At Blizzard's headquarters in Irvine, stylized plaques list the eight values that comprise its mission statement. Conspicuously covered up today were "Think Globally" and "Every Voice Matters," a reflection of the mushrooming controversy over the suspension of Hearthstone pro Ng "blitzchung" Wai Chung, who recently advocated for the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.
The backlash, as you might expect, has been strong. The decision immediately shot to the top of Reddit and other social networks, drawing the attention of mainstream publications. "Blizzard" has been trending for the U.S. on Twitter. Polygon reporter Colin Campbell decried "Blizzard's abject cowardice and greed" in a tweet linking to the story on the decision, and Gamesbeat fumed that Blizzard "failed to make a stand for anything but China and money."
The intense reaction is owed to many factors: geopolitical rivalries, the concurrent controversy in the NBA, and even the ongoing Epic Games Store backlash. But what we're seeing is new. As the protests in Hong Kong rage on, China is now wielding its influence as a blunt instrument in an effort to silence any support for the protesters. With Chinese companies like Tencent having large stakes in American publishers, including Blizzard—of which it owns a roughly 5 percent share—the impact is now being felt by the games industry.
Blizzard's reaction is dispiriting not just because it illustrates its willingness to bow to Chinese pressure over Hong Kong, but because of how draconian it was. Donning a mask and saying, "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age" was enough to get Chung banned for a year and his winnings revoked. Blizzard even went as far as to fire the commentators who happened to be in the video (and subsequently hid their faces when Chung made his statement).
For comparison, when Overwatch League player Josh "Eqo" Corono, who plays for the Philadelphia Fusion, made a racist gesture and said "I am Korean" on a stream, he was suspended for three games and fined $3000. For Blizzard, support for Hong Kong's protests is seemingly far worse than being racist.
It's easy to see the motives behind Blizzard's actions. Aside from Tencent's ownership stake, Blizzard's Overwatch League has a large presence in China thanks to teams like the Shanghai Dragons. According to the company's most recent financial releases, the entire Asia-Pacific region only makes up about 12 percent of Blizzard's revenue, but like everyone else, Blizzard sees China as an area of growth.
Blizzard isn't going to be able to easily fix this mess, but the NBA's response to its own controversy may be instructive. After Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted, "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong," prompting a firestorm on Chinese social media, the NBA put out a muddled statement in which the NBA mostly talked about bringing people together. This did little more than stoke the flames on both sides of the Pacific.
Today, though, commissioner Adam Silver rallied strongly behind Morey. "The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way."
Adam Silver has released statement on league’s relationship status with China, reading in part: “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.” pic.twitter.com/A43BOAdG57— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) October 8, 2019
The full statement was derided by some outlets as wanting to have it both ways (which didn't work in any case, because China's CCTV responded by suspending all NBA preseason broadcasts), but Silver said what needed to be said. Even with perhaps billions of dollars in broadcasting rights on the line, the NBA won't throw Morey under the bus or fire him. Blizzard should follow the NBA's lead.
Unfortunately for Blizzard, it's already pulled the trigger on Chung's suspension, so it's not as easy to do an about face on this issue. Probably the best it can do is to cancel the suspension, or at least award him his prize money, which comes to around $10,000. Either way, Blizzard won't exactly be able to play a Healing Touch card and move on from this fiasco.
Other publishers, meanwhile, might want to look at this mess and maybe realize that for all the money at stake in angering China, forfeiting their principals is worse. Whether it realizes it or not, the entertainment industry has plenty of power of its own in China. After all, the Chinese like watching basketball and playing video games just as much as the rest of the world.
One way or another, it's been a bad day for the American games industry. And with China's influence on gaming continuing to grow, other publishers are apt to face similar tests. Here's hoping they acquit themselves better than Blizzard did.