Blizzard, Hearthstone and the Hong Kong protests: What you need to know

Video games can be serious business.

Oscar Gonzalez Former staff reporter
Oscar Gonzalez is a Texas native who covered video games, conspiracy theories, misinformation and cryptocurrency.
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Hong Kong protests

Protesters and law enforcement continue to clash in Hong Kong, and US companies are finding themselves caught up in the political strife. 

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Blizzard, the developer of Diablo and World of Warcraft among other notable games, has faced a growing backlash since it removed pro player Chung "Blitzchung" Ng Wai from a Hearthstone tournament and future events. His ban came two days after he showed support for the Hong Kong protests in a postgame interview on Oct. 6. The company has since walked back the length of his banning

In response to the ban, gamers began boycotting the developer. On Oct. 9, #BoycottBlizzard started trending on Twitter , and the company's action has even been called out by two US senators. 

Blizzard isn't the only business tangled up in the Hong Kong protests. Apple, Google and the NBA have all found themselves in the middle of political tensions between Hong Kong and China.

What are the protests in Hong Kong about?

In June, mass protests began in Hong Kong over a controversial proposed law, now suspended, that would've allowed for the extradition of residents to countries around the world, including China. People feared this would let the Chinese government apprehend people in Hong Kong and send them to mainland China to be subjected to a far stricter legal system. 

Protesters have taken to the streets, as well as the Hong Kong International Airport, and demonstrations have grown to include demands for democracy. This has led to multiple clashes with law enforcement, including one teenager getting shot in the chest by police on Oct. 1

Why are gamers protesting Blizzard?

Following his win during the Asia-Pacific Grandmasters broadcast on Oct. 6, the gas mask-wearing pro gamer Blitzchung voiced a phrase used by Hong Kong protesters: "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!" On Oct. 8, Blizzard said that Blitzchung violated the competition's official rules, resulting in his removal from the Grandmasters tournament and a 12-month ban from other events. 

"While we stand by one's right to express individual thoughts and opinions," the statement continued, "players and other participants that elect to participate in our esports competitions must abide by the official competition rules."

This statement, however, appears to be different from the official statement from the company made on the Chinese social media platform Weibo on Oct. 8. Multiple translations of the Chinese statement show a much harsher tone from the company. Here's IGN's translation:

"We express our strong indignation [or resentment] and condemnation of the events that occurred in the Hearthstone Asia Pacific competition last weekend and absolutely oppose the dissemination of personal political ideas during any events [or games]. The players involved will be banned, and the commentators involved will be immediately terminated from any official business. Also, we will protect [or safeguard] our national dignity [or honor]."

After days of silence, Blizzard President J. Allen Brack released a statement on Oct. 11 regarding Blitzchung. He said China "had no influence on our decision." 

Blitzchung's ban has been reduced to six months from 12, and he'll receive his winnings from his recent tournament victory. The casters who conducted the postgame interview will also have a six-month ban. 

After Blizzard reconsidered its punishment, Bliztchung released a statement via Twitter on Oct. 12. He said he appreciates his reduced penalty, but he now questions his future with Hearthstone. 

"I'm grateful for Blizzard reconsidering their position about my ban," he said. "Lastly, many people want to know if I would be competing in hearthstone in the future. Honestly, I have no idea on that yet. I will take this time to relax myself to decide if I am staying in the competitive Hearthstone scene or not."

Blitzchung also said he would be careful expressing his opinion and showing support for the Hong Kong protests in the future. This echoes what he told IGN on Oct. 10, saying he knew that what he said would have consequences. 

"I expected the decision by Blizzard," he told IGN. "I think it's unfair, but I do respect their decision. I'm not [regretful] of what I said."

Hearthstone negative reviews
Enlarge Image
Hearthstone negative reviews

Hearthstone negative reviews on the Apple App Store. 

Screenshot by CNET

Following the initial announcement about Blitchung's banning, gamers began expressing their disappointment and outrage on Twitter, causing #BoycottBlizzard to trend. Others canceled their subscriptions to World of Warcraft, including former Blizzard developer Mark Kern. Some also began deleting their Battle.net accounts for Blizzard's gaming platform.

Hearthstone, the competitive card game central to this controversy, has been "review bombed." Numerous negative reviews saying "free Hong Kong" appeared in the days after on the Apple App Store.  

The Google Play Store, however, appears to have removed the negative reviews for the game. There are three reviews dated Oct. 11 giving the game one star and referencing the controversy. A screenshot from Oct. 9 shows more negative reviews that were dated Oct. 8 that are no longer viewable. Google did implement measures to weaponize reviews last year, which may explain why those reviews disappear after some time.

Another step some are taking is attempting to make Mei -- a Chinese character in Blizzard's popular Overwatch game -- a symbol of the Hong Kong protest. The hope is that the Chinese government will take note of the character's usage in protests and therefore ban the game. 

