Today, United States Senators Ron Wyden and Marco Rubio signed a bi-partisan letter with support from Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mike Gallagher, and Tom Malinowski addressed to Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, over the recent suspension of professional Hearthstone player Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai.
“We write to express our deep concern about Activision Blizzard’s decision to make player Ng Wai Chung forfeit prize money and ban him from participating in tournaments for a year after he voiced support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong,” the letter reads. “This decision is particularly concerning in light of the Chinese government’s growing appetite for pressuring American businesses to help stifle free speech.”
Co-signed by Representatives Ocasio-Cortez, Gallagher, and Malinowski, the letter urges Kotick to “reconsider your decision to with respect to Mr. Chung.”
This is despite Blizzard president Jay Allen Brack’s statement last week that walked back some of the penalties referenced in the Congressional letter. The statement had reduced Chung’s suspension to six months and awarding him the prize money Blizzard had originally withheld.
The situation started last week when pro player Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai spoke in support of Hong Kong citizens currently embroiled in months-long protest with the government. During a livestream of the Hearthstone Asia-Pacific Grandmasters, Blitzchung called for a liberated Hong Kong and a “revolution of our age.” As a result, he was initially banned from competitive play for 12 months and had his prize money revoked. The decision sparked immediate outcry against Blizzard, including demonstrations from workers on Blizzard’s campus in Irvine, California. Blitzchung’s suspension has since been reduced to six months and his prize money returned.
Later that week, American University’s three-player Hearthstonedemonstrated in their own way, by holding up a sign that said “FREE HONG KONG, BOYCOTT BLIZZ” during a match. 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.
“Every Voice Matters at Blizzard 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 game and competition, and to be a place where all are welcome.”
The email goes on to state that Chambers violated a rule regarding sportsmanship and that he is banned from competition for six months from the incident.
“Happy to announce the AU Hearthstone team received a six month ban from competition,” Chambers tweeted. “While delayed I appreciate all players being treated equally and no one being above the rules.”
In the time since Blitzchung’s ban, pressure has mounted against Blizzard from fans disappointed with a slow response to the incident. Eventually, Blizzard president J. Allen Brack released a statement insisting that the content of Blitzchung’s message played no factor in disciplinary decisions, and that it was a result of breaking a general rule that states the company can punish players for “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.”
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Late last week, Kotakureported that Blizzard had reconsidered its decision to withhold Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai’s prize money and ban him for a year after he showed support for the Hong Kong protesters. Blizzard is allowing the Hearthstone pro to keep his prize money and has reduced his ban to six months.
In a post-match interview on an official Hearthstone stream, Blitzchung wore a gas mask similar to those donned by the Hong Kong protesters and said, “Liberate Hong Kong. The revolution of our age!”
But as Blizzard president J. Allen Brack pointed out, Blitzchung did not break any rules during play. “We now believe he should receive his prizing,” said Brack in a statement last week. “We understand that for some this is not about the prize, and perhaps for others it is disrespectful to even discuss it. That is not our intention. But playing fair also includes appropriate pre-and post-match conduct, especially when a player accepts recognition for winning in a broadcast. When we think about the suspension, six months for Blitzchung is more appropriate, after which time he can compete in the Hearthstone pro circuit again if he so chooses.”
The Hearthstone pro has now issued his own statement about Blizzard’s revised ruling. He is grateful to the company for reconsidering its decision. However, he still thinks the six-month ban is too long and wishes the company would reconsider its firing of the two casters who hid under the desk when he voiced his support for the Hong Kong protesters.
In the statement, Blizzard president J. Allen Brack explained that while Blizzard tries to uphold company values that focus on diversity and global thinking, it also wants to keep esports events focused on games. Blitzchung broke a rule, but Brack insists that the specific words he said weren’t the issue.
“The specific views expressed by Blitzchung were NOT a factor in the decision we made,” wrote Brack. “I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision. We have these rules to keep the focus on the game and on the tournament to the benefit of a global audience, and that was the only consideration in the actions we took. If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.”
Brack went on to say that, since Blitzchung did not break any rules while playing the actual game, he’ll get to collect his prize money after all. However, he’ll still be suspended. Now, though, the suspension is six months instead of a year.
“We now believe he should receive his prizing,” said Brack. “We understand that for some this is not about the prize, and perhaps for others it is disrespectful to even discuss it. That is not our intention. But playing fair also includes appropriate pre-and post-match conduct, especially when a player accepts recognition for winning in a broadcast. When we think about the suspension, six months for Blitzchung is more appropriate, after which time he can compete in the Hearthstone pro circuit again if he so chooses.”
