Facing fierce backlash from gamers around the world for acting as China’s thought police, video game developer Blizzard Entertainment is walking back its ban of professional Hearthstone player Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai, after suspending him from the company’s Grandmaster tournament for voicing support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
Blizzard Entertainment, one of America’s biggest gaming companies, issued a statement Friday insisting Blitzchung’s suspension has nothing to do with the Chinese government’s preferences.
“The specific views expressed by Blitzchung were not a
factor in the decision we made. I want to be clear: our relationships in China
had no influence on our decision,” J. Allen Brack, the president of Blizzard
in a statement.
The preeminent game developer, which has produced franchises including World of Warcraft and Overwatch and earned $7.5 billion in revenue in 2018, suspended Blitzchung from participating in gamer tournaments for a year after urging viewers to support the protesters on Hearthstone’s official live stream.
“Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times,” Blitzchung declared, wearing a gas mask and goggles.
Blizzard subsequently suspended Blitzchung from
participating in gamer tournaments for a year and rescinded his Grandmaster
prize earnings. The company also severed ties with the hosts conducting the
interview, terminating their contracts to host future streams.
The company’s retaliatory censorship tactics prompted more
than two dozen Blizzard employees to walk out of work Tuesday afternoon protesting
the company for capitulating to communist China’s policy of censorship,
along with gamers across the world flooding Reddit with warnings vowing to stop
using Blizzard’s products amid its anti-democratic actions.
On Friday, Blizzard changed its tune, announcing it will reduce the one-year suspension of Blitzchung to six-months and will restore the prize money it withheld.
The company explained in a lengthy statement that its
punitive actions were intended to set a precedent deterring politicization of
its entertainment platform, not a means to capitulate to communist China.
“We have these rules to keep the focus on the game and on
the tournament to the benefit of a global audience, and that was the only
consideration in the actions we took. If this had been the opposing viewpoint
delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted
the same,” the statement continued.
Brack maintains he evaluated Blitzchung’s case and considered the gamer community’s dissent.
“Six months for Blitzchung is more appropriate, after which time he can compete in the Hearthstone pro circuit again if he so chooses,” he said. “There is a consequence for taking the conversation away from the purpose of the event and disrupting or derailing the broadcast.”
The two hosts, “shoutcasters,” who interviewed Blitzchung will also have reduced penalization, but still be held accountable for the gamer’s actions.
“With regard to the casters, remember their purpose is to
keep the event focused on the tournament,” he said. “That didn’t happen here,
and we are setting their suspension to six months as well.”
Blizzard will not alter its rules prohibiting politics from discussion on it’s platform “to ensure our official broadcasts remain focused on the game and are not a platform for divisive social or political views,” Brack concluded in the statement.
The company’s iteration of its guidelines prompted other gaming companies to clarify where they stand on the issue.
Riot Games, the developer of e-sport title League of Legends, warned Friday it too wants to eliminate political speech on its platform, urging its broadcasters to “refrain” from discussing “sensitive topics” on air.
“As a general rule, we want to keep our broadcasts focused
on the game, the sport, and the players,” John Needham, the global head of
League of Legends, e-sports said in a statement. “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.”
Fortnite creator Epic Games, on the other hand, weighed in on the controversy advocating for free speech.