US gaming company Blizzard Entertainment said today (Oct. 8) that it has given a one-year suspension to a professional player from Hong Kong for having violated competition rules by shouting “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times!‘ in a post-game interview on Oct. 6 while wearing a respirator mask and a pair of goggles characteristic of the city’s protesters.
The player, Chung Ng-wai, also known as Blitzchung, said he had yelled the slogan as “another form of participation of the protest,” to which he wanted to bring “more attention.” He acknowledged that making such a statement could bring him “a lot of trouble,” but was determined to do so because he felt it was his “duty to say something about the issue,” he told the esports news site Inven Global.
Chung made the comments after winning a Hearthstone GrandMasters match. Hearthstone is a digital card game based on World of Warcraft, and is one of the most-watched games (Quartz member exclusive) in the world.
The move comes just a day after the NBA distanced itself from Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey, who had voiced support for Hong Kong’s protesters in a now-deleted tweet. In a statement in Chinese, the NBA said it was “disappointed” in Morey’s “inappropriate” tweet, which had “greatly hurt the feelings of Chinese fans.”
Blizzard Entertainment, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Activision Blizzard, found Blitzchung to be in breach of a rule stipulating that any action by a player that “brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image” is punishable by a suspension and the withholding of all prize money. They also fired the two casters who conducted the video interview with Blitzchung—though Inven Global said that they did not seem aware that Blitzchung planned to make those comments and ducked behind their desks afterwards.
In a statement, Blizzard said that while they “stand by one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions,” players must abide by official competition rules. It went further in its Chinese statement, posted on Chinese social media platform Weibo, emphasizing that the company would, “as always, resolutely safeguard the country’s dignity.”
Blizzard is the latest in a long string of international companies that have had to toe Beijing’s ideological line so as not to sabotage their access to the lucrative Chinese market. Many have issued statements expressing their support for China’s territorial integrity and apologized for hurting the feelings of the Chinese people after committing “mistakes” such as labeling Hong Kong and Taiwan on apparel in a way that offends China.
Activision Blizzard’s position is further complicated by the fact that Tencent, the Chinese gaming giant, owns a 5% stake in the company. It also has a long-running partnership with Chinese internet company NetEase. While its annual report doesn’t break out how much the company depends on China for income, 12% of its revenue is currently derived from the Asia Pacific market, according to its second-quarter financial results this year.
Online, reaction was swift as people expressed outrage that Blizzard had caved to China and put profits ahead of free speech. But given the untapped potential of the Chinese esports market, it’s unlikely that any consumer backlash to the company’s political censorship will outweigh the costs of being shut out of China.
“The Chinese esports video game community and scene at large is enormous, and still growing,” said Rod Breslau, a esports consultant. “Everyone is so concerned about Chinese revenue that they do not want to piss off anyone.”