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The Blizzard “Blitzchung” Controversy:: A 30 Year Old Tries To Make Sense Of It All

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On 6th October 2019, Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai a pro Hearthstone player, during an interview after a match in the 2019 Hearthstone Grandmasters, wore a mask and issued a statement in support of the Hong Kong protestors locked in a struggle against the local police and government (China). Over the next couple of days Blizzard, the dev/publisher of the game, and the company who had organized the event found “Blitzchung” and the 2 streamers in violation of policy and meted out a heavy punishment. The punishment included 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″. The contract of the 2 streamers too was terminated, and Blizzard stated that they “will also immediately cease working with both casters”.

This news popped in on my feed, I read it understood it and then went back to sleep. Overnight though the internet exploded. Everyone I knew was up in arms against Blizzard. But this was the internet, and I was surfing Reddit, nothing out of the ordinary I thought and decided to give it a couple of days to die down. IT DIDN’T. Over the next couple of days, and indeed over the next couple of weeks, this Controversy snowballed into something much more bigger than Hearthstone and indeed Blizzard. It became something about freedom of expression, about Chinese influence in American culture, and about human rights violations.

Turns Out, I Hardly Understood it.

I think that statement needs a bit of background. See I grew up in India, a country surrounded by rivals on its borders, and a country which for the better part of its independence was big on Non-alignment. Being non-aligned basically boils down to being neutral. When it comes to doing business, India wasn’t supposed to care if it was China, Israel, Russia, the USA or even Pakistan. It was supposed to treat them equally, never become an ally, and always keep relationships open. The concept of non-alignment may sound very selfish, but it made sense. We didn’t worry about how relationships between Russia and the USA were, we were just worried about how our relationship was with Russia and the USA. Non-alignment made sense to me because it advocated neutrality. It advocated neutral discussion-based and limited to the metrics relevant to that discussion. So when I heard the statement, and its corresponding consequence I never thought about how Blizzard’s relationship with China, Hong Kong or even the USA will factor in. The Hearthstone Grandmasters is a neutral space, where discussions should have been relevant to Hearthstone. “Blitzchung” had broken a rule with Blizzard, not China, not Hong Kong, but Blizzard, and in my opinion, they had every right to impose penalties.

The other thing that I grew up watching a lot was Sports. The Cricket World Cup, the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics, Indian Premier League, NBA, English Premier League, Tennis Grand Slams, the works. In all these tournaments, you had players from countries who necessarily didn’t see eye to eye competing against each other in high pressure, high stake games. In fact, some tournaments even had teams that had players from such countries playing together. History is full of examples where athletes have been banned or reprimanded for using an international sporting forum as a microphone of their world view. Examples such as Moeen Ali (An International Cricketer from England) banned by ICC (International Cricket Council) for showing support for GAZA in an international cricket match. Examples such as FIFA banning countries from their forum for political interference with their sport’s body. Hearthstone Grandmasters is akin to such tournaments. It’s an arena meant for competition and not for airing grievances. On that front, I earnestly believed that “Blitzchung” was wrong and set an incorrect example.

But the Juggernaut Rolled On. And Blizzcon came Around.

Everyone who was someone aired their opinion. Critics, including Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Senator Marco Rubio, claimed that Blizzard’s punishment was an act of censorship designed to protect the company’s interests in China. “Hearthstone” commentator Brian Kibler announced that he would decline working with the company for the finals of its Grandmasters competition. Epic Games, the company behind “Fortnite,” issued a statement saying that no “Fortnite” players would be punished for sharing their opinion on politics and human rights.

#BlizzardBoycott” became a trending hashtag on Twitter as dozens of people shared screenshots of themselves deleting their Blizzard accounts or canceling subscriptions to Blizzard’s “World of Warcraft.”. Even the company’s own staff came out in apparent protest. On October 9, a group of some 30 Activision Blizzard employees staged a walkout to protest the company’s punishment.

People cited Blizzard’s ties with Tencent (who own a 5% share in the company) and NetEase (their publisher in China), as motivators behind the excessive punishment. People also cited, “Every Voice Matters”, a philosphy that Blizzard insists is the basis of what they do, and accused them of contradicting it.

All of that culminated into a show of protest outside Anaheim Convention Center, during the company’s annual Blizzcon event. Protestors lined up outside the venue, proclaiming their support for Hong Kong, and expressing their disappointment with Blizzard.

On their part, Blizzard opened Blizzcon with their president, J. Allen Brack addressing the Hong Kong issue, accept accountability, and apologized for the handling of the entire issue. In his later interviews, he also announced that Blizzard has reduced the ban on both the streamer and the casters to 6 months. He also reiterated that Blizzard’s relationship with China had nothing to do with the actual ban. He also reiterated in the same interview that Blizzard does not object to people voicing their opinion (for example during streams of Hearthstone or on their personal social accounts), but they should respect the forum which does not directly belong to them.

My 2 cents On All This Is Simple

Blizzard, at least on paper does not object to what was said. It objects to the platform on which it was said on. It’s an international event with an international audience, but its not a forum to discuss human rights violations. Just like Hearthstone strategies are not discussed at the UN forum, similarly, a sporting event is not a forum to show dissent.

I do not believe that Blizzard was stifling a voice. It was safeguarding its own voice from being hijacked for another purpose. I wouldn’t like it if someone called out the Kashmir issue at a Cricket match. I am sure there are people who wouldn’t like it if someone brought up Baluchistan in a post EPL match interview. It’s not how true the statement was, it’s the fact that it did not belong there.

But If Blizzard did nothing wrong, then why did they pull back on the punishment.

I like to believe it’s for the same reasons, a lot of people blamed them for messing it up initially. Money. Unlike the ICC, FIFA and even NBA who are the custodians of universally accepted sports, Blizzard is dependent on customers buying and playing Hearthstone and their other games in order to survive. Consequently, in Blizzard’s case, a disgruntled opinion has more power to hurt them, and the controversy was taking focus away from Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2, who would have dominated the news cycle if not for this protest. And Blizzard didn’t technically apologize, they just reduced the sentence and reassured the crowd that they want to be more patient and more clear about similar issues in the future.

As a 30-year-Old.

I didn’t want to write this article. As I moved from day to day watching this bizarre controversy unfold, I expected someone to say what I was thinking. No one did.  I tried posting a comment on Reddit and FB, but it gets drowned by “Human Rights Violations”. A lot of people were so busy discussing the Principle of it, that they forgot the Principle of it. For so many people clamoring for Blizzard because of stifled voice, they forgot to listen to Blizzard’s voice it seems. And it left me a 30 year old confused and feeling too old, and doubting everything he had grown up learning.




Hearthstone Developers Wish Blizzard Had Handled Hong Kong Controversy Differently

Blizzard Suspends Hearthstone Player For Hong Kong Support, Pulls Prize Money

Hong Kong Protests Are Growing Outside Of BlizzCon [Update]

Business Insider:

Blizzard apologized for its handling of the ‘Hearthstone’ Hong Kong controversy — but won’t lift its ban on the pro gamer who spoke out in support of the protests

Blizzard says its ‘relationships in China had no influence on our decision’ to punish an esports athlete who voiced his support for Hong Kong protestors

PC Gamer:

Blizzard president clarifies decision to ban Hearthstone player and two casters over Hong Kong controversy

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