BlizzCon has traditionally been an event where Irvine-based video game company Blizzard Entertainment welcomes fans from across the globe to celebrate its various franchises, such as World of Warcraft and Overwatch, while also revealing details of anticipated upcoming projects.
This year, however, the Anaheim Convention Center (which has served as home for the annual convention since 2005) was met with protesters picketing the company following a series of recent controversies.
Protesters were handed T-shirts on Friday featuring a character from Blizzard’s Overwatch franchise (Mei, a Chinese climatologist in the game’s official lore), who has become a symbol of the movement. The shirts were emblazoned with a picture of Mei waving the flag of Hong Kong next to the words “Mei With Hong Kong.” The organization Freedom Hong Kong printed and handed out 4,000 of the shirts.
A group of 15-20 organizers, sporting black T-shirts with Overwatch character Mei holding a Hong Kong flag emblazoned upon them, greeted entrants outside of the event venue. Each passerby was urged to grab a free shirt to wear inside on the convention floor.
“We hope that the attendees will wear the shirts inside to raise awareness of what’s happening in Hong Kong and Blizzard’s decision to disqualify one of its contestants for his free speech,” Charles Lam, a member of pro-democracy group Hong Kong Forum Los Angeles told The Hollywood Reporter.
“We want everyone to realize that even though free speech is limited in China, it shouldn’t happen in America,” said Lam.
It wasn’t just black T-shirts being worn in protest. A number of attendees (who paid to attend the conference) wore Winnie the Pooh costumes, a reference to Chinese president Xi Jingping who had the character banned in the country after protesters drew comparisons between himself and the cartoon bear.
The demonstrators were out to protest Blizzard’s suspension of professional Hearthstone player Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai for voicing support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong during an official live stream in October. Following the initial suspension (which was supposed to last one year), Blizzard president J. Allen Brack walked back the ban to six months and reinstated Chung’s prize earnings from competitive tournaments.
The company was met with backlash and accused of kowtowing to the Chinese government. U.S. lawmakers Marco Rubio, Ron Wyden, Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mike Gallagher and Tom Malinowski penned an open letter to CEO Bobby Kotick condemning the actions. Mitsubishi Motors Taiwan ended their sponsorship of Blizzard esports events on Oct. 9, a representative for the car company confirmed.
Inside the venue on Friday, Brack aimed to further articulate the company’s stance, saying in his opening remarks that “we didn’t live up to high standards we set for ourselves.”
“What exactly is our purpose?” Brack continued. “Blizzcon is demonstrating it as we speak. I believe in positive power of video games. When we get it right, we create common ground where community comes together, irrespective of what divides us.”
As the official protest got under way at noon, demonstrators broke into chants of “Free Hong Kong, oppression is wrong” while holding umbrellas and signs with such slogans as “Shame on Blizz” and “Blizzard=China’s Bitch.”
Around a dozen individuals wore dressed in Pooh costumes, with one demonstrator adding a mask of Jinping’s face to the ensemble and handing out fake U.S. currency from a “hunny” pot to passersby.
Dayton Young, one of the event’s organizers, says he hasn’t seen Brack’s statements from earlier in the day, but says, “Ultimately, I believe Blitzchung has still been punished. The streamers have still been punished and the American University students” — the collegiate athletes who were suspended for supporting Hong Kong in a livestream in October stand alongside Young holding a banner reading “Gamers for Freedom” — “are still being punished. Blizzard hasn’t been transparent, haven’t responded to the open letter from AOC and Marco Rubio and haven’t spoken to us. There’s still a lot of work to do.”