After days of internal and external protests, pressure from U.S. senators, players, and human rights organizations, Blizzard has finally addressed why it suspended and revoked prize money from a Hearthstone player who expressed support for Hong Kong protesters last weekend.
The statement, attributed to Blizzard Entertainment president J. Allen Brack, says that it will return prize money to the player, but makes clear that it sticks by its decision to ban him for supporting Hong Kong protesters and that it will do the same to any players or shout casters who do the same in the future. The letter addresses none of the concerns raised earlier Friday by digital rights organization Access Now, which said in no uncertain terms that Blizzard’s censorship of Ng Wai Chung (known as “Blitzchung” on Hearthstone) is an international human rights issue.
Brack says Blizzard will return prize money to Chung, and that it will reduce his yearlong ban to six months, because he didn’t cheat during the tournament: “But playing fair also includes appropriate pre-and post-match conduct, especially when a player accepts recognition for winning in a broadcast,” Brack wrote. “There is a consequence for taking the conversation away from the purpose of the event and disrupting or derailing the broadcast.”
Brack evoked similar language to that used by the NFL about protesting players. Don’t kneel. Stick to sports. Don’t be a distraction.
“Over the weekend, blitzchung used his segment to make a statement about the situation in Hong Kong—in violation of rules he acknowledged and understood, and this is why we took action,” Brack wrote. “Every Voice Matters, and we strongly encourage everyone in our community to share their viewpoints in the many places available to express themselves. However, the official broadcast needs to be about the tournament and to be a place where all are welcome. In support of that, we want to keep the official channels focused on the game.”
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Brack goes on to say that Chung wasn’t banned for supporting Hong Kong; that he was banned for saying anything that doesn't focus on the game.
“Part of Thinking Globally, Leading Responsibly, and Every Voice Matters is recognizing that we have players and fans in almost every country in the world. Our goal is to help players connect in areas of commonality, like their passion for our games, and create a sense of shared community. The specific views expressed by blitzchung were NOT a factor in the decision we made. I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision,” he wrote. “If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.”
This idea that corporations like Blizzard (and Riot Games, which announced Friday that it would not tolerate political speech at a tournament this weekend) believe that “every voice matters” but refuse to allow players to actually use their voices for anything other than promoting the health of the video games they own is, of course, hypocritical. According to Access Now, a nonprofit group that has fought censorship and authoritarianism and advocated for digital rights all over the world, it’s not only hypocritical, it’s a human rights issue.
“By penalizing a player for speaking up in support of protesters exercising their right to freedom of expression as well as assembly and association, Blizzard demonstrates a lack of respect for the human rights of its users,” Access Now wrote in an open letter published earlier Friday.
At this point, there's not an easy way for Blizzard to clean up this mess, and Brack's statement surely won't be enough. Players have continued to protest Blizzard both online and at its campus in Irvine, California. Employees have been protesting on its campus. And a mass protest is planned for next month's BlizzCon.
A request for additional clarification from Blizzard about what types of speech it will allow and what types of speech it won't was not immediately returned.