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Blizzard has banned Hearthstone esports player Blitzchung from professional play for 12 months for expressing support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement during a post-match interview.
It's a move that's drawn widespread derision, and essentially pits the American game company against the homegrown, youth-led movement campaigning for full democracy, and against police brutality.
As part of the ban, the player has been kicked out of the Hearthstone Grandmasters Asia-Pacific tournament and had his prize money for Season 2 rescinded. Blizzard has also cut ties with the two casters tasked with conducting Blitzchung's post-match interview, despite the fact they seemingly attempted to distance themselves from the situation by ducking under a desk.
During the interview, which has since been pulled from official Blizzard channels but has been circulating on social media (thanks Rod Breslau and Inven Global), the Hong Kong-based Blitzchung appears in a gas mask and goggles and exclaims "liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age."
Explaining its decision to ban Blitzchung over the incident, Blizzard said the player violated the 2019 Hearthstone Grandmasters Official Competition Rules section 6.1 (pasted below) by bringing himself into public disrepute.
"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." reads the rulebook.
Elaborating on the ruling, the developer added that Grandmasters is the highest tier of Hearthstone esports, and as such it has to take tournament rule breaches "very seriously." The company also said it's taking further action to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future, although it's unclear what preventative measures it will be putting in place.
"We'd like to re-emphasize tournament and player conduct within the Hearthstone esports community from both players and talent," finishes a post on the Blizzard website. "While we stand by one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions, players and other participants that elect to participate in our esports competitions must abide by the official competition rules."
Despite the ban and the dangers of openly supporting the pro-democracy movement, Blitzchung explained he felt it was his duty to use the platform to back protesters and bring more attention to the cause.
"My call on stream was just another form of participation of the protest that I wish to grab more attention. I put so much effort in that social movement in the past few months that I sometimes couldn't focus on preparing my Grandmaster match," explained the player, speaking to Inven Global. "I know what my action on stream means. It could cause me a lot of trouble, even my personal safety in real life. But I think it's my duty to say something about the issue."
Update: Shockwaves from Blizzard’s reaction to Blitzchung’s comment have extended beyond the game industry, prompting United States lawmakers to criticize the US-based company.
The Verge spotted comments from two US senators, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Senator Mark Rubio (R-FL), that both view Blizzard’s reaction as a step taken to appease the Chinese government, and an action that risks setting a troubling precedent.
“Recognize what’s happening here,” tweeted Senator Rubio. “People who don’t live in China must either self-censor or face dismissal and suspensions. China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally. Implications of this will be felt long after everyone in U.S. politics today is gone.”
In a separate tweet, Senator Wyden echoed similar sentiments, saying “Blizzard shows it is willing to humiliate itself to please the Chinese Communist Party. No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck.”
Commentary and criticism have continued to circulate online since Blitzchung’s interview first began circulating earlier today. On platforms like Twitter people are calling for a widespread boycott of Blizzard through a #BoycottBlizzard hashtag, with some listing the company’s reaction to the interview as their reason for canceling World of Warcraft subscriptions and returning games.
Blizzard itself hasn’t commented beyond its original statement, though a tweet circulating earlier today suggests employees unhappy with the company’s reaction have since covered up the “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters” plaques located outside the studio.
Not everyone at Blizzard agrees with what happened.— Kevin Hovdestad (@lackofrealism) October 8, 2019
Both the "Think Globally" and "Every Voice Matters" values have been covered up by incensed employees this morning. pic.twitter.com/I7nAYUes6Q