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Blizzard Digs Its Heels In And Issues 6 Month Ban To College 'Hearthstone' Team Over Hong Kong Message

from the double-down dept

Blizzard has found itself trying to navigate its self-made storm over the past several weeks. It started when a professional Hearthstone player relayed a message of support for the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, leading Blizzard to issue a 1 year ban and pull back prize money for that player. With many eSport and IRLsport leagues either being directly confronted by the regime in Beijing, or simply self-censoring in fear of such a confrontation, the whole ecosystem of eGaming has felt the effects of Blizzard’s actions. And, while Blizzard eventually did lighten the punishment it had initially doled out, the company also thumbed its nose at the principle complaint in the protests: that Blizzard was kneeling at an altar constructed of the Chinese government’s thin skin.

And now the company is simply doubling down. Earlier this month, American students at American University held up a sign during a competition stream that read, “Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizz.” True to its earlier lack of spine, Blizzard has responded by issuing the team a 6 month ban from competitions.

American University Hearthstone players who recently held up a sign calling for Hong Kong’s freedom during a livestream have been officially disciplined by Activision-Blizzard. In a Twitter post today, team member Casey Chambers stated that the team has been banned from competitive play for six months.

When a punishment from Blizzard to similar to Blitzchung’s was not forthcoming, the team voluntarily dropped out of future tournaments. Now, they’ve been officially banned for half a year.

Interestingly, the American University team appeared to be trying to make a very specific point by getting banned. The team clearly saw inequity in the punishment for Blitzchung being both swift and severe, while their actions went unpunished at first. To that end, the team voluntarily dropped out of competition, it appears as part of its call to protest Blizzard generally. When the punishment eventually did come down, team member Casey Chambers tweeted that he was pleased it did.

He later responded to someone claiming that Blizzard was violating its own call for “every voice to matter” with the ban by stating, “Nah bro. We knew what we were doing.”

All of which is entirely besides the point. When Hearthstone competitors have reached the point of trying to get themselves banned to make a point, never mind actively calling for a boycott of Blizzard, it signals that the company is losing the PR war in America. What Blizzard now has to decide is what the math is on the value of pissing off the American public versus keeping Beijing happy.

Based on this most recent 6 month ban, it looks like the company thinks it can thread a needle that I’m not sure actually exists.

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Comments on “Blizzard Digs Its Heels In And Issues 6 Month Ban To College 'Hearthstone' Team Over Hong Kong Message”

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45 Comments
Bruce C. says:

To be fair...

The only difference between Blizzard, the NBA, HP, Apple and the buyers of their respective products is one of degree. Unless you, by some miracle, have never bought a product "Made in China" during the past 80 years or so, you too are propping up the regime there.

And yes, that includes me. I haven’t been able to decide how I should respond to Chinese censorship exports in my personal life, let alone how I should judge others for their response.

The theory was going to be that we would reform China’s regime by making them economically dependent on us, but it looks like China flipped the move back on us.

Anonymous Coward says:

Blizzard is in a tough situation,
if it allows protests or signs supporting hong kong in eports events,
it is likely to have all it,s games being banned in china .
All these people calling for a boycott are the ones who buy the latest iphone, console , laptop, tech gadget , most of which are made in china .
AAA games cost millions to make ,its hard to ignore a big market
with millions of gamers like china .

bob says:

Re: Re:

I never thought I would see the day, when Blizzard would become hated like EA.
Yet here we are with Blizzard deciding, their western player base to be deriding.
Indeed it’s truly silly when, instead you kiss president pooh’s rear end
But alas this is the course Blizzard set, when it became involved with Tencent.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
TFG says:

Re: Re:

Eh, I stopped buying into the AAA hype a while back, after discovering that for all the money and glitz the fun wasn’t there for lot of them.

It would be interesting if, as time goes on, there comes a sea change in the market, where these multi-million dollar productions become more trouble than they are worth. I have no idea if it will happen, but it would be interesting to see.

More on point to your comment, I would hesitate to say that all the same people calling for the boycott are also the same people chasing the latest tech. Blizzard has a pretty wide player-base, with widely varied levels of affluence and multiple demographics. Some WoW players have that as their one and only regular luxury expenditure and chug along on outdated machines.

I would not paint everyone involved with the exact same brush.

More generally, I view these games through a lens of them being not that important. Blizzard and their properties can be dropped like a hot potato if the company itself does something beyond the pale. They are a luxury, not a utility or a necessity, so joining a boycott of Blizzard products, and Activision if necessary, is a relatively easy proposition.

While not everyone may agree with me on just how easy it is to do so, it remains a simple fact that it is far easier to boycott Blizzard (and Activision) than it would be to boycott a company like Microsoft. That they are only providing entertainment may well contribute to people’s willingness to "sacrifice" in order to make a point.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
TFG says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

T-shirts and signs may not make it past entry. Be nice if they did, but those are easy to spot ahead of time and then straight deny entry.

For signs it may be necessary to bring the tools to make them while in the audience. Depends on what Blizzard is doing to police audience expression.