Same goes for the commentators who were on duty at the time; their suspension, too, has been reduced to six months.
“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,” said Brack. “One of our goals at Blizzard is to make sure that every player, everywhere in the world, regardless of political views, religious beliefs, race, gender, or any other consideration always feels safe and welcome both competing in and playing our games.”
But, as has been stated multiple times by fans, players, and commentators throughout the week, it’s hard to square this kind of faux-neutral political stance with the games Blizzard creates and the values it espouses. This is a company whose games are full of heroes fighting for freedom and equality, and China’s handling of Hong Kong has been anything but. All political statements are not equal—especially where human rights violations are concerned—and it’s disheartening to see a company with Blizzard’s legacy stand behind that kind of false equivalence in a time when games are, more than ever, intertwined with culture. Reducing Blitzchung’s suspension is a step in the right direction, but in the face of all this, it’s still hard for the company’s games and statements not to ring hollow.
Brack opened his statement by saying that two of its core values—“Think Globally; Lead Responsibly”—apply here. But this isn’t global thinking or responsible leadership. It’s reactivity and fear of reprisal. It’s an abdication of responsibility at a time when it’s needed most.
In the days since Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai received a one-year suspension from the Hearthstone esports scene following his support for the ongoing protests in Hong Kong in the middle of a stream, the community has become a hotbed for politically charged discussion. The scene’s subreddit—where a large portion of community news is shared and broken—is filled to bursting with pro-blitzchung and anti-Blizzard sentiments. One of the moderators, citing dissatisfaction with Blizzard’s response to the blitzchung incident, has stepped down from his role. Since then, the blitzchung ruling has become the Hearthstone community’s elephant in the room, with silence on the matter becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Now, after a period of soul-searching, responses have begun to flood in from some of the most visible members in the scene.
Earlier this week, the streamer and Hearthstone esports shoutcaster Brian Kibler published his own thoughts on the matter in an extensive blog post. While he voiced understanding toward Blizzard’s decision to act on the politicization of one of their broadcasts, he expressed concern that Chung’s punishment—in this case a one-year suspension and revocation of prize money—greatly outweighed the crime. To end his blog post, Kibler announced that he would not be casting the Grandmasters finals at BlizzCon, an event that’s scheduled to happen later this month. “I will not be a smiling face on camera that tacitly endorses this decision,” Kibler said in his post. “Unless something changes, I will have no involvement in Grandmasters moving forward.”
Kibler’s decision is noteworthy because it’s the first to come from the most visible quotient of the Hearthstone community—the streamers themselves. But Kibler’s initiative seems to have been the catalyst for a wave of streamer action. In the aftermath of his post, another top Hearthstone streamer, Octavian “Kripparrian” Morosan, published his own TwitLonger post weighing in on the blitzchung story, which is particularly notable considering his past refusal to bring any political discussion into his streaming content whatsoever:
…I want to be clear that I support those protesting in Hong Kong. With such a large part of their country pushing for change, they are, and deserve to be on the right side of history.
I haven’t been involved with competitive esports Hearthstone for years now, but Hearthstone for me is much more than their esports division and their recent poor decision making. I invite Blizzard to reconsider their position. Sure, they are in the entertainment space, so they want to keep anything that isn’t about Hearthstone out of their official broadcast, but the penalty on Blitzchung and the casters seems just too over the top. All of us who have spent the best part of our lives on Battlenet expect better out of Blizzard.
The next day, the pro player William “Amnesiac” Barton, another competitor in the Hearthstone Grandmaster League, tweeted his support for Chung’s actions and denounced Blizzard’s ruling. “I recognize that my decision to speak up may have consequences, but I believe it’s important to stand for what you think is right, and stand for the rights of others when they can’t necessarily do so themselves.”
Following that, the shoutcaster Nathan “Admirable” Zamora threw his hat into the ring, saying that he too would not be casting any more Hearthstone Grandmasters events for the rest of the season and through BlizzCon later this month. “Blitzchung’s actions to support Hong Kong speak to me far more than I could have imagined,” he said in a tweet on Thursday. “It takes courage to stand up for what you believe in, and to make sacrifices in the process. His actions are inspiring to me, and I support him wholeheartedly.”
Meanwhile, the shoutcasters Simon “Sottle” Welch, Alex “Raven” Baguley, and Darroch Brown all decided to continue casting Grandmasters games in accordance with their existing contracts while vocally disapproving of Blizzard’s actions. “I fully support Blitzchung’s right to protest and have immense sympathy for his cause and for the plight of the Hong Kong people,” Welch said in a tweeted statement on Thursday. “However, in light of the recent revelations that one or more casters will be stepping away from Hearthstone, I would like to affirm that I fully intend to fulfill my contracts with Hearthstone Esports and am open to work with them in the future.”