In the wake of the backlash, a website called Gamers for Freedom went up. The group says "it's outrageous to think that an American company would take away your money and your job simply because you want to be free from oppression." On the site is a petition "calling on all video game developers and publishers to make a public commitment to support the right of free expression for all their customers, employees, and fans around the world." The page also has a list of companies that have yet to show support for freedom of expression since the controversy began.

The organization behind the site, the nonprofit activist group Fight for the Future, held a protest at the company's fan convention set for Nov. 1-3 in Anaheim, California. It passed out free t-shirts with the slogan "Mei with Hong Kong" on it. 

As for the event itself, there were few public protests made during the various panels with the exception of a couple of people saying "free Hong Kong" during one panel's QA session. 

Who else is speaking up?

Gamers aren't the only ones upset over Blizzard's actions. On Oct. 8, employees began covering up company signs that have the slogans "Think Globally" and "Every Voice Matters."

Dozens of employees also staged a walkout in protest, according to the Daily Beast. One employee said, "The action Blizzard took against the player was pretty appalling but not surprising. Blizzard makes a lot of money in China, but now the company is in this awkward position where we can't abide by our values."

Politicians have also taken note of Blizzard's action. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, tweeted on Oct. 8, saying "No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck."

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, also tweeted about the situation and China's influence on US companies. 

"People who don't live in #China must either self-censor or face dismissal & suspensions," he tweeted. "China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally."

Several members of Congress sent a letter to Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick Friday regarding the controversy. 

Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon; Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas; Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican From Florida; Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texa; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York; Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Wisconsin; and Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey signed the letter calling Blizzard's decision to ban Blitzchung "disappointing." 

"As China amplifies its campaign of intimidation, you and your company must decide whether to look beyond the bottom line and promote American values -- like freedom of speech and thought -- or to give in to Beijing's demands in order to preserve market access," the members wrote. "We urge you in the strongest terms to reconsider your decision with respect to Mr. Chung."

A similar letter was also sent to Apple CEO Tim Cook after the company removed a Hong Kong protest app from its App Store.  

What is Blizzard's relationship with China?

The Chinese video games market is worth $36.5 billion, second only to the US as of June 2019, according to a report from research firm Newzoo. The country is expected to reach $75 billion by 2024. US game companies such as Blizzard, which is a subsidy of Activision Blizzard, have been working to penetrate the market by partnering with Chinese game companies to release their games. 

"Asia is 12% of Activision revenues, or around $800 million," said Michael Pachter, equity research analyst for Wedbush Securities. "China is probably two-thirds of that (approximately $520 million). They clearly want to be bigger there."

Activision Blizzard is already working with NetEase and Tencent Games, two of the biggest Chinese game companies.

Activision's Call of Duty Mobile was developed by TiMi Studios, a subsidiary of Tencent. The mobile version of the popular first-person-shooter game came out Oct. 1 and was downloaded 100 million times within a week. Activision Blizzard is seeking approval from the Chinese government to release Call of Duty Mobile in the country. Tencent also has a 4.9% stake in Activision Blizzard

In January, Blizzard renewed its partnership until 2023 with NetEase, the second-biggest Chinese game company. The two worked together to release World of Warcraft, Overwatch and other Blizzard games in China. 

At Blizzcon 2018, Diablo Immortal made its debut, and fans of the series weren't happy that the franchise would go mobile. An anonymous developer at the company told Gamasutra "essentially it exists because we've heard that China really wants it."

What has Blizzard done since the controversy?

The timing of this situation couldn't be worse for Blizzard. Its fan event, Blizzcon, was on Nov. 1 with gamers on the ground protesting. Last year's event left a bad taste among fans when the developer announced Diablo Immortal, a mobile version of its popular dungeon-crawler franchise. Blizzard has yet to make any notable changes to the event or schedule. 

The developer also has a big release set on Oct. 15 with Overwatch coming to the Nintendo Switch. Blizzard planned for a live event at the Nintendo New York Store on Oct. 16, however, it's been canceled. The store's Twitter account announced the cancellation. Blizzard has yet to provide a comment on why it decided to cancel it.

On Oct. 15, Blizzard said on its Facebook page it postponed a World of Warcraft 15th anniversary event in Taiwan. According to the translation, the event will be rescheduled at a later time. No reason was given on the postponement, but the comments were filled with support for the Hong Kong protests.

At the opening cermonies at Blizzcon on Nov. 1, company president J. Allen Brack apologized for how the controversy was handled. However, many criticized the apology for not specifying the actions it took and for not mentioning the company's ties with China. 

In an interview with PC Gamer Saturday, Brack confirmed the six-month penalty for both Blitzchung and the casters would not be shortened. 

He also provided an explanation to the company apology made by on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. The pro-China post was not written by his company according to Brack. Instead, it came from NetEase who Blizzard has a partnership with. 

How is the esports community responding?

Immutable, the developer of rival card game Gods Unchained, showed its support of Blitzchung. The company says it will pay "all of his lost winnings" and will invite him to its $500,000 tournament. 

