A single act of protest during a video-game competition in Taiwan has garnered international attention and massive backlash against one of America's largest and highest-profile video game companies.
Blizzard Entertainment is facing major criticism after punishing Blitzchung, a Hong Kong-based e-sports competitor who voiced support for Hong Kong's protesters during a Blizzard-run event on October 5.
Blitzchung, whose real name is Chung Ng Wai, is a grandmaster level player in "Hearthstone," Blizzard's very popular digital card game. During Blizzard's official broadcast of the Asia-Pacific Grandmasters competition, Blitzchung appeared in a post-match interview wearing a gas mask. As the broadcast ended, Blitzchung shouted "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age," with the apparent support of the two tournament broadcasters.
The ongoing protests have already garnered international attention, with the territory's increasingly complex relationship with China's communist government as a core issue. Tencent, one of China's biggest companies and the largest video game publisher in the world, also owns a 5 per cent stake in parent company Activision Blizzard.
Blizzard responded to Blitzchung's comments by stripping him of any prize money he would have earned for the tournament, and banned him from "Hearthstone" competitions for one year. Blizzard also said it will not longer work with the two broadcasters who were interviewing Blitzchung during his comments.
The company deleted the match and interview footage from its official channels as well. "Hearthstone" has an international tour offering US$1 million in prizes for top level players this year. Blitzchung had earned at least US$3,000 from his wins so far, with the potential to earn more in the competition's playoff rounds.
In the blog post announcing Blitzchung's ban, Blizzard said "we stand by one's right to express individual thoughts and opinions," but Blitzchung's comments were apparently deemed to be harmful to the company.
Blitzchung himself seems to be standing by his comments: "I know what my action on stream means. It could cause me lot of trouble, even my personal safety in real life. But I think it's my duty to say something," he said, according to a statement shared on Twitter by Victims of Communism, a human rights group.
Blizzard's decision has sparked outrage from Americans, who say Blitzchung's comments should be protected as free speech " especially given that Blizzard is an American company.
Supporters of the protests in Hong Kong accused Blizzard of compromising its principles to protect its business interests in China. US Senator Ron Wyden was one of the many voices that came to Blitzchung's defence, accusing Blizzard of censorship.
"Blizzard shows it is willing to humiliate itself to please the Chinese Communist Party," Wyden tweeted. "No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck."
Upset fans have flooded Reddit message boards for Blizzard's most popular games with posts calling for boycotts of Blizzard. The main subreddit dedicated to Blizzard titles, "r/Blizzard," was set to private mode by the moderators due to the intense backlash.
Kevin Hovdestad, a former Blizzard employee, said on Twitter that a backlash seems to be brewing internally: Someone covered up two of the company's key values " "Think Globally" and "Every Voice Matters" " as enshrined on a statue at the company's headquarters.
Blizzard is the latest American company to face criticism for its relationship to China. The NBA is also embroiled in its own controversy involving Hong Kong and China after Houston Rockets general manager Darryl Morey shared a tweet in support of the protests. Morey later apologised and deleted the tweet, but the situation has strained the league's relationship with China.
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