WoW Wednesday: Blitzchung and the Grandmaster’s Debacle

While we have covered some of the emerging news around this week’s topic here on MMOGames, this particular issue is one that requires some further discussion. To call the fallout from Blitzchung’s ban, “intense,” might be a relatively mild understatement. After the removal of the Hearthstone Grandmaster over his political statement during the tournament, the internet erupted (as it does) into a fire of righteous fury and rage. While perhaps outside the scope of what this column could, or should, cover I would be remiss to avoid talking about Blizzard’s latest sociopolitical misstep. This week, let’s discuss Hong Kong, Blitzchung, Hearthstone, Blizzard, and the idea of ‘freedom,’ when it comes to the ‘free market.’

If, much like me, you exist solely on the internet memespace without understanding, “how the world works,” you may have missed an ongoing issue in the eastern world. For the last several months, the pseudo-nation-city of Hong Kong has been in a large-scale uproar. To understand the entirety of this situation and the severity of everyone’s actions we first need to understand the Hong King protests.

To make a VERY long and complicated political story short, Hong Kong is what is referred to as a, ‘special administrative region,’ of the People’s Republic of China. After being ceded to the British Empire during the First Opium War in 1842, the island-city-state has been largely self-governing.  Even after its return to Chinese rule in 1997 it has largely remained under its own political control simply due to its distance from the mainland. In a manner somewhat similar to Canada or America before their cession from Great Britain, they operate under a “one country, two systems,” policy. Ideally, in a perfect scenario, while Hong Kong economically and nationally supports the Chinese Government, it manages its own affairs.

This is not, however, simply due to sheer distance. A large part of this independence is due to it’s two, ‘parent,’ nations. After previously (and quite famously if you’ve ever watched a modern martial arts movie) suffering in many aspects under British Rule, Hong Kong has notoriously stood independently. Featuring one of the firsts modern universities in the territory, a major airport ten years later, avoiding economic depression and generally becoming a neutral zone and political safe-haven, Hong Kong still stands. It stands far and alone above its peers even in Mainland China.

Some of that, many would argue, is for the best. With the Chinese Government’s increasingly authoritarian moves over the last decade, Hong Kong has become that safe haven once again. After the dissolution of presidential terms by now Chinese-President-For-Life Xi Jingping, the Chinese government began to turn its gaze onto other matters of securing it’s hold on the Eastern World. Some of that involves President Xi’s ambitious Silk-Road-esque project to remap world trade routes through China, others involve enforcing some of the nation’s firm rules and introducing new ones such as the Social Credit System. Performing poorly in society (such as homelessness, poor behavior, poor social intercourse) can tank your Chinese ‘Social Credit Score’ and restrict you from several high-end lifestyle services such as High-Speed Internet. There are even concerns that the Chinese Government has interfered in the succession of the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist leader of the Tibetan Religion.

Hong Kong famously, and not just recently, has been an object of resistance in the face of the Chinese Government for years. After a mass emigration of Hong Kong’s residents when the British Empire relinquished its control, fearing the dissolution of civil rights and their quality of life, China has continued to try and enforce regulation. From unsuccessfully attempting to enact their National Security Bill of 2003 to circumvent Hong Kong laws and maintenance on many things including treason, property rights, prosecution time limits and trials by jury (just to name a few), things have only gotten worse.

Recently, Hong Kong attempted to put forward an Extradition Bill in regards to the case of Chan Tong-Kai. After killing his girlfriend in Taiwan in early 2018, he returned to his Hong Kong address and informed the police of his crime. However, as no extradition programs were in place between Hong Kong and China, he could not be returned to the mainland to face for his crimes, nor be charged. Thus it was proposed that a, ‘mechanism,’ could be established on a case-by-case basis to transfer such criminals to any jurisdiction that Hong Kong didn’t possess one with. While this sounds like an excellent solution, there was one large problem.

In the creation, facilitation, and implementation of this law in Hong Kong’s government, Beijing and the Chinese Government had a very heavy hand in creating it.

Understandably, given Hong Kong’s and China’s warring history of enforcement and civil liberty, the heavy-handed influence of Xi Jinping’s did not fly well with the city’s inhabitants. Starting as early March of 2019, the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill protests began with turnouts as large 500’000 people. While these protests were largely peaceful, vandalism began to occur during early July and violence erupted between local criminal triads and protesters as the month continued. On October 1st, after most of the protests had died with the collapse of the bill, a student protester was shot by police during a demonstration after reportedly attempting to strike the officer with an improvised weapon. Things have only since intensified, with improvised explosive devices being discharged near police stations and children being shot by police forces.

