On Tuesday, American video game company Blizzard suspended professional Hearthstone player Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai from competitive play for one year following pro-Hong Kong statements he made during a live stream over the weekend. The suspension also includes forfeiture of his prize earnings to date and the two interviewers to which Chung made the comments have been fired. The video has since been removed.
“We’d like to re-emphasize tournament and player conduct within the Hearthstone esports community from both players and talent,” Blizzard said Tuesday in a blog post announcing Chung’s ban. “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.”
Chung told IGN earlier this week that he “expected” the suspension by Blizzard. “I think it’s unfair, but I do respect their decision. I’m not [regretful] of what I said,” he said. Chung declined further comment when contacted by The Hollywood Reporter.
The decision was seen by many as a sign of Blizzard kowtowing to the Chinese government, much like the controversy stirred up by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who issued a tweet Sunday expressing his solidarity with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protestors, sparking a deluge of criticism in China. Both the Rockets and the NBA have since disavowed Morey’s comments.
Shortly after the news of Chung’s suspension, the hashtag #BoycottBlizzard began trending on social media. Mark Kern, a game developer who worked on Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and left the company in 2006, voiced his criticism of his former employer on Twitter: “Of all the companies in the world, Blizzard is the LAST company I ever expected to give in to China’s demands. Blizzard was always about ‘gamer first’ and ‘don’t be greedy.’ At least, it was when I was there.”
Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Epic Games, which makes the popular Fortnite video game, responded to the controversy on Twitter, as well. “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,” he said.
Epic also provided the following statement to The Verge on the issue: “Epic supports everyone’s right to express their views on politics and human rights. We wouldn’t ban or punish a Fortnite player or content creator for speaking on these topics.”
In response to questions about investor Tencent, the Chinese conglomerate which owns stock in both Blizzard (five percent) and Epic Games (40 percent), and whether it would have any influence on decisions to ban any talent critical of China on his platform, Sweeney said, “That will never happen on my watch as the founder, CEO, and controlling shareholder.”
On social media in China, there has been support for Blizzard among nationalists, as well as calls for Chung to be banned for life from the game. There has also been some social blowback directed at Epic Games, though not a large amount as Sweeney and Epic’s statements have not been too widely covered in Chinese.
On Wednesday, Blizzard commentator and former competitive Hearthstone player Brian Kibler penned a lengthy post on Medium announcing he would be stepping down from his position unless Blizzard made a change in its ruling against Chung. ” I will not be a smiling face on camera that tacitly endorses this decision. Unless something changes, I will have no involvement in Grandmasters moving forward,” he wrote.
While Sweeney, Kibler and Kern were outspoken on the issue, most in esports and gaming have not been. THR reached out to more than a dozen top-ranked esports organizations currently fielding Hearthstone rosters, as well as more than two dozen of the top-ranked competitive players in the game. Only one response was received, from Team Liquid, who had no official comment on the issue.
Twitter did not provide data on the #BoycottBlizzard hashtag and its engagement when contacted by THR.
Meanwhile, a Daily Beast report on Thursday morning claimed that a walkout protest at Blizzard’s Irvine-based studio took was held on the day of Chung’s ban. The report claims that up to 30 employees participated, but all the employees quoted in the piece remain anonymous and there are no photos of the protest.
A photo claiming to be related to protests at Blizzard has circulated online, however. The image, posted by former Blizzard publicist Kevin Hovdestad, shows a piece of white paper taped over a plaque outside Blizzard’s offices. “Not everyone at Blizzard agrees with what happened. Both the ‘Think Globally’ and ‘Every Voice Matters’ values have been covered up by incensed employees this morning,” Hovdestad captioned the photo.
Hovdestad tells THR that he did not personally take the photo and did not immediately respond to an inquiry regarding the photo’s source.
On Friday, Riot Games — which is owned outright by Tencent and develop League of Legends, a popular game and esport — responded to the issue. “As a general rule, we want to keep our broadcasts focused on the game, the sport, and the players,”John Needham, global head of League of Legends esports 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 sensitive issues (political, religious, or otherwise) separate. These topics are often incredibly nuanced, require deep understanding and a willingness to listen, and cannot be fairly represented in the forum our broadcast provides. Therefore, we have reminded our casters and pro players to refrain from discussing any of these topics on air.”
Needham went on to express why the company arrived at its decision: “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. 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.”
Blizzard is set to host its annual BlizzCon event on Nov. 1 in Anaheim, where fans from around the world gather to hear exclusive announcements from the gaming company. This year’s confab will undoubtedly be overshadowed by the recent ruling against Chung.
Patrick Brzeski contributed to this report.
Oct. 11, 10:58 a.m. Update with Riot Games’ statement.