Blizzard Facing Backlash After Hearthstone Player Banned

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Here we go again…

It seems like the gaming industry just can’t catch a break this year. EA Games has been caught up in a Loot box scandal for months now. A few weeks ago Ubisoft had to apologise for their own pay-to-win mechanics and it just keeps going on and on.

This time its Blizzard Entertainment who’s caught in the firestorm of controversy after they banned a professional Hearthstone player, Ng Wai Chung, for a year and revoked his winnings from a recent tournament.

Okay, so why was he banned? He was banned from Hearthstone for expressing support for Hong Kong.

Now, this is where it gets a bit more complicated so you might want to strap yourselves in.

What Exactly Happened?

Screenshot of Blitzchung during his interview
The starting point… – Source: Business Insider Malaysia

Well, after the tournament, Chung was doing a post-game interview. In this interview he said: “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution for our age!” – this is in reference to the Hong Kong protests and now you know why I said things were going to get complicated.

The Hong Kong Protests

The Hong Kong protests started in March when a law was introduced which would extradite people from Hong Kong to mainland China. There was huge backlash to this and the bill was withdrawn a few months later. Unfortunately, however, the protests continue and have expanded into a protest for complete independence from China.

I’m not too familiar with the political situation between the two sides so I won’t go much further into it.

Blizzard Sparks Outrage

Blizzard’s reaction was to ban the player for a year and withhold his earnings from the tournament that he’d been competing in. Needless to say, this didn’t go over too well with members of the gaming community. The overall sentiment was that the punishment was unfair and crossing a line of sorts.

Many called the decision censorious – possibly the kindest thing they called it – and subsequently quit playing Hearthstone. Unfortunately for Blizzard, things didn’t get much better from here. Beginning with the official ruling/statement from the company, things have gotten progressively worse.

The statement from Blizzard cites a rule violation as the cause of the ban, specifically:

“Engaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and Blizzard’s Website Terms.”

The statement goes off on a tangent about how Grand Masters are the highest level of competition and that rule violations are treated seriously. The funny thing is that the comments section on that statement were disabled which is apparently very unusual.

Some of the broadcasters have quit in light of Blitzchung’s banning – Source: Polygon

The Backlash against Blizzard’s Decision

Now, needless to say people weren’t happy and took to social media to vent their frustrations. Many accused the company of putting their business interests in China before freedom of speech (this has been the prevailing sentiment throughout this ordeal).

One thing that’s important to note is that not everyone who works for Blizzard is happy about the situation. Players aren’t just quitting Hearthstone either. I’ve been following the story for a while now and a mass boycott on Blizzard Entertainment’s games is seemingly in full effect with players quitting World of Warcraft, Diablo and other Blizzard titles in addition to Hearthstone.

Adding to the company problems, the staff staged a walkout and this whole thing has started to gain momentum in the form of mainstream media attention.

Allegations of Hypocrisy

College team that was recently also banned
The college team that was banned while I was writing this piece – Source: Polygon

Allegations of hypocrisy were soon aimed at Blizzard following Blitzchung’s ban. A college team of Hearthstone players held up signs supporting Hong Kong’s protest movement. They were initially left alone – at least as far as I can tell – which led to these accusations against Blizzard’s punishment being unfairly meted out.

At the time of writing this article, the team has been temporarily banned from Hearthstone – although, whether or not they’ll play again after the ban is lifted remains to be seen.

In the middle of all this, a major protest was planned for Blizzcon 2019 which led to the cancellation of a launch event which has led to more people getting involved.

The Statements by Blizzard

Blizzard Logo
The company at the heart of the controversy – Source: Cain Live

The company has had a few different responses to the situation and none of them have been good. Following the banning of Blitzchung, the company released two different statements: one in the USA and one in China.

The USA Statement

The statement released outside of China is a long one so I won’t go through the whole thing. I do want to go through two points in the statement:

When talking about their decision to ban Blitzchung the statement reads:

“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.”

Something that has been pointed out several times now is that China is a lucrative gaming market. The idea that business relationships weren’t a factor therefore comes into question. They are, after all, a business. The primary function of a business is to make money – which you can’t do if you alienate a large portion of your customer base or end up in some sort of trouble. No money means you can’t keep the lights on and eventually you close your doors and people now have to find work elsewhere.