In contrast with Barton and the casters, players and streamers have been slower to respond. While some immediately voiced that they were puzzled by the blitzchung verdict, a significant majority declined to say anything at all, opting instead to continue streaming and publishing as usual. In a tweet that has since been deleted, the pro streamer and Hearthstone Grandmasters competitor Paul “Zalae” Nemeth said that he had been experiencing pressure to “make huge career/financial sacrifices to support a political cause on the other side of the planet that I know almost nothing about.” In general, the trend toward silence suggests that many others harbor a similar instinct to approach the issue with caution.
As the situation developed further, Nemeth retweeted both Brian Kibler’s blog post and Admirable’s statement—suggesting solidarity with their decisions to step down from Blizzard casting. The popular Hearthstone streamer Jeffrey “Trump” Shih acted similarly, retweeting Kibler’s announcement post and thanking him for his decision to act on the matter. In response to Simon “Sottle” Welch’s post about continuing to participate in Hearthstone-related activities despite his disapproval for their actions, Shih responded with the closest he’s gotten to a statement yet: “It’s basically the same decision I’m making.”
Thursday afternoon, in a Hearthstone-related news show called Omnistone, 2014 Hearthstone world champion James “Firebat” Kostesich weighed in on the matter. While he didn’t mention the Hong Kong protests explicitly, he voiced concern over Blizzard’s dramatic response: “Murdering a guy’s Hearthstone career, or attempting to anyways, off of that is… it’s very hard to see… Using a player as an example for some sort of thing, it doesn’t make me feel good.”
It’s easy to see why streamers might feel as if they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Recently, a statement emerged from the Taiwanese pro player Chen “tom60229″ Wei Lin, who won the Hearthstone World Championship in 2017. Like Nemeth, Lin was also pragmatic in his approach to the situation, and while he criticized Blizzard’s actions as “inappropriate and irrational,” he said he would withhold his full statements until after he was done competing in the current round of tournaments. “Only then I will do what needs to be done and say what needs to be said…After all, in the moment of competing in tournaments, I do not think there is any meaning in saying and doing anything.”
Throughout the scene, streamers are posting their recent streams to YouTube as they normally do, with Brian Kibler and Kripparrian themselves posting Hearthstone stream videos as recently as today. The difficulty of taking a huge career risk in the wake of a corporate blunder may be part of the reason Kibler himself encouraged onlookers to refrain from passing judgement on streamers and other high-profile members of the Hearthstone community. “Do not take your anger out on the other casters, or streamers, or employees of Blizzard,” he said in his post. “This is not the kind of decision that comes from the rank and file.”
Jeremy “DisguisedToast” Wang, a former mainstay of the Hearthstone community who has since moved on to Teamfight Tactics, acknowledged the difficulty streamers in the scene face in approaching the issue. In a tweet on Thursday, he showed empathy toward Hearthstone streamers while adding a bit of his signature snark:
Unfortunately, streamers and pro players may find it increasingly difficult to avoid involvement as the situation continues to develop. Already, Twitch chat and YouTube comment sections are overflowing with controversial discussions about Blizzard and Hong Kong. Jason “Amaz” Chan, a community mainstay who recently began streaming Hearthstone again after a hiatus, says he cut off his stream early on Tuesday when his chat section was overrun with comments about Hong Kong: “I’m obviously aware of the Hong Kong issue right now, and I follow it quite a bit. My family lives there, so how could I not. I still find it very annoying that my chat gets spammed with ‘FREE HONG KONG’ every now and then.”
For now, the streamers mentioned have yet to respond to Kotaku’s requests for comment. We will continue to monitor the situation as more people speak out and BlizzCon approaches.
The three players— Casey Chambers, Corwin Dark, and a third player who simply goes by his online handle, TJammer,—held up the sign on Wednesday, following Hearthstone developer Blizzard suspending Blitzchung for making a statement in support of protesters in Hong Kong. After the incident, Blizzard and tournament organizing partner Tespa booked American University into their next scheduled match, sans any sort of punitive measures. Today, the three players said they’re going to forfeit the match and cease participating in tournaments.
“We feel it’s hypocritical for Blizzard to punish Blitzchung but not us,” the players told USgamer. “The response from Blizzard shows that as soon as the messaging is out of the view of China, they don’t care about ‘political’ messaging.”
