In response to the ban, gamers began boycotting the developer. On Wednesday #BoycottBlizzard started trending on Twitter, and the company’s action has even been called out by two US senators.
Blizzard isn’t the only business tangled up in the Hong Kong protests. Apple, Google and the NBA have all found themselves in the middle of political tensions between Hong Kong and China.
What are the protests in Hong Kong about?
In June, mass protests began in Hong Kong over a controversial proposed law, now suspended, that would’ve allowed for the extradition of residents to countries around the world, including China. People feared this would let the Chinese government apprehend people in Hong Kong and send them to mainland China to be subjected to a far stricter legal system.
Following his win during the Asia-Pacific Grandmasters broadcast on Oct. 6, the gas-mask wearing pro gamer Blitzchung said a phrase used by Hong Kong protesters: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!” On Oct. 8, Blizzard said Blitzchung violated the competition’s official rules, resulting in his removal from the Grandmasters tournament and a 12-month ban from other events.
“While we stand by one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions,” the statement continued, “players and other participants that elect to participate in our esports competitions must abide by the official competition rules.”
This statement, however, appears to be different than the official statement from the company made on the Chinese social media platform Weibo on Oct. 8. Multipletranslations of the Chinese statement show a much harsher tone from the company. Here’s IGN’s translation:
“We express our strong indignation [or resentment] and condemnation of the events that occurred in the Hearthstone Asia Pacific competition last weekend and absolutely oppose the dissemination of personal political ideas during any events [or games]. The players involved will be banned, and the commentators involved will be immediately terminated from any official business. Also, we will protect [or safeguard] our national dignity [or honor].”
Blitzchung’s ban has been reduced to six months from 12, and he’ll receive his winnings from his recent tournament victory. The casters who conducted the postgame interview will also have a similar six-month ban.
In an interview with IGN on Oct. 10, Blitzchung said he knew his statement would have consequences.
“I expected the decision by Blizzard,” he told IGN. “I think it’s unfair, but I do respect their decision. I’m not [regretful] of what I said.”
Hearthstone, the competitive card game central to this controversy, has been “review bombed.” Numerous negative reviews saying “free Hong Kong” appeared in the days after on the Apple App Store.
The Google Play Store, however, appears to have removed the negative reviews for the game. There are currently three reviews dated Oct. 11 giving the game one star and referencing the controversy. A screenshot from Oct. 9 shows more negative reviews that were dated Oct. 8 that are no longer viewable.
Another step some are taking is attempting to make Mei — a Chinese character in Blizzard’s popular Overwatch game — a symbol of the Hong Kong protest. The hope is that the Chinese government will take note of the character’s usage in protests and therefore ban the game.
In the wake of the backlash, a website called Gamers for Freedom went up. The group says “it’s outrageous to think that an American company would take away your money and your job simply because you want to be free from oppression.” On the site is a petition “calling on all video game developers and publishers to make a public commitment to support the right of free expression for all their customers, employees, and fans around the world.” The page also has a list of companies that have yet to show support for freedom of expression since the controversy began.
Gamers aren’t the only ones upset over Blizzard’s actions. On Oct. 8, employees began covering up company signs that have the slogans “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters.”
Dozens of employees also staged a walkout in protest, according to the Daily Beast. One employee said, “The action Blizzard took against the player was pretty appalling but not surprising. 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.”
Politicians have also taken note of Blizzard’s action. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, tweeted on Oct. 8, saying “No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, also tweeted about the situation and China’s influence on US companies.
“People who don’t live in #China must either self-censor or face dismissal & suspensions,” he tweeted. “China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally.”
“Asia is 12% of Activision revenues, or around $800 million,” said Michael Pachter, equity research analyst for Wedbush Securities. “China is probably two-thirds of that (approximately $520 million). They clearly want to be bigger there.”
At Blizzcon 2018, Diablo Immortal made its debut, and fans of the series weren’t happy that the franchise would go mobile. An anonymous developer at the company told Gamasutra “essentially it exists because we’ve heard that China really wants it.”