Throughout this situation, the Chinese government have attempted to paint the protesters, who’s groups have risen to the multi-millions during active events, as a small grass-roots movement. In an effort to paint the situation in a better light, the government of the People’s Republic of China has painted the effort as homegrown terrorism and riots driven by separatists. In an effort to curb the western world’s reporting and politics on the matter, the Chinese Government has cut off several personal and public personas from broadcasting in the country. Most famously, China stopped broadcasting National Basketball Association matches following a pro-Hong Kong tweet by one of the team’s managers. Later, they banned the irreverent adult comedy South Park from broadcasting after the release of their episode, “Band in China.” According to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media platforms would later investigate and ban several pro-China ads which had ties to Chinese Governmental offices. These ads painted images and coverage of the protests as, “conspiracy theories about Western involvement in the protests.”

With all of that in mind, let’s now finally discuss Blitzchung and Blizzard.

This year, during the Asia-Pacific branch of the Hearthstone Grandmaster’s league tournament, pro player Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai came out on top. Taking the tournament win, he later appeared on the official Taiwanese Hearthstone stream for a traditional post-game interview. Unlike past winners, however, he appeared on camera wearing a gas mask. Lifting it upward, he shouted in Chinese, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!” – a familiar rallying cry to the protesters in Hong Kong. While the interview did continue afterward, it did not go unnoticed by Activision-Blizzard, who facilitates and funds the worldwide tournaments.

As of Tuesday, October 8th, Blizzard decided to ban Blitzchung for this moment in his interview. Citing the 2019 Hearthstone Grandmasters Official Competition Rules, specifically page 12 and section 6.1:

“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(s) image will result in removal from the 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.”

Pursuant to this rule, Blitzchung had his prize money taken away and was given a full year suspension from the league. After looking through the Official Competition Rules, I can personally attest that this rule isn’t an anomaly; other rules can have players banned for FAR less.

This is where the main crux of the issue began. While section 6.1 cites issues that an action which, “brings [a competitor] into public disrepute,” the entire rule is incredibly flexible. As with any major sports star (aside from OJ, Kobe, etc.), Activision-Blizzard ideally wants their winners to be as non-controversial as possible. This happens with a number of free-market companies and e-sports competitors and has emerged to a sociopolitical high point over the years. Some proponents of rules such as this point to cancel culture and the impact of public backlash, others hint towards some current cases such as Gearbox’s CEO Randy Pitchford as the ideal situation to avoid.

In a bubble, this decision makes sense in pursuant to the rules. What did not make sense was immediately firing the two casters who interviewed Blitzchung. “Blitzchung is ineligible to participate in Hearthstone esports for 12 months,” the official statement reported, adding additionally that, “[Blizzard] will also immediately cease working with both casters,” who interviewed Blitzchung during his interview. This raised the concern over the interfering influence of the Chinese Government and Free Market with 5% of the company being owned by Chinese super-conglomerate Tencent. This fear was later backed up and stoked by Blizzard’s Official China presence.

Weibo, a Chinese microblogging website, is one of the largest social media platforms in China. As such, it makes sense for companies such as Activision-Blizzard to use the website to make official statements in the region, using their partner Netease to manage it. Lined up with their announcement of Blitzchung’s ban, the Weibo page eviscerated his conduct in a vicious tone previously used on the NBA’s Weibo apology. Originally reported by Rod Breslau on Twitter, “We are very angered and disappointed at what happened at the event and do not condone it in any way,” the page read. “We also highly object the spreading of personal political beliefs in this manner. Effective immediately we’ve banned the contestant from events and terminated work with the broadcasters. We will always respect and defend the pride of our country.”

Almost immediately the internet burst into flame. Rallying around the social media hashtag, ‘#BoycottBlizzard,’ fans and critics alike put the company’s feet to the fire. Just a cursory glance of the hashtag’s users show players unsubscribing from Blizzard Games en-masse including Mark Kern, one of World of Warcraft’s original game designers. Fellow Grandmasters players such as Brian Kibler stood out in solidarity with Blitzchung, quitting the league and cutting ties from the company to show their support. Blizzard employees staged mass-walkouts from work throughout last week, covering up several sites and company locations in protest. One of the more famous images features a group of Blizzard employees gathered at the famous statue out front. Holding umbrellas, the symbol of the protests in Hong Kong, the employees stand around a taped off portion of the Warcraft statue. Covered by a piece of lined paper, this section used to describe several of the company’s core values including, “Think Globally,” and “Every Voice Matters.”

Most entertainingly, or horrifically depending on if your profession is involved in marketing art, #BoycottBlizzard activists turned their gaze on Blizzard’s one Chinese character. Taking Overwatch’s Chinese climate-scientist, Mei, they’ve begun to create a legion of artwork of and about her. Citing her desire to make the world a better place for everyone, they’ve begun to draw and illustrate her as a symbol of resistance and defiance for the Hong Kong protests. Clearly, the motivation has been to have the character, if not the entire game, banned in China with artists claiming such in their work. Some, such as what we’ve featured below previously on the website, is far more tame than others on the internet.