Now, I should point out that they do go out of their way to state that post-game interviews should be about the game. Looking at it that way, I can see where they’re coming from…sort of. Blitzchung’s statement expressing support for Hong Kong was completely off-topic and had nothing to do with Hearthstone.

Going Forward…

Blitzchung
Overwatch character Mei has become a symbol for Hong Kong – Source: Know Your Meme

When discussing the future of Blizzard, the article says:

“Moving forward, we will continue to apply tournament rules to ensure our official broadcasts remain focused on the game and are not a platform for divisive social or political views.”

This can be read a few ways; If we take it literally, they’re saying they intend to keep future broadcasts on the game and not on politics. This is something that I can agree with in terms of don’t bring political ideology into the gaming space. On the other hand, it can also be taken to mean that they’re just going to keep doing this sort of thing regardless of the backlash it causes.

It’s also important to note that Blizzard DID partially reverse their decision; reducing the ban from 1 year to 6 months and agreeing to send Blitzchung his winnings.

The Chinese Statement: Defending National Pride?

The statement that Blizzard released in China reads:

“We are very angered and disappointed at what happened at the event and do not condone it in any way. We also highly object the spreading of personal political beliefs in this manner. Effective immediately we’ve banned the contestant from events and terminated work with the broadcasters. We will always respect and defend the pride of our country.”

This statement obviously caused more trouble than the company needed. You can see a major difference between the two statements. In America, they played the ban off as a rule violation. Here they’re basically saying that he offended someone’s sensibilities.

The response to this statement saw fans using an Overwatch character as a symbol of the Hong Kong protests. The Blizzard logo has been superimposed on the Chinese flag in various ways and those are just two examples of reactions to this statement on Chinese social media.

Blitzchung Responds

Picture of Blitzchung
Ng Wai Chung aka Blitzchung – Source: Polygon

So, we know how Blizzard responded but what about Blitzchung? How has he responded?

Blitzchung said in a statement that he appreciates the reversal of the decision regarding his winnings. About the suspension, he said that while he appreciates the shortening of the ban; 6 months is still quite a long time.

“To be honest, I think six months is still quite a lot to me.”

He goes on to state that he doesn’t know if he’ll be returning to the Hearthstone competitive scene but that he’ll be taking the time to relax and plan his next move.

This is, in my opinion, the BEST statement that Blitzchung could’ve made.

Blitzchung’s statement acknowledges the ban and the reason behind it. He didn’t lash out or make excuses or try and brush it off. Instead he acknowledged that maybe he was somewhat out of line. Also, in regard to his suspension, Blitzchung asked that Blizzard reconsider the punishment for the two casters who were suspended after the interview.

The statement concludes by expressing gratitude and blessings to Blizzard, the community and Hearthstone.

My Thoughts Overall…

I’ve covered a few similar stories to this one in the last year or so that I’ve been doing this. Of all the controversies that I’ve covered, this one is by far the most complicated. I’m not too business-savvy but it seems, from what I’ve seen, that Blizzard has gone into full damage control mode and it’s not working.

They wanted to protect their business interests in China and in the process of doing so they’ve alienated a large portion of their customer base. This is a PR nightmare for the company and they seem to be under the impression that this whole thing is just going to go away.

Unfortunately for them, however, this story is still generating momentum and growing ever larger in the public eye. Should the ban have happened? My honest thoughts are: no, it shouldn’t have. Nobody should be banned for expressing their support for their country. That said, I can understand why the ban was enacted – both in terms of protecting business assets and keeping the interviews focused on the game.

Will Blizzard survive? I…think so; it’s unclear how many people have actually left the Hearthstone scene and/or deleted their Blizzard accounts so we don’t know what kind of impact the boycott will have. The one thing we can safely guess is that even if Blizzard manages to save face here they’re not getting their lost customers back.

Now, considering that this story is still developing; I’m going to have to leave it here for now and post updates as things move along.

In the meantime, check out this bit of news on PAX Australia. Let me know what you think of the Blitzchung situation.

Update: 2019.10.24 – Cancelled Q&A

Blizzard Entertainment seems to have cancelled a general Q&A panel, opting instead to have attendees fill out and submit a questionnaire. These submissions will then be addressed at Blizzcon 2019. From what I gather, the only Q&A session still scheduled is a World of Warcraft session right at the end of the last day of the convention – utilizing the previously stated method of taking questions.

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