Hearthstone’s esports scene was thrust into the spotlight by an unexpected turn of political events as APAC Grandmaster Ng "blitzchung" Wai Chung used his post-match interview to raise awareness of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, saying “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!” on air shortly before the broadcast cut to a commercial. Shortly thereafter, he was removed from the invite-only competition, banned from competing for a year, his prize money earned during the season was rescinded and the casters on the broadcast at the time were fired. The controversial decision has led to a massive backlash which is quickly spiraling out of control, even with the company staying silent on the matter since then.

A political statement

Blizzard imposed the punishment on the player based on Rules section 6.1 (o), which reads as follows:

"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 backlash to this decision was swift and wide-ranging as many interpreted Blizzard’s stance as way too aggressive, suspecting Chinese appeasement as the reason behind this excessive punishment. Many in the community found this section vague and considered the punishment way too excessive for the crime, with the near-immediate firing of the casters also making the impression worse. The winners' interview was also deleted from the official channel.

One of these voices belonged to Brian Kibler, Magic: the Gathering Hall of Fame member and a prominent member of the Hearthstone community, who put out a statement in support of Blitzchung and announcing that he will not be casting the World Championship finals at BlizzCon unless the company changes its stance. Nathan “ThatsAdmirable” Zamora, another long-time commentator, also made a similar announcement shortly thereafter. Three other casters – Simon “Sottle” Welch, Darroch Brown and Alex “Raven” Baguley – also took to Twitter to voice their disagreement with the policy, though also stating that they intend to fulfill their contract and continue to cast Grandmasters events going forward. At the time of writing, that makes four out of the six regular commentators plus Brian Kibler who weighed in on the matter, with TJ Sanders already confirmed to be on a hiatus due to health reasons, leaving only Dan “Frodan” Chou without a public statement on the controversy from this particular group.

Competitive concerns

Participants in the Hearthstone Collegiate Championship playing under the American University banner also used their winners’ interview to highlight the situation, raising a sign saying Free Hong Kong BoycottBlizzard. Once again, the broadcast quickly cut to a commercial and every player camera was turned off for the rest of the event. The AU team wasn’t punished for the protest, which prompted them to forfeit the remainder of their season, highlighting the double standard between them and Blitzchung. Other participants in the Grandmasters League also voiced their support for the banned player and the protesters in Hong Kong.

Read more: How well do you know your Hearthstone Grandmasters?

The wider community also began protesting the decision, review-bombing Hearthstone in the App Store, canceling pre-orders and deleting their accounts. For a few hours, none of the authentication tools required for the latter worked on the website, just as #BoycottBlizzard began trending on Twitter. Some of the company’s own employees also protested against the decision, covering up the core values enshrined on the ground of the statue outside the company’s headquarters and posing for a photo with umbrellas referencing the Hong Kong protests.

Multiple mainstream media outlets ranging from BBC to Fox News covered the situation, and US senators from both sides of the aisle criticized the company’s behavior. Even financial investor analyses picked up on the story, suggesting the decision was “a colossal misstep”, and expecting a continued drop in stock value, especially in light of the fact that only 12% of the company’s current revenue comes form China. At the time of writing, Activision Blizzard’s stock value – which has been largely flat this year but fell 26% in 2018 – dropped by nearly 4% since the controversy began. It As of November 2016, Chinese technology giant Tencent has a 4.9% stake in Activision Blizzard.

Notably, Blizzard has not yet made an official comment on the matter beyond the initial announcement, at least not on any Western media channels. Their account on Weibo (China’s government-controlled microblogging platform likely operated by a domestic partner company) posted a pro-Chinese statement on the matter a day after it happened, stating “we will always respect and defend the pride of our country”, referring to China. Reporting also suggests that a coach from the Overwatch League – another Blizzard-operated esport – was forced to delete a tweet supporting Blitzchung.

With just a few hours to go until the Asia-Pacific Grandmasters playoff, Blizzard’s silence is getting all the more difficult to explain. That’s also just the first storm they need to weather if they are aiming to wait out the backlash: BlizzCon, their yearly convention is just around the corner, taking place on November 1-2, and protests are already being planned for the event. Right now, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for the matter.

Photo credit: InvenGlobal