led to massive protests and an international cry for Hong Kong to maintain its freedom.
We don’t always think of the gaming community as overly political. However, Blizzard’s immediate crackdown on players’ self-expression went over like a lead balloon and sparked intensely political protests.
Reddit helped lead the charge in raising awareness of this issue. Well-known moderators of Blizzard subreddits stepped down, but not before offering their support for Hong Kong, self-expression, and human rights in general.
Just like that, a problem in the Hearthstone community became a major issue for the entire Blizzard fandom and the entire world of gaming. Over at Blizzard, many employees walked out in protest, with some issuing statements to the press about Blizzard’s actions being indefensible.
So, why is Blizzard willing to die on this hill? Simple: they do a ton of business with China, both in terms of subscriptions and eSports at large. The company sees threats to Chinese business as a direct threat to its annual revenue ($7.5 billion a year).
A New Kind of Protest
Because Blizzard was apparently kowtowing to China, protesting players started getting creative. The fan community took Mei (currently the only Chinese character in Overwatch) and turned her into a protest icon through Photoshop and video editing.
These fans were very clear in their intentions. The goal is to anger the Chinese government enough to completely ban Overwatch.
All in all, this is a bold move by players to try to strike at Blizzard through their wallets. And it may go down in history as one of the best intersections of memes and political action.
The idea of hitting Blizzard in their pocketbook spread to more and more players. As you might expect, more and more people tried to delete their Blizzard accounts. This culminated in a viral tweet in which user @Espsilverfire 2 made a major claim. She said that Blizzard was actively disabling authentication methods in an attempt to keep players from deleting their accounts.
That tweet spread far and wide and helped prop up the image of Blizzard as a manipulative, profit-hungry company. Later, Polygon reported that there was no such attempt by Blizzard and that even the original Twitter user was able to delete later that day.
Nonetheless, the damage was done. Blizzard was losing players and paying subscribers, all while their bad press continued to grow. They knew it was time to try to regain control.
On October 12, Blizzard president J. Allen Brack wrote a blog post clarifying that the company had reduced Blitzchung’s punishment. He would now receive his prize money and would only be suspended for six months instead of one year.
That may or may not have worked to calm players down. However, Brack went on to boldly claim “our relationships in China had no influence on our decision.” Many gamers took exception to this, considering it nothing less than a bald-faced lie about company intent.
Just like that, a post intended to increase transparency and make Blizzard look better ended up damaging their relationship with players even more.
At this point, you might wonder who else could possibly get involved in this scandal. Would you believe the answer to that is “the American government?”
Bipartisan members from both houses of Congress wrote to Blizzard on October 18 and urged the company to rescind its punishment of Blitzchung. In their eyes, even the reduced punishment was too harsh for someone simply speaking out about the struggle of his home country.
This opened the can of worms all over again. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Blizzard has decided to cancel multiple events in the wake of this controversy.
Blizzard was originally going to hold a special event in Taiwan for the 15th anniversary of World of Warcraft on Oct. 18-20. But three days before the event was supposed to take place, Blizzard announced on Facebook it has been postponed, without announcing a new date or a reason. However, their Taiwan WoW Facebook page had been flooded with pro-Hong Kong comments.
Similarly, in New York, Blizzard had planned a special launch event to celebrate the release of Overwatch on the Switch on Oct. 16. They cancelled the event on Oct. 14. Users on social media immediately greeted that cancellation notice with words of support for Hong Kong.
Protests at BlizzCon
However, the one event Blizzard couldn’t cancel was BlizzCon, the company’s annual convention. Taking place Nov. 1-3 in Anaheim, California this year, Blizzard president J. Allen Brack addressed the controversies with a statement at the opening ceremonies.
“We moved too quickly in our decision-making and then, to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you,” he said. “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 set for ourselves, and the second is, we failed in our purpose. And for that, I am sorry, and I accept accountability.”
However, some fans remain angry that despite Brack’s apology, the company had not lifted the six-month ban on Blitzchung. In his speech, Brack noted that Blizzard was aware of the protests going on at BlizzCon and supported freedom of expression.
“We will do better going forward. But our actions are going to matter more than any words,” Brack said. “As you walk around this weekend, I hope it’s clear how committed we are to everyone’s right to express themselves in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of places. We’ve actually seen and heard many of you expressing yourself this morning.”
Those attending the convention were greeted by protestors outside the main entrance waving signs and giving out pamphlets with “Free Hong Kong” sentiments.