Blizzard's Commitment to Free Expression Doesn't Mean Much With Blitzchung Still Banned

Blizzard's Commitment to Free Expression Doesn't Mean Much With Blitzchung Still Banned

THIS WEEK IN BUSINESS | Blizzard calls its suspension of Blitzchung for voicing support for the ongoing Hong Kong protests a "tough Hearthstone esports moment."

It's BlizzCon Friday, so that means it's time for everyone to settle in for the next wave of fallout from Blizzard banning Hearthstone pro player Chung "Blitzchung" Ng Wai for daring to voice support for the protesters in Hong Kong last month. In his convention-opening keynote today, Blizzard president J. Allen Brack addressed the elephant in the room, referring vaguely to the entire incident as "a tough Hearthstone esports moment."

QUOTE | "We will do better going forward, but our actions are going to matter more than any words. As you walk around this weekend, I hope it's clear how committed we are to everyone's right to express themselves in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of places." - Brack, after admitting Blizzard made mistakes in how it handled that tough esports moment. As for what those mistakes were, they moved too quickly, didn't communicate to fans well, fell short of Blizzard's standards, and failed in the company's purpose.

I've got a few thoughts here. First of all, it's ridiculous to call what happened "a tough Hearthstone esports moment." A tough esports moment is losing a big match, or having your computer crash just when you team is counting on you to save the day. This was much more "an entirely avoidable public relations fiasco that Blizzard precipitated" rather than one of those unfortunate things that happens in esports.

Second, if you're going to apologize, you should really be specific about what you're apologizing for to show that you understood what you did wrong, have learned from it, and will do better in the future. Brack can't even mention Blitzchung by name, or even say what he was banned for. And even though he wants us to know Blizzard is committed "to everyone's right to express themselves in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of places," he conspicuously did not say anything about Blitzchung's ban being lifted. So clearly their commitment does not actually extend to everyone, or every way they can express themselves, or in every place.

This appears to be a tightrope walk for Brack and Blizzard. BlizzCon is their big event every year, and they're especially keen on this one being a big deal for the right reasons given last year's Diablo mobile outcry and this year's big announcements for Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2. They don't want any of that to be overshadowed by protest actions people have been planning since the Blitzchung ban landed last month.

They also don't want any more Blitzchungs on their hands. Cracking down on players for tame protests or booting them from BlizzCon will only carry their protest messages further as their stories are repeated in the press and social media. By effectively looking the other way, Blizzard is hoping to take the steam out of the planned protests, defuse player anger over Blitzchung, and avoid pouring any fuel on the fire. At the same time, by not actually apologizing for what it did to Blitzchung or rescinding the ban, the company is also better positioned to stay on good terms with China and its Chinese partners who might not appreciate it effectively siding with the protesters and their supporters.

Like Brack said, Blizzard's actions will ultimately matter more than its words. But words do still speak volumes, even if—as you're about to see—they don't always make sense.

QUOTE | "When I was a kid, I learned a lot about stuff through things like Schoolhouse Rock, you know what I mean? I was singing songs and I was learning about real-world things, but in an entertaining fashion. And so I think that for people today, if we learn about some of these things, even while we're engaged in an interactive experience, I think that it's still valuable." - Call of Duty: Modern Warfare narrative director Taylor Kurosaki likens the game's depictions of the violent chaos of combat to a Saturday morning series of animated shorts that taught children civics lessons like how a bill becomes a law, or what verbs, nouns, and adverbs are and how they're used.

QUOTE | "If you look at any other professional sport and how you get into it, there are significant barriers there. The great thing about esports is it's really a level playing field. Anyone can enter if they have a PC—or in this case PS4—and just pick up a copy of the game and play." - Intel's Mark Walton touts the accessibility of esports while promoting the company's partnership with Capcom for a Street Fighter tournament timed to the 2020 Olympics.

QUOTE | "We do appreciate there is a potential barrier to entry, whether it's the high level of play that's happening from the start or just the fact that—speaking financially—if you're going to do the Capcom Pro Tour and travel around the world taking part in different events, you need to have the capability to have maybe a sponsor taking care of your finances, costs of travelling around, that kind of thing. It isn't the sort of thing you can just decide to do one day." - Street Fighter producer Yoshinori Ono, immediately afterward, reminds Walton about some significant barriers to pro esports.

QUOTE | "The five titles will be on this generation and next generation of consoles, and they will take full advantage of all the new features that are coming with the machines." - Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot explains that the publisher's recently delayed Watch Dogs Legion, Rainbow Six Quarantine and Gods & Monsters will all arrive on PS5 and Microsoft's Project Scarlett.

STAT | 99.8% - The portion of StarCraft 2 players with a lower ranking in the game than Google's DeepMind AI. Players have opted in to play against the AI since July of this year. It has earned a Grandmaster ranking using all three of the game's playable factions.

STAT | 1 million - Number of subscribers to PlayStation Now, Sony's on-demand game streaming service, which launched in 2014 and began offering a subscription option in 2015.

STAT | 0 - Number of subscribers to PlayStation Vue as of January 31, 2020. Sony is closing the $50 per month TV subscription service it launched in 2015 because "the highly competitive Pay TV industry, with expensive content and network deals, has been slower to change than we expected."

STAT | 36.9 million - Number of subscribers to PlayStation Plus, Sony's other subscription service, which allows online play and also gives access to a handful of games each month. The number was included in Sony's financial earnings this week.

STAT | 5 - The number of installments of EA's annualized NBA Live series released on consoles in the past 10 years. EA confirmed the cancellation of NBA Live 20 this week, rounding out the starting five for a Dream Team that also includes fellow never-launched titles like NBA Live 11/NBA Elite 11, NBA Live 12, NBA Live 13, and NBA Live 17.

QUOTE | "At this point, nearly all key purchases that end up being traded or sold on the marketplace are believed to be fraud-sourced." - Valve explains that it is pulling the ability to sell or trade Counter-Strike: Global Offensive loot box keys because the mechanic has been seized upon for money laundering purposes.

QUOTE | "Since the time we removed our games from Steam, there's been this dramatic increase in the number of gaming services, which you would think would be really good for players. But I think in many cases, it's the exact opposite... Reducing that fragmentation is really important. It's the most player-first thing we can do." - Electronic Arts senior VP Mike Blank explains how the publisher is fighting fragmentation in gaming services by... [checks notes] ... introducing yet another subscription service option with EA Access on Steam.

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Brendan Sinclair

North American Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry International in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at CBS-owned GameSpot in the US.

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