Blizzard has suspended an American University team of Hearthstone players after they held up a Hong Kong protest sign during a livestream. The players will be banned from competitions for six months.
The latest crackdown comes just one week after the publisher issued a year ban and revoked prize money after pro player Blitzchung lent his support to Hong Kong during a livestream of the Hearthstone Asia-Pacific Grandmasters. After a fierce internet backlash, Blizzard reduced the suspension to six months and agreed to return the prize money.
In an email posted to Twitter, Blizzard reportedly told the college esports competitors that “we strongly encourage everyone in our community to share their viewpoints in the many places available to express themselves. However, the official broadcast needs to be about the game and competition, and to be a place where all are welcome.”
Hong Kong has been experiencing months-long protests as China tightens its grip on the semi-autonomous city. Formerly a British colony, Hong Kong was handed over to the Chinese in 1997.
Under the terms of the negotiated handover, Hong Kong’s local government was supposed to maintain a large degree of political and economic independence from mainland China, including its democratic traditions. However, in recent years, China has begun a crackdown on dissent.
The protests have won the support of pro-democracy advocates around the globe at the same time that a number of American companies have kowtowed to China’s authoritarian government. Essentially, Blizzard and other American companies are acting as censors for the Chinese government.
Blizzard’s justification for the suspensions is that the protests amounted to a Grandmasters rule violation. The rule cited prohibits “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.”
In other words, Blizzard is arguing that broadcasting support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong damages the company’s image in China. While it’s likely true that tolerance for pro-Hong Kong protests could hurt the company’s standing in China, Blizzard is a company that overwhelmingly relies on the business of consumers living in Western democracies. At least some of those consumers have now called for boycotting Blizzard.
In the face of a backlash from fans, will Blizzard buckle or continue its crackdown on protests? If they care about their bottom line – which clearly they do – they should probably reconsider their position.