Protests in Hong Kong have been ongoing for over 20 weeks as citizens seek to pressure their government into meeting their demands. The unrest was originally in response to a bill proposed by the Hong Kong government which would allow local authorities to detain and extradite fugitives to territories where Hong Kong does not have extradition treaties in place. These territories include Taiwan and mainland China. People were justifiably concerned that this bill would extend Chinese jurisdiction into Hong Kong, infringing upon the autonomy of the region.
In the face of intense protest, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared the extradition bill “dead” on July 9 but refused to withdraw the bill until September 4 after several more months of unrest. Despite making this concession, Carrie Lam has refused to grant the other key demands of the protestors which include her resignation, the release of arrested protestors, an independent inquiry into police brutality and the introduction of universal suffrage for election of the Chief Executive and Legislative Council. As a result, the protests continue.
The Beijing Government obviously view the protests as negative and have used state media to depict the unrest as a violent separatist riot. As with matters involving Tibet, the Chinese Community Party has begun using its economic strength to attempt to muscle foreign corporations into following its agenda. The National Basketball Association (NBA) has been embroiled in controversy lately due to their response to a Tweet made by the Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. In his post, Morey expressed his support for the movement in Hong Kong. This caused immediate outrage in China, prompting the NBA to issue an apology to Chinese fans. Many viewed this apology as the NBA being acquiescent to the Chinese government and their agenda. For now, the NBA has been pulled from broadcast in China.
This brings us to Activision-Blizzard who have recently become a public enemy in the gaming community for similar reasons. On October 5, professional Hong Kong “Hearthstone” player Wai Chung “Blitzchung” Ng voiced his support for the Hong Kong protests during an interview following his victory at Grandmasters 2019. Blitzchung donned a gas mask to show solidarity with his countrymen and emphasised the importance of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Three days later, Activision-Blizzard released a ruling that stated that Blitzchung broke a tournament rule during his interview and as a result, he will be banned from official competition for one year and his tournament winnings ($10,000) will be rescinded. The two casters who conducted the interview were also suspended indefinitely from participating in Blizzard events.
The backlash from the gaming and esports communities was immediate and ferocious. Particular attention was paid to the 5% stake in Activision-Blizzard owned by Chinese video game giants Tencent. The prevailing opinion was that Activision-Blizzard took these steps in order to appease their Chinese part-owners and the Chinese consumer base. Blizzard president J. Allen Brack released a statement where he claimed the specifics of Blitzchung’s interview was not a factor in their decision, they are just not comfortable broadcasting anything of a political nature on their official streams. He did admit that they were too harsh in their sanctioning of Blitzchung and as a result, they decided to grant him his winnings and have reduced his ban from one year to six months. The two casters also had their indefinite suspensions reduced to six months.
Matters worsened for Blizzard a few days later. During the Fall 2019 Hearthstone Collegiate Championship, three college students from American University who were competing in the event, held up a sign that read “Free Hong Kong, Boycott Blizz”. The camera quickly cut away from the sign and the casters continued to commentate without acknowledging it. The three college students received six-month bans from all official Hearthstone competitions. One of the students, Casey Chambers, published the letter he received from Blizzard informing him of his ban. He said he was happy to be banned.
As a result of these suspensions, there is now a growing movement among players who are encouraging everyone to boycott Activision-Blizzard games. Long-time players have been publicly requesting Blizzard to delete their accounts as they’ll “never play another one of their games”. For some, this is a big deal as they have invested over a decade of their lives playing Blizzard games such as “World of Warcraft”. By boycotting Blizzard, these consumers hope to pressure them into changing their stance.
Several members of the American Congress also became involved in the situation when they wrote a bipartisan letter to Activision-Blizzard CEO Robert Kotick condemning the company’s decision to suspend Blitzchung. The letter called for the company to “look beyond their bottom-line” and “promote American values like freedom of speech and thought” rather than “give in to Beijing’s demands”. Among the letter’s signees were New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Blizzard’s actions have had a knock-on effect on the rest of the industry as “League of Legends” developer Riot Games has now been facing pressure from its community. The biggest tournament on the League of Legends calendar, the 2019 World Championships is ongoing. One of the competing teams is called Hong Kong Attitude, and as the name suggests they come from Hong Kong. After a few days of broadcast, viewers began to suspect that the casters were intentionally shortening the team’s name to “HKA” to avoid saying Hong Kong. The fact that Riot Games is 100% owned by the aforementioned Tencent added fuel to the fire. Esports publications such as the Dot Esports released articles claiming Riot were intentionally censuring the team’s name as a political statement. There were also suspicions that interviews with Hong Kong Attitude players were pre-recorded and reviewed before being aired on the main English broadcast as they appeared much sooner on the Spanish language stream.
Riot was quick to respond to these accusations. First, they apologised for not briefing their casters on the political sensitivity of the situation in Hong Kong. They went on to explain that it’s their policy for their casters to say the full names of competing teams and as a result, they defaulted to saying “HKA” rather than “Hong Kong Attitude” as the latter can be a mouthful. After Riot’s statement, the tournament’s casters began exclusively using the name “Hong Kong Attitude” when referring to the team.
Riot was pulled into another minor controversy recently regarding their League of Legends in-game word filter list. The list is used for filtering swear words for those who have the filter enabled and also to stop people from having offensive usernames. People noted that the word “Uyghur” was filtered. The Uyghur Muslims are an ethnic group who live in Xinjiang, an area of China. They are currently being oppressed by the Beijing government. Uyghurs are being placed in education camps with the objective of getting them to renounce Islam and profess their loyalty to the Communist Party. Riot explained that their filter system is semi-automatic and that the censoring of the word Uyghur was a mistake and is now fixed.
Riot has been more tactful in its approach to the situation, though they haven’t yet been placed in a situation as severe as Activision-Blizzard. The stance “any politics is fine as long as it isn’t on stream” is a fair one to have but Blizzard’s key mistake was how harsh their punishment was. Blitzchung should have just received a slap on the wrist but instead, he was banned, had his money taken away and two casters were fired just for facilitating his statement. It’s very difficult to see such a serious punishment as anything but a pro-China political statement. If a player were to voice their support for LGBT+ rights or the American Democratic party after winning a tournament, it seems very unlikely they would have received the same punishment.
Congress’ letter to Activision-Blizzard is evidence that even the government is concerned about the attempted suppression of free speech by Beijing. Consumers are clearly also on edge based on the inflated accusations against Riot Games who were most likely just the victim of a series of misunderstandings. This is a positive thing for the most part, however. Increased awareness of China’s repeated attempts to suppress free speech in the gaming industry and beyond will go a long way to stopping it from happening. Companies like Activision-Blizzard need to decide if profit or human decency is more important to them.