It’s been a tumultuous week for Blizzard, and with everything that has been going on, KeenGamer brings you an everything-you-need-to-know about the situation, where we take things from the start and provide relevant context for each step of the way to help you understand this Blizzard Scandal.
We know that life can sometimes be demanding and keeping up with Videogame-related news might fall short of a priority, but if you are finally catching a break in within work, family, pets, receding hairline and just overall 21st century depression, and want to catch up with that thing you’ve seen all over about Blizzard, this is the way to go.
On Sunday the 6th of October, the Hearthstone Grandmasters, Asia-Pacific division, was being played. The winner of the round, a Chinese player named Chung NG Wai, otherwise known by his handle Blitzchung, had won his round, which entitled him to a live-streamed interview with two of the official Broadcasters (also known simply as “casters”), in which he appeared wearing a gas mask and goggles, in an apparent effort to show support to the Hong Kong Protests, at least to those in the audience that were following the development of said protests.
Towards the end of the interview, Blitzchung said “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age”, which is a recognized slogan in the Hong Kong protest which seeks, among other things, the instauration of Democracy, thus “liberating” the city.
Following this streamed interview, Blizzard disqualified Blitzchung, stripping him of his so-far earned prize money and banned him from the Hearthstone pro league for a year, starting the 5th of October 2019 until the 5th of October 2020*.
As it reads on Blizzard’s statement, the two casters were also affected by the ban, since they originally were terminated altogether. It is also worth mentioning that the release of the aforementioned statement came in their website, and comments for that particular piece were disabled, which, as far as we can tell, had never happened before.
Backlash and Public condemnation
As soon as the news was brought up to light first by social media personalities, such as Rod Breslau, the general discontent with the situation didn’t take long to arise. Messages of surprise, anger and condemnation followed shortly after, and flooded the relevant gaming-related websites and social media. Not too much later, the hashtag #BoycottBlizzard started to gain traction, with hundreds, if not thousands of people pledging to delete their accounts and/or uninstall Blizzard’s software as a form of protest for what it was widely perceived as censorship by an American company in favor of a foreign government.
Breaking: Effective immediately, Blizzard has removed Hong Kong Hearthstone player blitzchung from Hearthstone Grand Masters, rescinded all his prize money, and have suspended him from pro play for one year for his recent interview.
— Rod Breslau (@Slasher) October 8, 2019
The reasoning that some people were finding into Blizzard’s action lies behind the Chinese company Tencent, which owns a 5% stake in Blizzard, and it’s been theorized that Blizzard didn’t want to risk angering such a big partner by hosting seemingly anti-Chinese propaganda in their stream.
Other theories are right there in the same alley, quoting the enormous popularity of Blizzard’s IP, specifically regarding mobile phones, in China. So, again, not wanting to risk losing the Chinese market is also theorized as what drove this decision.
In their main campus in California, US, some of Blizzard’s employees staged a walkout as a form of protest against the ban decision. The staged walkout took place in a well-known gathering location at Blizzard, their orc statue. They also covered two of the eight Core Values that are displayed around this statue: Think Globally and Every Voice Matters.
Another reaction that was felt right after the ban was a mild fall in Activision Blizzard’s stock. When we first reported about this, on 7th October, the fall was slight, a mere 2.01% and it didn’t get much lower. Today, at the time of this writing, their stock had already started to improve. Let’s not forget that Blizzard stock started to experience a steady fall starting on June 2018, that was only exacerbated after the announcement of Diablo Immortal in November 2018.
This was another instance in which the company was accused of catering to mobile users more than old-school fans. Their stock had started to rise steadily again following the announcement of World of Warcraft: Classic, until it tanked following last week’s events.
Yet another retaliation the community took against the company came in the form of cancellation of their accounts. In this regard, there were reports of people encountering errors when trying to complete this process. A system bug or server overload due to the sheer number of people attempting this was blamed in this regard.
J. Allen Brack’s Statement
Blizzard and its officials were quiet during the first days of these events, something that was noted, again, by social media personalities such as Rod Breslau and Mark Kern, who wrote on 9th October: “It’s been very quiet at Blizzard. The silence is deafening, and sad”.
It wasn’t until Friday 11th October that J. Allen Brack released an official statement. It’s worth mentioning that people have implied that they waited until Friday, well after-hours to issue a statement, probably in hopes it would go mostly unnoticed and wouldn’t stir the waters any further.
We bring you the highlights of his statement:
“(…)We made the decision to take action against a player named blitzchung(…) after the player shared his views on what’s happening in Hong Kong on our official broadcast channel.