How is the esports community responding?
Immutable, developer of rival card game Gods Unchained, showed its support of Blitzchung. The company says it will pay “all of his lost winnings” and will invite him to its $500,000 tournament.
“Immutable was founded on principles of censorship resistance,” the company said in an email on Oct. 8. “That’s not marketing fluff, it’s code in the fundamental technology we’ve developed to build real market economies with in-game items which can’t be seized or manipulated at will. Game developers shouldn’t be able to act as the judge, jury and executioner. Blitzchung stood up for something he believed in, and we think that deserves recognition.”
The developer says it’s been in contact with Blitzchung and would share details soon.
On Oct. 8, in response to the controversy, the team from American University competing in Collegiate Hearthstone championship held up a sign saying “Free Hong Kong” at the end of their match. The stream of the event quickly changed camera angles once the sign was shown.
Hearthstone caster Brian Kibler released a statement on Oct. 9 calling Blitzchung “brave” and that Blizzard was correct with penalizing him for his actions that did break the rules. However, he says the punishment was too harsh, and he will not be casting at the Hearthstone event at BlizzCon 2019 on Nov. 1-3.
Another caster, Nathan “Admirable” Zamora also stated he will not be casting at BlizzCon or at the remainder of the Grandmasters and Masters tour.
Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney tweeted on Oct. 9 about Blizzard’s response saying this “will never happen on my watch as the founder, CEO, and controlling shareholder.” Chinese game company Tencent has a significant stake in the Fortnite maker.
On Oct. 11, game developer Riot said pro players should avoid discussing “sensitive topics” on air at the upcoming League of Legends World Championship group stage. Riot, which makes the popular multiplayer online battle arena game and operates esports leagues worldwide, has been owned by Tencent since 2015.
“Our decision also reflects that we have Riot employees and fans in regions where there has been (or there is risk of) political and/or social unrest, including places like Hong Kong,” said John Needham, global head of League of Legends esports, in a statement posted to Twitter. “We believe we have a responsibility to do our best to ensure that statements or actions on our official platforms (intended or not) do not escalate potentially sensitive situations.”
How is Apple tied to the protests in Hong Kong?
Apple on Oct. 9 removed HKmap.live, a mapping app that crowdsources the location of police and protesters in Hong Kong, from the App Store. The move came after the iPhone maker was sharply criticized by the Chinese state media. Apple said it took down the app after learning it was being used by protesters in Hong Kong to ambush police and threaten public safety.
“The app in question allowed for the crowdsourced reporting and mapping of police checkpoints, protest hotspots, and other information. On its own, this information is benign,” Cook wrote.
But then, Cook said, Apple received information from users in Hong Kong and from the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau (CSTCB) that the app was being used to target individual officers and “victimize individuals and property where no police are present.”
HKmap.live lets people report things like police locations, use of tear gas and other details about protests that are added to a regularly updated map. The Android version of the HKmap.live is still available in the Google Play store, and there’s also a web version.
News publication Quartz also said that its mobile app has been removed from the Chinese version of the App Store. Quartz said it received a notice from Apple that said its app was being removed because it includes “content that is illegal in China,” but wasn’t given specifics. The company has reported on the Hong Kong protests, as well as ways to get around government censorship of the internet.
Yup. Google reportedly removed a mobile game from the Play Store that let players role-play as protesters in Hong Kong. The game, “The Revolution of Our Times,” reportedly violated the search giant’s rules related to “sensitive events.” Google removed the app after getting a request from the Hong Kong police, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The NBA is also tangled up in a controversy with China. Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey on Oct. 4 tweeted (and later deleted) support for the protests in Hong Kong. Chinese officials criticized the tweet and some sponsors reportedly cut ties with the team and with the NBA as a whole. Nike store across China has since removed Houston Rockets merchandise. The NBA has been trying to smooth things over with China, and Morey has also apologized for his comments.
CNET’s Corinne Reichert also contributed to this report.
Originally published Oct. 10 and updated as new developments occur.
Correction, Oct. 10: Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon sent the tweet saying “No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck.”