Things reached a vital fever pitch during the Collegiate Hearthstone Championship. American University’s team during a telecasted match held up a rather familiar sign. Emblazoned with the words, “Free Hong Kong, boycott Blizzard,” the clip was only on screen for little more than six seconds before Activision-Blizzard cut away from the footage. In a contrary decision to Blitzchung’s ban (though the rules for the collegiate tournament were not available for confirmation), the AU team was not penalized for the move and had their next match scheduled for the season. Choosing to stand with the protests, and to highlight the inequality of the rule-system, AU forfeited their match and departed the season, citing Blizzard’s hypocrisy over the issue.

Boycotts and protests continued throughout the week, even as Activision-Blizzard stated that they were assessing the ongoing situation. It is at this point I have to comment my own opinion. Whether or not you may share my pro-freedom opinion on the protests in Hong Kong, Blitzchung’s ban does fall within the rules. I share Brian Kibler’s notion that he overstepped his platform in the post-win interview, and that while the ban was justified the firing of the two casters was not. This decision, whether or not it was a mistake or an oversight, solidified it as one made by influences outside of the rule books. That is what spiraled this political dissonance with the event’s rules to a greater issue wholesale and is not condonable.

However, returning to the facts of the matter, Activision-Blizzard finally made a statement on the company’s website last Saturday. In the article, President J. Allen Brack discussed the company’s perspective on their ban, citing that their, “relationships in China had no influence on [their] decision.” The company, “now believe(s) [Blitzchung] should receive his prizing,” and re-awarded the $500’000 in cash rewards to the pro-player. However, the article was so rushed and poorly written that it failed to answer several vital questions; it took a Blizzard employee’s discord presence to confirm that Blitzchung was NOT removed from the Grandmaster’s league and would have the option to compete in the 2020 season.

This is one of those situations where both newspaper editorial pictures and internet memes seem to collide in a strange unification. While normally diametrically opposed, just about every single person hated everything about this politically charged situation. It exposes a large-scale issue with, even if Chinese money had no hand in the situation, the perception that it does. With several political discourses from the eastern world leaking into our own news systems, it is becoming very abundantly clear that the Economic and Political West DOES NOT want China’s involvement in their content. Problems arise however when we look at the world stage.

China since the early 2000’s has been making increased efforts to control the world’s political and entertainment stage. Possessing one of the largest populations world-wide, they are a major political and economic force. Political concerns have arisen during the Trump, Trudeau and May administrations in America, Canada and the UK respectively, where western diplomats are often being outnumbered in the dozens by politicians from Beijing. Continuing their entertainment subsidies from the turn of the century, China prioritizes homegrown Video Game, Art, and Movie companies for its economy. These government grants award land, buildings, infrastructure and money to native entertainment startups such as the infamously abusive Chengdu Ai-Shan Technology (which later rebranded as Blue Sky in 2014, SakuraGame in 2015, Paradise Project after a wave of public backlash in 2018, and has now returned to SakuraGame in 2019). Other foreign companies receive similar grants for their business and work in the country, which many are eager to jump on.

Highlighted recently by YouTube philosophy channel Wisecrack in their video entitled, “South Park on Freedom,” the ‘free market’ is not so free. China’s influence creates massive waves of change throughout the world’s economy, creating situations we are not aware of specifically to appease the foreign power. While jokingly referred to as the ‘Chinese Expansion,’ during its Mists of Pandaria era, World of Warcraft has begun to lean FAR more heavily into those markets with in-game stores, mobile-phone styled mini-games and increased random-number-generation rewards. Potentially, this change has been spurred on by Tencent’s ownership and Netease’s partnership, but such examples can be far more readily found in the works of Disney’s foreign films such as Iron Man 3. In this movie, an entire scene was concocted that cannot be found in any non-Chinese version of the film, where Tony Stark instead travels to China to have the arc-reactor magnet removed from his heart.

In an effort to appease the market, inevitably we will be either continuing to delude ourselves and them or suffer the consequences. Such is the problem with free speech in a free market. While notoriously more of an American concept, freedom of speech has been a hotly debated issue around the current political mine-field. As my neighbors to the south can tell you, the freedom to say WHAT you want to say, HOW you want to say it (provided it doesn’t infringe upon another’s rights) is a bedrock of democracy. It is not, however, a bedrock of economy. As we continue to see time and time again, we cannot say what we want to say (or what SHOULD be said) if we want to make money. While this has reached a fever-pitch in sociopolitical phenomena like cancel culture, China will and has taken firm-line stances on it. Weaponizing their impressive population to great effect, they effectively tanked the NBA’s earnings by refusing to air certain shows. Cutting off a demographic of that size can and will invariably damage company profits and forces the ‘free market’ to not-so-freely toe the line.

Inevitably, this situation became political revolving around China. However, like Trey Parker and Matt Stone, it is up to you if Activision-Blizzard is truly to blame in this case. Much like South Park’s non-apology, perhaps their Chinese influences too make them think that, “We too love money more than freedom and democracy.”

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