BlizzCon, Blizzard’s annual gathering of fans and video game commercials, kicked off today with an "apology" from President J. Allen Brack. Inside the Anaheim Convention Center, players are clapping and watching teasers for Overwatch 2 and Diablo IV. Outside, others were donning Winnie the Pooh costumes—a cartoon character banned in China—and protesting Blizzard’s ineffectual response to the controversy it created.
According to Kotaku, more than 30 protesters gathered outside BlizzCon.
In October, Blizzard created an avalanche of criticism from everyone from hardcore fans to U.S. Senators when it suspended Hearthstone pro Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai after he made statements supporting Hong Kong protesters in a post-match livestream. The company eventually responded to the ensuing backlash, a response that itself was heavily criticized—thus, the "apology" to start BlizzCon.
There were no signs of protest during Blizzard's opening ceremony to kick off BlizzCon, which mostly consisted of people quietly applauding Brack and loudly applauding Diablo IV.
Fight for the Future (FFTF), a non-profit that’s previously organized action around net neutrality and other internet freedom issues, led the protests. It organized players using Discord and a website called Gamers for Freedom, where it distributed protest artwork and published a “handbook” for protesters.
“Gamers for Freedom is a diverse coalition of gamers from around the world with a variety of different political views,” FFTF organizer Dayton Young told VICE Games in an email. “We all care deeply about our essential rights, and we were all outraged at Blizzard's unfair censorship and punishment of Hearthstone player Blitzchung.”
The protests began at 7 AM on Friday, as FFTF protesters gathered outside BlizzCon in Anaheim, California. FFTF partnered with Freedom Hong Kong, a group that advocates for greater democracy in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong Forum Los Angeles, a Hong Kong discussion group,, to print 4,000 t-shirts depicting Overwatch’s Mei as a pro-Hong Kong protester. Mei is Blizzard’s highest profile Chinese character, and protesters have adopted her as an icon of Hong Kong independence in the wake of the controversy.
The protesters were giving out the shirts for free, until they ran out of the 4,000 that had been made.
At noon, Gamers for Freedom gathered along Convention Center Way, the road running into BlizzCon, to pass out t-shirts and wave their signs. Cosplayer Zephronica stood in the line dressed as Mei and handed out t-shirts while carrying umbrellas—a symbol of the protesters in Hong Kong. Gamers for Freedom also ran a costume contest, with the winners receiving a free year of VPN service.
Blitzchung wasn’t the only Hearthstone player Blizzard punished for publicly supporting Hong Kong. Three members of America University’s Hearthstone team held up a sign that said “Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizzard” during one of their matches, and Blizzard banned them for six months. At 2PM, two of those players will address the protesters outside BlizzCon, an event that has not yet occurred, as of this writing
Protests are planned to continue through Saturday.
Brack only made a passing reference to the protesters during his opening remarks. “We saw and heard many of you expressing yourself this morning,” he said.
Several Blizzard employees, who spoke with VICE on condition of anonymity, told me they were worried about the protests in the run up to BlizzCon. In Brack’s first public statement about the controversy on October 12, he said Blizzard is committed to free speech, but doubled down on the company’s ability to silence people it disagreed with.
“There was no acknowledgement of the challenges that remain for employees to apparently deal with in the absence of direction,” a Blizzard employee told VICE Games at the time. “We will have to echo this message at BlizzCon, trying desperately to deflect discussion away from controversy. All year we've been told through all our turmoil to rally around Blizzcon but my hopes have been totally dashed that this can be a positive event for anyone.”
BlizzCon is far from over, with the event running through the end of the weekend, and Gamers for Freedom plans to continue its protests throughout.