Our esports programs are an expression of our vision and our values. Esports exist to create opportunities for players from around the world, from different cultures, and from different backgrounds, to come together to compete and share their passion for gaming. It is extremely important to us to protect these channels and the purpose they serve: to bring the world together through epic entertainment, celebrate our players, and build diverse and inclusive communities.
Over the weekend, blitzchung used his segment to make a statement about the situation in Hong Kong—in violation of rules he acknowledged and understood, and this is why we took action.
(…) were our actions based on the content of the message?
The specific views expressed by blitzchung were NOT a factor in the decision we made. I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision.
If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.”
On this statement, Brack announced that they were reducing Blitzchung’s ban to six months, and also reinstating his winnings as he played fairly. He also announced that the casters would also be suspended for only six months, rather than having a complete termination.
This statement did very little to sway Blizzard’s critics, and some people felt that it fell short, in particular taking in consideration that Hearthstone team American University held up a sign that read: “Free Hong Kong, boycott Blizzard” during another live-streamed event, and went unpunished by Blizzard, despite displaying a similar message on a similar platform. Blizzard decided not to penalize AU*, but the team forfeited the season, claiming Blizzard was being hypocritical for punishing Blitzchung, but not them.
Fan-continued retaliation, Mei’s use as a Symbol
Besides the initial backlash Blizzard suffered directly, there is a movement that started editing images and videos of Overwatch Chinese character, Mei, to have her show support to the Hong Kong protests. This movement started under the premise of hurting Blizzard’s economic gain from China by having the game completely banned due to these images and videos.
Mei’s images showing support for the protests were quickly spotted on Hong Kong streets shortly after this movement started, and Mei’s Statue, a collectable item that was for sale on Blizzard’s Gear Shop, was quietly taken down.
On the same note, people also noticed that trying to show support to Hong Kong by creating new Battletags with the legend “FreeHongKong” in them was denied by Blizzard citing a violation of their naming policies, although the policies list that users can’t use profanity or insulting names, and doesn’t specify political statements per se.
Activision Blizzard’s stake
As per Activision Blizzard’s most recent Financial Results Report, released 8th August 2019, the Audience Reach for the company is 327 million Monthly Active Users (MAUs) for the quarter. Out of those 327 million, 258, or, in other words, a staggering 78.89% is accounted exclusively for mobile gaming across the Candy Crush franchise. These figures seem to give credit to the claims that Blizzard is focusing more heavily on mobile gaming than traditional, old-school models. Thus decisions such as Diablo Immortal.
Out of the remaining 21.11% of its MAUs, 37 million go to Activision titles such as Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 and Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled. The other 32 million MAUs are spread across Blizzard’s PIs, such as Overwatch, World of Warcraft, with an unsurprising increase in subscriptions in mid-may following the announcement of World of Warcraft Classic and finally Hearthstone, in which they claim a quarter-over-quarter growth since the release of the Rise of Shadows expansion and The Dalarian Heist single-player adventure.
Considering the ban occurred to a Hearthstone player, we’ll be skipping much of the other parts of the report. The report states that the daily time spent per player in Blizzard’s franchises again increased year-over-year. It also states that Hearthstone net bookings grew sequentially in this second-quarter report.
It remains to be seen if this continuous growth is stalled or affected with the events of this week, for which we’ll be on the lookout to provide a more in-depth analysis of the fallout of Blizzard’s latest scandal.
- Nintendo NY has announced via twitter that their announced launch event for Overwatch that was going to take place tomorrow Wednesday 16th of October was cancelled by Blizzard. They were going to release the Overwatch: Legendary Edition for the Nintendo Switch. Whether or not this decision comes as a result of last week’s events is still unconfirmed.
- On the 16th of October Blizzard reconsidered their stand about the Hearthstone team American University and actually banned them for 6 months.
- On the 18th of October, US Congress members issued an official petition to Activision Blizzard’s CEO Bobby Kotick to reverse the ban on Blitzchung.
- After reports started to surface that Blizzard was banning accounts on twitch for 24 hours for simply writing support to the Honk Kong Protests, they told Polygon that this was due to an automated moderating system that was triggered by using a phrase repeatedly. It’s also been confirmed that pro-China messages were suffering the same fate.
- A 15th-year-anniversary event was going to take place in Taiwan on Friday the 18th of October, but was delayed by Blizzard. No reason was given for this decision but it was certainly met with more mockery and memes.