During the now-infamous Hearthstone Asia-Pacific Grandmasters stream that kicked off this week’s Blizzard controversy, Blitzchung wore a mask and said “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!” In response, Blizzard suspended him for a year and put a hold on his prize money. The American University players purposefully echoed his message in a show of solidarity, but so far, Blizzard seems to be treating it like business as usual.
These players join a host of pros, commentators, and fans in protesting Blizzard’s decision making. Blizzard, meanwhile, has now backed itself into an impossible corner. If it suspended the American University players, fans would’ve inevitably been even more furious than they already are. But in its silence, Blizzard has created an obvious double standard—one that is simply too egregious for some players to abide by.
Collectible card game legend Brian Kibler, who casts for Hearthstone, announced today that he will no longer be involved in the digital card game’s Grandmasters competition. In a post on Medium, he blamed Blizzard’s “incredibly harsh” punishment of Grandmasters competitor Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai. Yesterday, Blizzard announced it would suspend Chung for one year and and pull his prize money after he expressed his support for the Hong Kong protests.
Kibler, 39, is a widely-respected Magic: The Gathering player who, in 2010, was inducted into Magic’s Hall of Fame. Over the last couple years, Kibler amassed a 500,000-person following on Twitch streaming Blizzard’s Hearthstone, which he casts in an official capacity for Blizzard.
“I certainly never expected that my position in the Hearthstone community would lead to me making a statement on sensitive topics regarding international relations,” Kibler wrote today, “but I have always viewed my strange place as a public figure in gaming as an opportunity to try to make the world a better place in whatever way I can, so here we are.”
According to Blizzard, Chung violated the rules of the Hearthstone Grandmasters when he engaged “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.” To the company, that included Chung saying “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!” after winning his APAC Hearthstone Grandmasters match. Acknowledging that he thinks Blizzard “was correct in issuing him a penalty for his actions,” Kibler goes on to say that the penalty was “not something I can in good conscience be associated with.”
“The heavy-handedness of it feels like someone insisted that Blizzard make an example of Blitzchung, not only to discourage others from similar acts in the future but also to appease those upset by the outburst itself. . . When I learned about the ruling, I reached out to Blizzard and informed them that I no longer feel comfortable casting the Grandmasters finals at BlizzCon. I will not be a smiling face on camera that tacitly endorses this decision. Unless something changes, I will have no involvement in Grandmasters moving forward.”
Kibler’s statement joins a chorus of backlash against Blizzard’s decision. The Blizzardsubreddit shuttered yesterday, full of complaints from players—some of whom pledged to quit the game entirely. At Blizzard’s headquarters, where it proudly displays company values like “lead responsibly” and “learn & grow,” a big piece of paper covered up the values “think globally” and “every voice matters” apparently in protest of Chung’s ban. Also at Blizzard yesterday, some employees staged an “Umbrella Protest” against the ban.
Kotaku has asked Blizzard how it is responding to the backlash against their decision and has not heard back. Kibler is currently streaming Magic: The Gathering Arena on Twitch to nearly 3,000 live viewers.
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After Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai called for the liberation of Hong Kong, Blizzard suspended the Hearthstone player and withheld any prize money. The decision has been widely criticized. Fans have now started posting images of Overwatch hero Mei supporting the Hong Kong protests as a show of solidarity.
In Overwatch, Mei hails from Xi’an, China. By turning her into a symbol of the Hong Kong resistance, fans are showing the character standing up to Chinese rule while thumbing their noses at Blizzard.
Photoshops originated on r/HongKong (here and here) with Redditors encouraging each other to share the images. Twitter users have also been uploading images.
Mei isn’t the only Overwatch character being used to show support for the Hong Kong protests.
During tonight’s stream of the match between Worcester Polytechnic Institute and American University, as the game came to a close the American University team held up a banner reading “FREE HONG KONG, BOYCOTT BLIZZ”, which was visible for a few seconds before the camera hurriedly switched views and was left lingering awkwardly on the WPI players.
You can see the sign come out at 51:38 in the video below:
If I was at Blizzard, and was in any way connected with anything going on with BlizzCon—the company’s annual fan convention, which takes place in just three weeks—I would be getting a little sweaty about now. There are only so many cameras you can switch off and subreddits you can close.
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.
Blitzchung’s punishment is an immediate removal from Grandmasters, a withholding of prize money for his participation and a ban from taking part in Hearthstone esports “for 12 months beginning from Oct. 5th, 2019 and extending to Oct. 5th, 2020″.
Blizzard end their ruling by saying “While we stand by one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions, players and other participants that elect to participate in our esports competitions must abide by the official competition rules.”