This week's biggest gaming news isn't a big release or some minor bit of streamer drama. No, it's Blizzard 's egregious enforcement of one of its hearthstone Grandmasters competition rules.
Blitzchung hails from Hong Kong, which is presently struggling to instill a democratic process. The territory is attempting to do so in retaliation for the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) demands they be allowed to extradite to mainland China without due process.
Many a proud Hongkonger has stood up against this encroachment, and Blitzchung took the opportunity following his match to stand alongside them. Given the opportunity, he exclaimed a popular slogan among Hong Kong protesters and sympathizers: "Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!"
For those uninitiated, let's take a quick step back. Hong Kong was released from British rule in 1997 and returned to China under the "one country, two systems" policy, where it has mostly been allowed to remain autonomous from China. The policy allows provisions for Hong Kong to remain that way until 2047.
The keyword to the above is "mostly", as mainland China has been pushing those boundaries time and time again since 2012.
With protests ongoing in Hong Kong and the mainland government's increasingly underhanded and violent responses to those protests, it's no surprise a hearthstone player from Hong Kong playing in a competition in Taiwan would take the opportunity to exclaim his support for a free Hong Kong.
But what about Blizzard's response?
The Grandmasters Rule in Question
Blizzard stated after the incident that Blitzchung was suspended for 12 months and his winnings revoked under the official 2019 hearthstone Grandmasters Official Competition Rules v1.4. It states on page 12, section 6.1 that:
Engaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and Blizzard’s Website Terms.
After reading that, any Westerner might think: "What about Blitzchung's actions broke this rule?" It all has to do with mainland China.
Hong Kong was promised its autonomy until 2047, but the mainland's increasingly iron-gripped rule under Xi Jinping has slowly been encroaching into the city. China may have agreed to the "one country, two systems" policy in 1997 but that was well-before Xi rose to Paramount Leader in 2012.
The CCP's newly-discovered habit of yanking Hong Kong citizens off the streets for things deemed crimes in the mainland doesn't ease Hongkonger minds, either, nor does the Uyghur genocide happening in "education camps" in the northern part of the country. Many in the city do consider the current protests and what they stand for to be a true do or die situation.
The Chinese Mainlander Perspective
To us on this side of the water, the gut reaction is that Blizzard is simply kowtowing to the Chinese Communist Party. They are to a degree, but it's more likely they simply don't want to lose all of their Chinese players to outrage.
Despite the internet and general media censorship, news does still travel fast in mainland China, and you can bet news of Blitzchung's statement made its way out of Taiwan and into the mainland already.
The CCP propaganda machine is in overdrive to condemn the protests in Hong Kong and convince the general mainland populace that Hong Kong citizens are rioting and acting like children who have turned their back on the Han.
Were you or I in this sort of environment, and this was the story we heard after growing up and living with China's tightly-controlled media, we'd probably believe it, too. It's not hard to imagine.
The Right Thing?
Considering this point of view, one can easily imagine Blizzard suspending Blitzchung on the basis of offending "a portion or group of the public", but the real question isn't whether Blizzard followed their own rule(s). Instead, it's whether the suspension was the right thing to do. I think anyone with an idea of the full weight of China's present iron fist would say it is not the right thing to do.
For a company based in North America, for people raised with American principles, seeing a city's promised sovereignty and freedoms be chipped away in increments as is happening in Hong Kong should strike a nerve. Hong Kong was guaranteed their rights to remain until 2047 and the CCP has done their best to encroach upon those rights over the past several years.
From a business standpoint, Blizzard's decision makes sense. They didn't present Diablo Immortal at Blizzcon 2018 for Western marks to fawn over. It was clearly for the Asian market, of which China is easily the largest portion.
Not taking action could be perceived as cutting off their nose to spite their face. Even so, this is the company known for tossing 50% of their projects out the window (but also for only announcing projects that will be released).
Is Diablo Immortal really that important to your average Blizzard employee? Probably not. But it is to those most important to Blizzard as an operating business.
Gamers have a tendency to think that large publishers act in the name of their consumers, but the harsh reality is that Activision-Blizzard is a publicly-traded company. Their main priority is shareholders, and Tencent, the same Chinese company that essentially acts as one of the CCP's strongest tech arms, owns 5% of Blizzard.
Some internet users may only know Tencent as the Chinese company that invested $150 million in social media site Reddit directly and up to another $150 million in Series D funding. However, Tencent is also invested in several video game publishers and tech firms worldwide. It also helped design and implement China's social credit system and is active in internet user surveillance in the country.
It might be a bit of a stretch to claim Tencent actively pushed Blizzard to crack down on Blitzchung. It's more likely Blizzard did not want to alienate their Chinese fans and risk the failure of the upcoming Diablo Immortal, which is certainly not geared toward their Western audience.
Blizzard followed their own rule to a T and acted in their best business interests, but they may as well have spat in the faces of those struggling in Hong Kong in order to save face with the mainland Chinese market.
Decency clearly has a price tag.