Chants, on the other hand, have no physical presence. Get enough people saying the same thing in unison…

OGquaker says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

At the April 2007 California Democratic Convention in San Diego, 15 or 20 Lyndon LaRouche "Fusion Power Will Save Us’ crew would throttle committee meetings of a hundred Democrats by suddenly all belting out their nonsense in a cappella for many minutes. Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were both frustrated, Just Saying©.

Despicable Me says:

Don't mix video games with high-level politics

Don’t mix video games with high-level politics. That’s all. Blizzard has huge business within China’s mainland. It’s not like their financial profiting from some low teens of millions of US-based subscribers will put a financial dent in their profits from upper tens of millions of Chinese subscribers and South Korean subscribers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Don't mix video games with high-level politics

Okay, but what does South Korea have to do with it? Do you actually think the South Korean market is so dependent on the Chinese that if the Chinese market is lost, South Korea goes with it?

Actually, do you seriously think the rest of the global market is that insignificant? The rest of the world has plenty of whales willing to throw time and money at Blizzard. Not to say the Chinese market is insignificant, but I wouldn’t go so far as to prop it up as Blizzard’s top priority if it means alienating their existing base.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Originally, no, the ban that kicked this whole thing off saw the player in question lose all of their winnings up to that point alongside the year long ban, it was only after Blizzard was taking a PR beating for a while that they ‘graciously’ decided to give the winnings back and reduce the ban to ‘only’ six months.

Whether that will apply here as well? Probably, though given how stupid they’ve been so far I wouldn’t put it past them to try to pull any winnings yet again.

McKay (profile) says:

This is reasonable?

It seems to me like a reasonable position for a company to hold is, “you can say whatever you want on your own streams, and out in public, and in tournaments we don’t support. But on our streams, or at our tournaments, nothing political.” Anything more lenient than this pobably brings problems. Maybe I’m missing something, but allowing all speech on Blizzard’s channels doesn’t seem mandatory.

TFG says:

Re: This is reasonable?

It’s reasonable to enforce the rule, but the problem is that Blizzard was originally unreasonable in their enforcement, in a manner that has angered a wide portion of their player base.

Original punishment: banned for a year, and clawing back of winnings, with a big announcement of it, for someone expressing support for people who are fighting for freedom from an oppressive regime. The degree and the swiftness of the reaction implies that it was done to ensure the Chinese government, an authoritarian and oppressive regime, did not take action against Blizzard. It also comes with the implication that Blizzard supports the subjugation of Hong Kong, or at least would be willling to say they did, if it would protect their Chinese profits.

This pissed people off. It is what you might term a PR shitstorm.

If the initial action had been a 3 or 6 month ban, done quietly, with no clawing back of winnings and no penalties for the casters, I imagine Blizzard wouldn’t be in this current predicament – those that learned of it might well have accepted that this was a reasonable action based on the rules that players adhere to.

But after that start things are no longer reasonable. This American collegiate team does almost exactly the same thing, and Blizzard does nothing to them at first, so that team drops out as a form of protest. Blizzard comes off as a hypocrite.

After a while, Blizzard reduces the ban for Blitzchung to six months and decide not to claw back winnings … but still suspend the casters for six months and have the audacity to claim the decision was not at all affected by their relationship to China. Nobody believes this – it is treated as a lie, and keeps the fires fresh.

They now decide to apply this same ban to the American team (and the American team is happy about that, make no mistake) but it’s too late. The only perception of this is more attempts at damage control – they’ve realized they look the hypocrite so they’re following up to try and not look the hypocrite, but the people they’ve pissed off are not going to be placated by this. Blizzard is still trying to pass off the lie that China has nothing to do with this.

People are pointing out that Blizzard puts on a front of being LGBT supportive, but this suppression of an expression of support for resistance to oppression belies their purported buoying of social progression. Tracer and Soldier76 are straight in China, and this feeds into the fires of consumer anger. Blizzard is now under the microscope (and to a degree so is Activision), and what might be reasonable for strictly business purposes is no longer going to be adequate for an angered consumer base.

It is entirely true that Blizzard has the right to restrict what can be said on their streams. With that comes the caveat that said restrictions can be disliked and vilified by the people who watch those streams and play their games, and that people can also say (notably, outside of their streams) that Blizzard are being awful for restricting a particular type of speech.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: This is reasonable?

It’s reasonable to enforce the rule

It’s not, because the rule wasn’t "no political messages" (which would itself be too vague) but "don’t do anything that could possibly offend anybody". Because anything could offend somebody, that’s equivalent to saying they can ban you for any reason or no reason, regardless of whether you knew or could have known you were breaking "a rule".

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: This is reasonable?

The main problem is that the original chinese streamer was instant banned with excessive response, and blizzard didn’t do anything about the american students until 7 days later, clearly showing how they overreacted to the pressure by china to ban, and now only banned the americans as a ‘oh hey, we do it with everyone, no pressure here.’

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: This is reasonable?

I suspect that the American team was only banned because they’d deliberately and publicly cornered Blizzard. Blizzard really had no choice at that point but to be consistent with their actions.

I think it would have been more effective if the American team hadn’t disclosed their "plan" when they took action. Then after nothing happened for seven days, they could have announced, "hey we did it too and we didn’t get banned, what’s up with that Blizzard?"

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