After five days, a lot of yelling from fans and a lot of silence from Blizzard, we finally heard from President J. Allen Brack about the recent Hearthstone incident. A competitor, Blitzchung, had his winnings stripped from him and was banned from the competitive scene for a year for expressing a pro-Hong Kong message on stream after his win. The two casters covering the event were also fired.

Late yesterday, Blizzard issued a statement that I can’t describe as anything but bizarre, something that feels like it was crafted by a dozen different PR people and lawyers to say a whole lot of words without really answering any of the core questions this incident raises.

The nuts and bolts of it is that the penalties Blizzard doled out will be reduced. Blitzchung will keep his winnings because even though he broke the tournament code of conduct rules with his statement, that had nothing to do with his gameplay. In addition to that, he hasn’t been removed from Grandmaster (which was not said in the statement for some reason, but confirmed later) and both his suspension and the casters’ are now six months, and they can return to the scene after that period of time if they so choose (though I’m not sure why they would after all this).

One of the strangest parts of this lengthy and rambling statement is this bit:

“[W]ere our actions based on the content of the message?

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.

So Blizzard is trying to say that it wasn’t what Blitzchung said on stream, expressing support for Hong Kong’s protests, it was the fact that he expressed personal beliefs when things are supposed to be focused on the game itself. This is in contrast to the Blizzard Chinese Weibo statement issued in the immediate aftermath of the incident which said explicitly “[W]e will protect [or safeguard] our national dignity [or honor].”

It also raises a whole host of questions about what could result in a similar punishment in the future, or a few cases involving the present day.

  • Why has Blizzard not punished a collegiate Hearthstone team who held up a Pro-Hong Kong, Boycott Blizzard sign during an event?
  • Why were the casters punished at all for any of this?
  • Would Blizzard have issued a similar punishment to a player who said on stream “Hong Kong belongs to the PRC, China forever”?
  • In the west, what kind of “personal expression” in an interview or stream would result in a similar ban? Would someone saying “Trump 2020” or “Vote Warren” after a win result in a ban? Would someone voicing support for gay or trans rights? Would someone saying “build the wall”?

The rest of the industry is shifting uncomfortably around all of this. Riot Games recently issued a statement encouraging its casters and players to keep politics and personal beliefs out of the upcoming League of Legends world championships. Epic’s Tim Sweeney went the other direction, and even though 40% of his company is owned by China’s Tencent, expressed explicit support for free speech and confirmed no pro Fortnite player would be banned for voicing a pro-Hong Kong message in a similar circumstance.

There is not one shred of an apology in Blizzard’s statement to Blitzchung, as this punishment turned his entire life inside out with how much it spread to become global news. And the thrust of the statement is simply that they’re reducing two already unjustified punishments to be slightly less bad, and they’ve opened a door for a confusing debate about what esports players are or aren’t allowed to say about non-gaming topics, lest they risk being nuked like Blitzchung.

It is hard to imagine that anyone currently cross with Blizzard about all this feels very reassured by this statement, which isn’t an apology, doesn’t really address the problem and essentially says something very few people believe with the notion that the punishment had nothing at all to do with the content of Blitzchung’s statement. And who knows how China will react to any of this, as it’s unclear whether this will provoke them or if they’ll ignore it. What they may not ignore is the current fan effort to do things like turn Overwatch’s Chinese hero Mei into a symbol of the Hong Kong resistance, or to stage pro-Hong Kong protests at Blizzcon in three weeks, which will open up a whole new chapter of this saga.

This is a bad situation and Blizzard has done nothing to make it better, not by its initial silence, and not by this carefully worded non-apology they’ve issued practically a week later. This is going to hurt them for a long while to come.

Follow me on TwitterFacebook and Instagram. Read my new sci-fi thriller novel Herokiller, available now in print and online. I also wrote The Earthborn Trilogy.



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