"Immutable was founded on principles of censorship resistance," the company said in an email on Oct. 8. "That's not marketing fluff, it's code in the fundamental technology we've developed to build real market economies with in-game items which can't be seized or manipulated at will. Game developers shouldn't be able to act as the judge, jury and executioner. Blitzchung stood up for something he believed in, and we think that deserves recognition."

The developer says it's been in contact with Blitzchung and would share details soon. 

On Oct. 8, in response to the controversy, the team from American University competing in Collegiate Hearthstone championship held up a sign saying "Free Hong Kong" at the end of the match. The stream of the event quickly changed camera angles once the sign was shown.  

Then on Oct. 10, one member of the team posted on the Hearthstone subreddit saying they would not be punished by Tespa, the collegiate esports organization that has a partnership with Blizzard. The team cites this as a hypocritical action by the developer and will forfeit their future matches

Blizzard sent a notice to the American University team saying it is banned for six months, according to team member Casey "Xcelsior" Chambers on Oct. 16. He tweeted a picture of the email from the developer stating the team violated rule 7.1.B that states, "Participants may not take any action or perform any gesture directed at another participant, Tespa Admin or any other party or incite others to do the same which is abusive, insulting, mocking, or disruptive." 

Hearthstone caster Brian Kibler released a statement on Oct. 9 that called Blitzchung "brave" and that Blizzard was correct with penalizing him for his actions that did break the rules. However, Kibler says that the punishment was too harsh and that he will not be casting at the Hearthstone event at BlizzCon 2019.      

Another caster, Nathan "Admirable" Zamora‏ also stated he will not be casting at BlizzCon or at the remainder of the Grandmasters and Masters tour. 

Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney tweeted on Oct. 9 about Blizzard's response saying this "will never happen on my watch as the founder, CEO, and controlling shareholder." Chinese game company Tencent has a significant stake in the Fortnite maker. 

On Oct. 11, game developer Riot said pro players should avoid discussing "sensitive topics" on air at the upcoming League of Legends World Championship group stage. Riot, which makes the popular multiplayer online battle arena game and operates esports leagues worldwide, has been owned by Tencent since 2015

"Our decision also reflects that we have Riot employees and fans in regions where there has been (or there is risk of) political and/or social unrest, including places like Hong Kong," said John Needham, global head of League of Legends esports, in a statement posted to Twitter. "We believe we have a responsibility to do our best to ensure that statements or actions on our official platforms (intended or not) do not escalate potentially sensitive situations." 

How is Apple tied to the protests in Hong Kong?

Apple on Oct. 9 removed HKmap.live, a mapping app that crowdsources the location of police and protesters in Hong Kong, from the App Store. The move came after the iPhone maker was sharply criticized by the Chinese state media. Apple said it took down the app after learning it was being used by protesters in Hong Kong to ambush police and threaten public safety.

CEO Tim Cook defended the decision in an email to Apple employees on Oct. 10. In the email, published by the developers of the app and confirmed by Apple, Cook said the decision was "not easy" and added that "technology can be used for good or for ill."

"The app in question allowed for the crowdsourced reporting and mapping of police checkpoints, protest hotspots, and other information. On its own, this information is benign," Cook wrote.

But then, Cook said, Apple received information from users in Hong Kong and from the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau (CSTCB) that the app was being used to target individual officers and "victimize individuals and property where no police are present." 

Multiple politicians on both sides of the aisle have condemned Apple's decision.   

HKmap.live lets people report things like police locations, use of tear gas and other details about protests that are added to a regularly updated map. The Android version of the HKmap.live is still available in the Google Play store, and there's also a web version. 

The app's developer spoke out against Apple's decision, saying on Twitter that it doesn't "solicit, promote or encourage criminal activity." It also argued that there's "0 evidence to support CSTCB's accusation that HKmap App has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety." 

News publication Quartz also said that its mobile app has been removed from the Chinese version of the App Store. Quartz said it received a notice from Apple that said its app was being removed because it includes "content that is illegal in China," but wasn't given specifics. The company has reported on the Hong Kong protests, as well as ways to get around government censorship of the internet.

Anyone else?

Yup. Google reportedly removed a mobile game from the Play Store that let players role-play as protesters in Hong Kong. The game, "The Revolution of Our Times," reportedly violated the search giant's rules related to "sensitive events." Google removed the app after getting a request from the Hong Kong police, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The NBA is also tangled up in a controversy with China. Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey on Oct. 4 tweeted (and later deleted) support for the protests in Hong Kong. Chinese officials criticized the tweet and some sponsors reportedly cut ties with the team and with the NBA as a whole. Nike store across China has since removed Houston Rockets merchandise. The NBA has been trying to smooth things over with China, and Morey has also apologized for his comments. 

Originally published Oct. 10 and updated as new developments occur. CNET's Corinne Reichert contributed to this report.

Correction, Oct. 10: Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon sent the tweet saying "No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck."

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