Blizzard, the developer of Diablo and World of Warcraft among other notable games, has faced a growing backlash since it removed pro player Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai from a Hearthstone tournament and future events. His ban came two days after he showed support for the Hong Kong protests in a postgame interview on Oct. 6.
What are the protests in Hong Kong about?
Back in June, mass protests began in Hong Kong over a controversial proposed law, now suspended, that would’ve allowed for the extradition of residents to countries around the world, including China. People feared this would let the Chinese government apprehend people in Hong Kong and send them to mainland China to be subjected to a far stricter legal system.
Protestors have taken to the streets, as well as the Hong Kong International Airport, and demonstrations have grown to include demands for democracy. This has led to multiple clashes with law enforcement, including one teenager getting shot in the chest by police on Oct. 1
Why are gamers protesting Blizzard?
Following his win during the Asia-Pacific Grandmasters broadcast on Oct. 6, the gas-mask wearing pro gamer Blitzchung said a phrase used by Hong Kong protestors: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!” On Oct. 8, Blizzard said Blitzchung violated the competition’s official rules, resulting in his removal from the Grandmasters tournament and a 12-month ban from other events.
“While we stand by one’s right to express individual thoughts and opinions,” the statement continued, “players and other participants that elect to participate in our esports competitions must abide by the official competition rules.”
Following the announcement, gamers began expressing their disappointment and outrage on Twitter, causing #BoycottBlizzard to trend. Others canceled their subscriptions to World of Warcraft, including former Blizzard developer Mark Kern. Some also began deleting their Battle.net accounts, which is Blizzard’s gaming platform.
Another step some are taking is attempting to make Mei — a Chinese character in Blizzard’s popular Overwatch game — a symbol of the Hong Kong protest. The hope is that the Chinese government will take note of the character’s usage in protests and therefore ban the game.
Gamers aren’t the only ones upset over Blizzard’s actions. On Oct. 8, employees began covering up company signs that have the slogans “Think Globally” and “Every Voice Matters.”
Dozens of employees also staged a walkout in protest, according to the Daily Beast. One employee said, “The action Blizzard took against the player was pretty appalling but not surprising. Blizzard makes a lot of money in China, but now the company is in this awkward position where we can’t abide by our values.”
Politicians have also taken note of Blizzard’s action. Sen. John Wyden, a Democrat from Ohio, tweeted on Oct. 8, saying “No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, also tweeted about the situation and China’s influence on US companies.
“People who don’t live in #China must either self-censor or face dismissal & suspensions,” he tweeted. “China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally.”
What is Blizzard’s relationship with China?
The Chinese video games market is worth $36.5 billion, second to only the US as of June 2019, according to a report from research firm Newzoo. The country is expected to reach $75 billion by 2024. US game companies such as Blizzard, which is a subsidy of Activision Blizzard, have been working to penetrate the market by partnering with Chinese game companies to release their games.
“Asia is 12% of Activision revenues, or around $800 million,” said Michael Pachter, equity research analyst for Wedbush Securities. “China is probably two-thirds of that (approximately $520 million). They clearly want to be bigger there.”
Activision Blizzard is already working with NetEase and Tencent Games, two of the biggest Chinese game companies.
Activision’s Call of Duty Mobile was developed by TiMi Studios, a subsidiary of Tencent. The mobile version of the popular first-person-shooter game came out Oct. 1 and was downloaded 100 million times within a week. Activision Blizzard is seeking approval from the Chinese government to release Call of Duty Mobile in the country. Tencent also has a 4.9% stake in Activision Blizzard.
In January, Blizzard renewed its partnership until 2023 with NetEase, the second-biggest Chinese game company. The two worked together to release World of Warcraft, Overwatch and other Blizzard games in China.
At Blizzcon 2018, Diablo Immortal made its debut, and fans of the series weren’t happy that the franchise would go mobile. An anonymous developer at the company told Gamasutra “essentially it exists because we’ve heard that China really wants it.”
How is Apple tied to the protests?
Apple on Oct. 9 removed HKmap.live, a mapping app that crowdsources the location of police and protestors in Hong Kong, from the App Store. The move came after the iPhone maker was sharply criticized by the Chinese state media. Apple said it took down the app after learning it was being used by protestors in Hong Kong to ambush police and threaten public safety.
“The app displays police locations and we have verified with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement,” the company said in a statement.
HKmap.live lets people report things like police locations, use of tear gas and other details about protests that are added to a regularly updated map. The Android version of the HKmap.live is still available in the Google Play store, and there’s also a web version.
On Thursday the app’s developer spoke out against Apple’s decision, saying on Twitter that it doesn’t “solicit, promote or encourage criminal activity.” It also argued that there’s “0 evidence to support CSTCB’s accusation that HKmap App has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety.”
News publication Quartz also said that its mobile app has been removed from the Chinese version of the App Store. Quartz said it received a notice from Apple that said its app was being removed because it includes “content that is illegal in China,” but wasn’t given specifics. The company has reported on the Hong Kong protests, as well as ways to get around government censorship of the internet.
Yup. Google reportedly removed a mobile game from the Play Store that let players role-play as protestors in Hong Kong. The game, “The Revolution of Our Times,” reportedly violated the search giant’s rules related to “sensitive events.” Google removed the app after getting a request from the Hong Kong police, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The NBA is also tangled up in a controversy with China. Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey on Oct. 4 tweeted (and later deleted) support for the protests in Hong Kong. Chinese officials criticized the tweet and some sponsors reportedly cut ties with the team and with the NBA as a whole. The NBA has been trying to smooth things over with China, and Morey has also apologized for his comments.
Originally published Oct. 10 and updated as new developments occur.