Outrage at Activision Blizzard is mounting after the company suspended Hearthstone pro Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai for declaring his support of Hong Kong’s protest movement. Fans are mad, U.S. politicians are angry, and there’s evidence that even Blizzard’s employees are upset.
United States Senators Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) both tweeted their condemnation of Activision Blizzard’s actions on Tuesday. “Blizzard shows it is willing to humiliate itself to please the Chinese Communist Party,” Senator Wyden tweeted. “No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck.”
“Recognize what’s happening here,” Senator Rubio said on Twitter. “People who don’t live in #China must either self censor or face dismissal & suspensions. China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally. Implications of this will be felt long after everyone in U.S. politics today is gone.”
“Blizzard’s decision to censor a player who voiced support for the Hong Kong protests is part of a profoundly disturbing trend by American entities like the NBA bending over backward to appease the Chinese government,” Senator Wyden told VICE in an email. “China’s repression of peaceful dissent is disgusting when it happens in China, but it is incredibly disturbing that American companies would willingly participate in the Chinese government’s propaganda campaign."
At the entrance to Blizzard’s Irvine, California campus, there’s a 12-foot tall statue of an orc. Various bronze plaques bearing inspirational inscriptions are set into the concrete around the statue. The plaques herald lofty ideals such as “Gameplay first,” “Think Globally,” and “Every Voice Matters.” Kevin Hovdestad, an esports announcer and former Activision Blizzard employee, shared a photo of “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters” being covered up on Twitter.
“Not everyone at Blizzard agrees with what happened,” said Hovdestad.
It’s possible that if Activision Blizzard hadn’t taken action against Blitzchung, China would have taken action against Activision Blizzard. Beijing banned South Park after it mocked the country, and stopped streaming pre-season NBA games after the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted a message of support for Hong Kong protesters.
Tencent, a Chinese video game developer, owns a 4.9 percent stake in the company. China is a huge and important market where Activision Blizzard makes millions. The World of Warcraft film, for example, fizzled in America but grossed $225 million in China, nearly double its budget.
“Blizzard results benefited from the continued success of our business in China and the extension of our partnership with [Chinese telecom company] NetEase.,” Coddy Johnson, Activision Blizzard’s Chief Operating Officer, said in a 2018 earning’s call. “Building on our 11-year joint venture, the expanded agreement runs until January 2023 and reflects the substantial value and opportunity for Blizzard's content in China.”
Unsurprisingly, this issue has caused a sharp reaction in Blizzard’s various communities.
The /r/hearthstone subreddit is awash in angry players promising to give up on Activision Blizzard, and both /r/overwatch and /r/wow have threads dedicated to Chung’s suspension. As of this writing, the /r/blizzard subreddit is viewable by invitation only. Reddit confirmed with VICE that /r/blizzard’s mod community was responsible for the change, but declined to comment further. Blizzard’s own community forums are full of angry fans. The top thread on its Hearthstone board stands in solidarity with Blitzchung. It currently has 606 replies and 6.7k views.
“I play [Hearthstone] everyday,” redditor Hinz97 said in a post. “I climbed to Legend several times. I spent more than $10k. As a [Hong Konger], I quit [ Hearthstone] without consideration.”
“Quitting [Hearthstone] over this nonsense. This is about more than just Hong Kong,” redditor u/bye_bitches said in a post on /r/hearthstone. “If you're still playing, then you're sending a message: ‘I'm ok with this, multinationals should help China get away with violations of human rights.’ Hong Kong people are involved this time, just hope the next time it won't be you.”
“I’ve been playing since beta. Good riddance,” redditor UltimaterializerX said. “Blizzard CLEARLY only cares about the Chinese market. The censorship of art was bad enough. The censorship of human life is indefensible. Finding videos of what’s going on in Hong Kong is easy and I suggest everyone do so. It’s Tiananmen Square all over again.”
Activision Blizzard is less than a month from Blizzcon, an annual convention it puts on to showcase new games and celebrate its fans. Some fans are talking about boycotting the convention, others are planning to stage a protest. “With Blizzcon coming up, would be cool if people flew some pro-[Hong Kong] flags at the opening ceremony,” redditor pastesonly said in a thread about the controversy on /r/wow.
Some of most dedicated Activision Blizzard fans feel betrayed. “I've played Blizzard games since I was seven,” said redditor Poobs87, who has one of the most upvoted comments on /r/hearthstone, in a direct message to me on Reddit today. “They've been a big part of my life growing up, I respected them and loved the experiences they gave to me and my generation growing up…the Hong Kong protestors are up against an awful evil, and Blizzard is obviously just one of many companies being forced to comply with China's censorship.”
Activision Blizzard did not respond to request for comment.